Kansas City, Mo., has taken a new approach to a challenge many cities face—outdated sewer systems that overflow due to stormwater. The city’s green solutions pilot program is designed to not only reduce overflows and improve water quality but also encompass a broader movement of urban renewal.
“What started as a water systems project evolved into the bigger picture of how stormwater improvements can help improve neighborhoods and create community amenities,” said David Dods, senior environmental engineer and a green solutions practice leader at URS Corporation. “Instead of simply burying pipes underground, this program brings success to the surface in multiple, meaningful ways.”
Kansas City is investing $2.5 billion to correct the combined sewer overflow system over the next 25 years. It’s the largest public works project in the city’s history and the largest green infrastructure CSO pilot in the nation. Kansas City Water Services Department estimates that the green infrastructure practices that are being put in place have the potential to save the city approximately $10 million in capital costs compared to conventional infrastructure techniques.
“The added benefit of the green infrastructure approach, as opposed to simply putting bigger or separate pipes in the ground, is that green infrastructure actually rebuilds neighborhood streetscapes,” said Dods. Other benefits include cleaner streams and rivers in the area, improved air quality due to more vegetation, greener neighborhoods and a healthier environment for the future.
By incorporating green landscapes, such as rain gardens and vegetation, as well as porous concrete sidewalks and curb extensions, the goal is to reduce sewer overflows by keeping stormwater out of the sewers rather than transporting and treating water after it is already in the sewer system.
What makes this project progressive is the collaborative nature between departments, disciplines and community members as well as the mindset to solve several problems at once.
When Dods and his colleagues met with residents to talk about stormwater, the residents brought up other issues like traffic speed, curbs, street noise, sidewalks and more. “We tried to address these issues as well when designing the system,” said Dods. The curb extensions slowed traffic, while the vegetation has sound dampening benefits. The aesthetic and structural improvements made to the sidewalks are enjoyed by residents on a daily basis.
Dods explained that by taking a traditional approach of just digging up pipes and replacing them, cities are missing opportunities to make larger improvements. “Kansas City looked at ways to address this in a creative, cost-effective manner that contributes to urban renewal. They saw that, in addition to addressing stormwater issues, they had an opportunity to revitalize neighborhoods.”
Dods’ advice to other cities looking to improve outdated sewer systems? “This type of program is most successful when done in a spirit of collaboration and community that crosses disciplines, breaks down department boundaries and engages residents and businesses,” he said.
Public outreach included yard street meetings with residents, recruitment of block captains, engagement with neighborhood associations, door-to-door meetings with business owners and distribution of informational materials through numerous media, including online, mailings and door hangers.
“The beauty of this project is that the water services department worked closely with public works, city council and neighborhood groups to come up with a program that solves multiple community needs at the same time,” he continued. “This will make for a successful and sustainable program in the long run, especially if residents are part of the process, believe in it and take ownership of it.”
Experts believe that the program has been successful thus far, although due to a long-term drought, there haven’t been a lot of opportunities to measure its effectiveness. Dods believes programs similar to Kansas City’s will become more common as the broader sustainable movement in the United States continues to grow and residents desire cleaner, greener and more livable cities.