Journalism: Urbanism: Urban Conditional: Pedaling ironies in a familiar bicycle battle

October 14, 2015

Urban Conditional: Pedaling ironies in a familiar bicycle battle

by Zack Barowitz

Just when I thought that I couldn’t hate sprawl any more …

Urban sprawl —strip development, subdivisions and highways — has long been seen as an anti-urban mode of planning which slowly subsumes a larger and larger radius in more and more concrete and asphalt. The more we drive, the more asphalt, the more emissions are sent into the air affecting climate change.

Now that global climate change is upon us, we are — quite literally — flooded with poor planning. Our infrastructure that has been shaped by the mandates of car culture has left us singularly vulnerable to effects of climate change. Storm surges wipe-out beaches; “hundred year” storms now happen annually; and King Tides bring the oceans up through storm drains (flooding Bayside) then receding several hours later, taking a supply of petro-chemicals with the water.

Because the storm water isn’t just water.

Urban runoff is a cocktail of vehicle pollutants like grease, gasoline and antifreeze, as well as pesticides, viruses, Round-Up, road salt, mercury, cadmium, and, of course, good old e-coli. The accumulation from the last 65 years of automobile pollution has come back to haunt us by getting into our homes, our gardens, and indeed under our skin.

It is kind of like having your own spit blow back into your face, or being hit with vomit on a loop de loop, or perhaps living with a toilet that is prone to overflow and leak into your kitchen. The cycle of investment into automobile infrastructure yields more hard surface run-off and more dramatic weather to make it happen.

Whole communities that had not been vulnerable to flooding now are. Where we were once concerned about living downstream from a chemical plant, we should now be afraid to live downhill from a shopping center. Instead of slowly filtering into groundwater or ponding in wetlands, water finds resistance; hard surfaces (like parking lots, roads and airports) divert storm water directly to streams, ponds and neighbor’s basements.

Of course, not all run-off goes into basements; most of it goes into Casco Bay. Oysters anyone?

Storm water run-off is being addressed by federal mandates; $170 million in investment by the city of Portland, and the Long Creek Watershed Management District (which manages run-off from the Portland Jetport and the Maine Mall).

But the problem is everywhere.

In recent years, high-elevation neighborhoods like Munjoy Hill and the West End have seen several storms overwhelm drains and backflows, diverting water into basements, ruining belongings, causing mold and inflicting other damage. (Property owners in the West End have started requiring renters to have flood insurance.) But Maine has gotten off easy compared to Vermont, where rising rivers washed away entire houses and sometimes neighborhoods during Hurricane Irene.

So next time you hear someone complain about a stormwater fee, or say that global warming doesn’t affect them, ask them about their flood coverage.