Low Impact Design: How Can We Implement It and Why Does It Matter?

Principles of LID for storm water runoff. Image from Iowa Department of Conservation.

Principles of LID for storm water runoff. Image from Iowa Department of Conservation.

This past week I had the chance to speak with Jeffrey Huber of the University of Arkansas Community Design Center, an outreach program of the School of Architecture. I contacted the Center to learn more about how everyday people can utilize principles of low impact design and, specifically, what we can do at the McElroy House Organization to implement these principles on a small scale.

Low impact design is a rather new term that employs a very old idea. It refers to any form of development that attempts to work with the natural world rather than against it. One example is managing storm water runoff by preserving or recreating natural landscape features that can help manage water issues in a long-term way.

Parking lots are especially notorious for causing water runoff as they keep rain from soaking into the ground, which, in turn, increases the volume of storm water runoff. This leads to flash flooding, but the problem is exacerbated in heavily paved areas because rainwater picks up environmental toxins as it flows along. With few places for this water to soak in, the water flows straight into drainage systems that lead to our lakes and rivers.

Low impact design offers alternatives that prevent (or at least greatly reduce) problems before they start. This can include preserving or recreating natural features surrounding paved parking lots and large swaths of pavement or concrete, such as pockets of native plants known to absorb the toxins from the water. When storm water from parking lots and paved roads flows into these water retention areas, these pockets of vegetation not only decrease the chances of flash flooding, they also help treat and detoxify the storm water before it ever gets to our rivers and lakes.

As cities grow, these natural features are usually paved over. But they don’t have to be. They can even be recreated manually in areas where the paving has already taken place if we choose to put them there. Low impact design can also include installing permeable pavements, using rain barrels to capture roof water, and installing vegetated rooftops. In the end it’s about considering the big picture and thinking in the long-term, making decisions that take into account how any development will impact things five to fifty years down the road.

This photo shows the results of a sewer system overhaul on a neighborhood street in Portland, Oregon. Photo courtesy of Kevin Robert Perry, City of Portland, Bureau of Environmental Services.

This photo shows the results of a sewer system overhaul on a neighborhood street in Portland, Oregon. Photo courtesy of Kevin Robert Perry, City of Portland, Bureau of Environmental Services.

In many cases implementing low impact design (like permeable parking lot pavement, for example, that allows water to soak into the pavement) can be expensive and the materials hard to come by. But does it have to be that way? After all, the key ideas behind low impact design are rather simple and use materials we have all around us. We often think about this kind of development in terms of city planning and large-scale development, and certainly that’s hugely important. But what can everyday people do to make decisions on their own property or businesses that consider the natural world, the quality of our rivers and streams, and the kind of communities we want to leave for our grandchildren? That’s something we’re trying to learn more about at the McElroy House Organization as we move forward with our own space.

Folks from the Community Design center travel and speak to groups about these concepts and would welcome a chance to speak in the River Valley. Would people be interested in attending a discussion with some of the architects to learn more about low-impact design principles and how they can be affordably implemented on a very local level? Let me know if you’re interested and we’ll get them here! Let me know if you’re interested and we’ll move forward with setting something up!

Thanks so much for reading!

To learn more about the work of the McElroy House Organization, click here. 

 

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The Seed and the Story is a partnership with the Courier and Post Dispatch newspapers in Pope and Yell County, Arkansas. This weekly column explores folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas, particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. Columns are often written in partnership with the McElroy House: Organization for Folklife, Oral History, and Community Action and humbly attempt to bridge intergenerational themes in the region.