When we shape the world we shape ourselves: Low impact development

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” – Quotation attributed to Winston Churchill

Yesterday morning I got an email from a friend asking me if I’d given any thought to low impact development (LID). Yes I have. In fact, just a few weeks Laura Dininni and I were discussing it. I was really glad to get this email because we are at perfect time to have a deeper conversation about it in Ferguson Township in particular and the Centre Region in general. Given the pervasive displeasure with the proposed Toll Brothers-Penn State Boxes and the adjacent ball fields, it makes LID pretty salient. But it’s something that I would push for regardless.

The short version is this: We are faced with development pressures that compromise community values, environmental quality, while generating profits for a few. Under status quo design, build, and the policies that regulate them, we line ourselves up to be unimaginative vandals instead of poetic or artistic stewards. Low impact design offers us a way out of this. Given the recent dust-ups about Penn State-Toll Brothers The Boxes in Ferguson Township (start here at Steady State College and at the CDT here, here, or here) and the controversy over our drinking water, open space, conservation, and community design, we have an opportunity to do something different, beautiful, and exciting. Such an opportunity generates health across our local system and beyond.

The email came from someone who I’d say shares most of my values and visions regarding stewardship, community space and how our buildings show our values. We definitely have a concern about unchecked sprawl that compromises community and ecosystem services: things like recreation and cultural value as well as water filtration, water supply, nutrient cycling, soil formation, habitat, pollination, and more. And most of all, we recognize that the long-term human community health is related to the long-term ecosystem health and vice versa. So it makes a lot of sense that we have a common interest in LID.

What is LID? The Low Impact Development Center calls LID “a comprehensive land planning and engineering design approach with a goal of maintaining and enhancing the pre-development hydrologic regime of urban and developing watersheds.” The EPA defines LID as
“an approach to land development (or re-development) that works with nature to manage stormwater as close to its source as possible. LID employs principles such as preserving and recreating natural landscape features, minimizing effective imperviousness to create functional and appealing site drainage that treat stormwater as a resource rather than a waste product.”
I’d say based on presentations I saw at the recent Penn State Institutes for Energy and the Environment Water Symposium that stormwater is a waste product AND a resource and that LID recognizes both of these facets.

The Fay Jones School of Architecture published Low Impact Development: a design manual for urban areas that sees both aspects. It begins with the simple challenging question: “What if stormwater infrastructure enhanced ecological functioning to serve as a civic asset rather than an environmental liability?” In the current status quo of stormwater management we see cutters, drains, culverts, and concrete washes carrying water “away” (whatever that means) to some waterway somewhere else. The water runoff from our roofs, streets, parking lots, and lawns carries solid waste, chemical pollution (from anti-freeze to pharmaceuticals to lawn treatments), and is often warmer than the waterway into which it will empty. At the end of the wash or drain, that natural waterway—take Slab Cabin Run or Spring Creek for example—or well field ends up taking that material into it. Then, we and other creatures ingest it or it gets carried further downstream where it accumulates and contributes to larger scale problems in the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay. So what’s to be done? What does the upstream LID approach look like?

Our region and state already have some of these features in place. See for example the State College borough’s small rain gardens along Allen Street, and constructed wetlands along Westerly Parkway that serve as a wetland education center. Down along Walnut Springs another wetland was built that copes with thermally and chemically polluted water that would otherwise damage into Thomspon Run and Spring Creek. Instead, stormwater from the borough coming down from the hills that University Drive bisects and the Parkway Additionally, LEED-certified and Living Building Challenge projects are pursuing stormwater and habitat restoration simultaneously. By planting perennial flowers with native bushes and trees, they create multiple positive feedbacks that not only prevent problems but generate health. For example, the LEED Silver dorm on which I worked a couple of years ago created an eight-fold win: water treatment, water regulation, soil formation, increased biodiversity, habitat creation, pollination, beautification, and food. Some of the newer construction at Penn State University Park has vegetated/green roofs that do some of this on rooftops while the State College Area High School (SCAHS) renovation project will be doing some of these things too (though the final design is not in yet). [That project has the benefit of a lot of community involvement and input too, adding to civic decision-making, deliberation, and education. A topic for later I hope.]

With good minding of the way that non-human natural systems behave, we can design inhabitat—habitats in which humans are still the primary consideration but understood as part of the living system. We participate in that system. As its designers, builders, and managers, we are responsible for it. Because of its effects we are also creating or compromising health and happiness through it and exercise or fail to exercise responsibility through it. How’s that been going here?

It’s mixed. I’m newish to the local government conversations, so forgive me if I’m out of bounds. But I think the above examples are exceptions that prove the rule of the status quo. I’m taking their absence as evidence of a hole in the discussion. And when I think about the proposed Toll Brothers Boxes and the other development I see in Ferguson Township, I don’t see LID. It’s disappointing to play catch up instead of leading.

Examples? When I look at the housing development going in next to my favorite suburban mountain biking wood lot between Blue Course Drive and Science Park and Circleville Road I get pretty miffed. It looks like it’s just more lame cookie cutter houses, more impervious surface, wasted land turned into chemically-treated lawn that people won’t use because they’ll be inside watching TV or surfing the net or running on a treadmill (instead of outside with my riding bikes!), and the minimum number of trees. What if it were consciously designed and incentivized or required to meet an LID standard that beautifies and bolsters ecosystem services? What a relief that would be.

What if that were done with The Boxes (the Toll Bros development)? What if it were required of the proposed athletic fields next to it (another issue that’s at least as bad)? What if it had been required or planned into that development? Put aside that a firm committed to LID would probably just avoid building on a water recharge zone for now, the conversation could have been different.

My approach would have differed. Rather than castigating the board of supervisors whose service I am thankful for, I’d have been drawn into a conversation and decision-making process that would have been for community and land health instead of coming in with proverbial guns blazing at a seemingly opaque and bullying process designed to coddle already-coddled students and make the way for a pointless set of artificial surface ball fields.

In the rest of the community, Penn State selling to a company committed to LID or a similar design principle would probably have gotten a different reception. Were they to take it on as a challenge to show how development with the whole system in mind, with ample public participation, for explanations and designs that show beauty and environmental quality that could improve the system and make it more beautiful. Maybe the woman from the adjacent retirement community who’s been giving me earfuls wouldn’t have. These are all maybes and you can’t prove a counterfactual.

But what an improvement we would have had. Instead, the Boxes, the ball fields, the development near my mountain biking woods, and previous developments are using the old drain ideas and/or ugly and least-bad retention and impoundment basins. And with the Boxes, the least-bad options actually still sit outside of the growth boundary. Ahem.

So let’s use what is as a learning opportunity to move our community toward what ought to be. Let’s do what we can so that my friend who emailed me and I can make this township and the region an even better place to live for all of us—human and other than human. And you know, if you think this is just some squishy eco thing, just remember that people work at jobs that create and maintain this infrastructure. Yep. Jobs. Good jobs. And the financial value of well-designed and beautiful development? You guessed it. Better than the status quo.

As an official, I will move Ferguson Township’s board of supervisors in this direction. I will work with the other supervisors, municipalities, planners, commission, and other supporting and suggesting bodies to make LID the new status quo. That’s how I hope to shape where I live with you.

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