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The Center for Sustainable Infrastructure Blog

Clean Water Services: A Public Water Utility Serving the Land

October 6th, 2017 · No Comments · --Integrated Systems--, Water

By Mike Schut — Program Officer at the Laird Norton Family Foundation

Language matters; ideas matter—matter so much that they become embodied and show up in the landscape.

Visit with the staff of Clean Water Services (CWS), tour a few of their watershed restoration projects, or simply read closely some of their brochures and case studies, and you’ll see what I mean. As a public utility managing wastewater they serve nearly 600,000 residents in cities and towns immediately west of Portland, Oregon.

Bruce Roll of CWS leads a watershed restoration tour.

Now it’s not unusual for a utility to serve its residents. But, CWS also explicitly state that they “serve” the land within their water district.

Yes, CWS also employs the words “manage” or “management” when describing their work, but their leadership chose to use the word “serve” to describe their interactions and relationship with the land in their care.

What!? Serve the land!?

Humanity (at least those with the power over the last few hundred years) has more often used words like use, control, subdue, even dominate, to describe their relationship with the land. If we even recognized that we had a relationship with the land, it was supposed to serve us!

The tour continues– walking the land.

Serving the land suggests a potentially significant shift, especially because CWS seems to embody that service in the landscape:

  • Former wastewater treatment ponds at Fernhill have been transformed from rip-rapped ponds into a beautiful natural treatment system filtering water through 90 acres of native wetland plants. The site includes meandering walking paths through a “Water Garden” designed by a world-renowned creator of healing gardens.
  • CWS’s Durham wastewater treatment facility features a cogeneration system; powered by methane generated by the “digestion” of wastewater along with food grease collected from local restaurants, the system generates 60% of the facility’s energy needs.
  • In just one year CWS planted over 2 million trees. They annually restore more than 10 miles of riparian area along the Tualatin River and its tributaries. The program, called Tree for All, has brought together over 35 organizational partners.
  • Space restrictions preclude highlighting more of their projects, but CWS is among 61 public and private utilities internationally recognized in the inaugural Utility of the Future program for pioneering innovation in resource recovery, energy generation, and natural treatment wetlands.

Natural treatment system at Fern Hill.

What also struck me as I spent the afternoon with CWS leaders Bruce Roll, Mark Poling, and Rich Hunter is that Clean Water Services seems to understand that doing things right for their community not only means attending to the human community; it also means attending to the needs of the watershed, the creatures, the land.

That seems deeply right. Deep down we all know that our community includes more than our human neighbors, and that our own health is inextricably linked to ecosystem health.

In getting their language (serve) and ideas (a holistic view of community) right, CWS is able to scale its work to what some call “landscape” conservation or restoration. Rather than only ensuring that wastewater is safe once discharged/treated (a crucial function for any water utility, of course) or only restoring a site, or a series of disconnected sites, CWS seeks to restore an entire landscape, an entire watershed. As CWS looks at it, scaling restoration projects is our only option now: the pressures of (among other things) climate change and increased urbanization demand that we protect our watersheds, which means collaborating for the well-being of all the watershed’s communities, human and other-than-human.

A beautiful restored and functional landscape

Finally, to make this picture more complete, I should point out that while getting our language and ideas right is necessary, and crucial, it is not sufficient to address the scale of the challenges facing our society. In addition, we need to find levers which, when activated, impact entire landscapes.

CWS is such a lever. They are a prime example of a public utility working for the common good. They are a prime example of “sustainable infrastructure.” On the surface of things their infrastructure is pipes, pump stations, and water and sewage treatment plants. Below the surface their infrastructure is schools taking students to Fernhill to watch birds; is a complex network of community partners; is a set of relationships with others who understand that words matter, that ideas matter.


Mike Schut is a program officer at the Laird Norton Family Foundation (LNFF). He, along with LNFF staff and family members, toured Clean Water Services in late September of 2017. They especially thank CWS leaders Bruce Roll, Rich Hunter, and Mark Poling for their time and generosity and Rhys Roth of the Center for Sustainable Infrastructure for connecting all of us.



Depave Builds Rain Garden, Solves Flooding Problem at Portland Church

October 3rd, 2017 · No Comments · Water

Written by members of Depave Portland
Originally produced October, 2016

Depave promotes the transformation of over-paved places to overcome the social and environmental impacts of pavement. They aim to engage communities and reconnect urban landscapes to nature through action-oriented projects, education, advocacy and stewardship. The Portland-based nonprofit has returned more than 50 sites to thriving landscapes, creating community green space and significantly improving storm water runoff problems. For example, Depave helped solve long-term flooding problems at Saint Mary Ethiopian Church in Portland by leveraging public funding to help transform a portion of their parking lot into a thriving rain garden.

Despite the weather, over 50 brave rain-warriors pitched in to pry it up at the Saint Mary Ethiopian Church on a balmy September Saturday. Depaving here makes way for a central rain garden to prevent flooding of the church and lots of nice native landscaping elsewhere around the parking lot. Special thanks to the church members for providing a delicious authentic Ethiopian meal. We had a blast!

Tadele Gelagay no longer worries about his church flooding every winter. Thanks to a parking lot depaving project coordinated by Depave and the Johnson Creek Watershed Council, St. Mary Ethiopian Orthodox Church now has a 2,500 square foot rain garden that soaks up the water and keeps the church dry.

Gelagay is executive director of the small, immigrant church on the east side of Portland, Oregon. The church is next to Johnson Creek in a floodplain, and sits on the lowest area of the property. Whenever even moderate rains hit, the parking lot would fill with storm water and the church would flood. A drywell system in the parking lot didn’t solve the problem and only added more headaches when it needed repairs. Church members would pile sandbags around the church and use pumps to try to remove the water, but none of these fixes worked.

The church didn’t have much money to spend on a solution. ”We had two choices. Either dig under the drywell or add a system to [connect to] 92nd Street,” said Gelagay. Both options were costly. So when Danny Kapsch, an employee with the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services, suggested replacing a portion of the parking lot with a rain garden, Gelagay was quick to agree. This option was a perfect alternative for the church and for the community.

As a bonus, public funding was available for stormwater remediation projects. The Johnson Creek Watershed Council partnered with Depave to get a grant from Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services’ Community WatershedStewardship Program. The Council also helped the church raise additional funds and recruit volunteers to remove thepavement and replace it with the rain garden.

Depave, a nonprofit group that encourages removing pavement to reduce stormwater runoff and create urban green spaces, did a lot of the heavy lifting to implement the project — overseeing project elements from permitting, pavement cutting, excavation, and coordinating the volunteer depaving and planting events. “The uniqueness was primarily in the collaboration,” said Eric Rosewall, Depave’s executive director, of the four groups involved in making this project happen. Gelagay also said it was a great partnership.

The site was cut into small squares that volunteers could remove by hand. After more than 80 volunteers removed 2,500 square feet of asphalt, the site was excavated and soil added to get it ready for planting. Volunteers again showed up in force to get the site planted and landscaped, with help from the local nonprofit Green Lents who designed the new green space.

St Mary hasn’t flooded since and the community enjoys the new garden. The church’s sewer bill is 78 percent lower through the Clean River Rewards program due to the reduced runoff. “All the rain just comes and sinks into the rain garden. No problems since the garden was completed,” said Gelagay. The money saved was used to put a new roof on the church and to add additional landscaping to the site.

Depave promotes the transformation of over-paved places; engaging and inspiring communities to reconnect urban landscapes to nature. Depave is a nonprofit based in Portland, Oregon. To suggest a site for regreening in Portland, visit To learn about opportunities to develop a depaving program elsewhere, visit Find additional information on this and other depave projects online:  .org/saint-mary.



The Tree For All Journey: Rethinking Urban Growth at the Landscape Scale

September 21st, 2017 · No Comments · --Integrated Systems--, Water

By Bruce Roll, Director of Watershed Management for Clean Water Services & Clean Water Institute
Re-posted with permission from The Nature of Cities. Facing the ecological dilemma created by urban growth and climate events means moving from pilot projects to landscape-scale conservation.

It’s a beautiful spring day as I sit on the bank of Fanno Creek watching a family of wood ducks motor across the glassy surface of a three-acre beaver pond. A Blue Heron stands in the backwater finding nourishment from the juvenile fish hiding among the willows while a pond turtle suns itself on a log felled by one of Mother Nature’s keystone engineers. Songbirds bring their voices as they find their breakfast within the abundant native vegetation surrounding this oasis in the middle of a thriving urban community. Behind me are hundreds of residential homes, and across the pond I see the reflection of a bustling industrial complex with warehouses and businesses. It’s not long before I hear a family of human inhabitants strolling along a footpath with children in tow. Just like the birds, I hear happy voices as they talk about the array of interesting wildlife they see along this human highway.

Great Blue Heron at Fern Hill Wetlands (2015). Photo: Michael Nipper. To catch a glimpse of the wildlife that is returning to Greenway Park at Fanno Creek, take a peek at our “critter cam” video.

This is a very special place for me. A dozen years ago, this same location was a deep ditch with little vegetation, no shade, and only a trickle of water. Back then, there were certainly no ducks to be seen or song birds to be heard. There were also no children playing in the shade or cyclists enjoying their fresh-air commute. It was a dry, barren place that was hot in the summer and a floodway in the winter. However, this story is not about one singular project. Fanno Creek is only one example of more than 400 projects completed in the Tualatin Watershed of northwestern Oregon by Tree for All.

Riparian enhancement at Englewood Park at Fanno Creek, 2008-2012.

Tree for All is one of the USA’s largest and most successful landscape conservation programs. In the past 12 years, Tree for All has successfully restored over 120 river miles (10 plus river miles annually) across more than 25,000 acres in the rural and urban communities of Washington County, Oregon.

Creating a conservation program capable of acting on a watershed scale has been an interesting journey, and it becomes particularly inspiring when you consider the stressors of interesting weather events and rapid urbanization as well as the scale of action needed to create a resilient and healthy watershed. Looking back on this journey, we have identified 11 keys to landscape conservation that have guided Tree for All’s success, with the hope that they may help guide similar efforts. This essay will address three of the key elements for creating a landscape conservation program that is capable of acting on a scale that ensures watershed health now and for future generations: common community vision, partnerships, speaking a common language.

Common community vision: what’s good for Mother Nature is good for humans too

If others want to replicate the program, they need to understand that you have to get community buy-in to be successful. Tree For All is a collaborative effort that takes many jurisdictions. Folks from the public sectors, schools and others, they all have to buy into it.
— Andy Duyck, Washington County Commission Chair

Our natural resources provide many benefits to humans, such as clean drinking water, healthy air, and nourishing foods. In addition, we require efficient transportation networks and cultural diversity to create resilient, thriving human communities. As we play witness to hundreds of restoration projects, it becomes clear that local wildlife has many similar needs. A grey squirrel needs a network of natural vegetation to provide food and transportation, allowing it to cross the watershed without ever touching the ground. Lacking such highways, that squirrel experiences the same dilemma as humans when we see a “road closed” sign with no detour.

These wildlife highways cross urban, rural, and forested landscapes where humans also reap great benefits from natural resources. Floodplains are an example of an ecosystem that provides a water highway for migratory birds, fish and other wildlife. The restoration of these “water highways” also benefit human communities by providing flood mitigation, carbon sequestration, water filtration, and recreational areas for activities such as fishing or boating.

In agricultural areas, clean air and water, healthy soil and pollinators propagate our human foods. Native plant buffers on agricultural land are an example of a way that communities can help wildlife and humans thrive. When we plant strips of native plants along water margins, they provide shade, slow runoff, and absorb nutrients from agricultural land. Just as humans need clean water, so do the fish and wildlife that greatly benefit from the water cleansing benefits of native plant buffers. Indeed, the benefits of native vegetation buffers—cleaner air and water, shade from the urban heat island effect—also extend to the children who walk along Fanno Creek observing egrets and Pacific tree frogs.

Time and time again we have found that if we help to restore native vegetation, Mother Nature is capable of doing the rest. When Mother Nature is given the opportunity to succeed, wildlife and human communities thrive together.

All smiles at a Watershed Health Walk at Fernhill Wetlands (2017). Photo: Sheepscot Creative.

Partnerships: Working together, we each gain strength while enhancing community benefits

Tree for All is possible because of the partnerships that were established over the last ten years. That’s how you get a million plants into the ground. It took people reaching out and asking others to help—and by doing that, we now have this whole social system that revolves around getting this kind of work done.
— Carla Staedter, Environmental Coordinator, City of Tigard

A beaver pond creates an interesting partnership between the wildlife and native vegetation of Fanno Creek. Waterfowl find a welcoming home to raise their families when water is available and native vegetation helps create the habitat needed for turtles, songbirds and fish. Each of these creatures rely on each other to provide food, habitat and water, which puts in motion the makings of a healthy and vibrant watershed. However, this setting meets an interesting challenge when we consider the role humans can play in this story. This role can either be a controlling dictatorship, or, preferably, that of another watershed partner that finds nourishment in their association with local wildlife.

Like many words in the English language, the term “partnership” has many definitions. Tree For All has created its own definition that can best be told by a story about a stranded traveler with a flat tire on a hot dusty road in central Oregon.

A stranded traveler stands beside his car with tire iron in hand, a sweaty brow, and the dejected look of person missing a jack to change his flat tire. It’s not long, however, before a fellow traveler sees this situation and stops to help. With pen and paper in hand, he jumps out of his car to lend this troubled traveler a helping hand. He asks about the make, model, and gross weight of his car and quickly jots the information down. Turning to the troubled traveler, he quickly assures him that he will order a jack in the next town and have it sent back to him. Smiling, this Good Samaritan jumps back in his car and speeds away. He is happy knowing he helped a struggling traveler.

It’s not long before another helper stops to lend aid to the flat-stricken traveler by handing him a bottle of cold water. He smiles as he drives away, watching in his rearview mirror as the struggling traveler thirstily downs the bottle of water. He feels good that he was able to help.

The next traveler is a different character. He is the owner of the local drive-in a few miles back, and every weekend he makes a strawberry milkshake and takes a leisurely drive in the country with the top down on his convertible. Seeing the same situation as the previous travelers, he also stops to lend aid. He hands the weary traveler his milkshake and tells him to drink and sit in the shade while he gathers the jack from his convertible and changes the tire.

When I think about creating great partnerships, they begin with a kind gesture and an offer to meet and exceed expectations. In this story, both travelers reaped value from this interaction. After the incident, the flat-stricken traveler made it a point to bring his family to the drive-in and tell his friends about the thoughtful drive-in owner. Both parties saw great value in this relationship knowing each benefited from this opportunity. It can be easy to stumble at times when we forget to meet partners where they stand.

Through such partnerships, the people of Tualatin Watershed are transforming the landscape, averaging more than 10 river miles of restoration annually (195 km in the past 12 years) across more than 25,000 acres. Here are some examples of Tree for All partnerships and how they are working together to further their individual goals while enhancing the benefits that natural resources provide to the community:

MetroMetro is a regional government and planning agency in the Portland metropolitan area. Metro’s mission to connect high quality stream corridor and wetland habitats across the Tualatin River Watershed has resulted in the protection of almost 5,000 acres of natural areas. Its collaboration with Clean Water Services and other partners on more than a dozen natural areas including Wapato View, Maroon Ponds, and Gales Creek Forest Grove Natural Areas has been instrumental in achieving Tree for All goals. These projects leverage multiple funding sources and create a bigger impact than each organization could complete on its own. By allowing access and combined planning efforts, Metro helps Tree for All achieve a core goal of improving water quality, while enabling Metro to complete enhancement across entire properties where other priorities would have meant leaving them incomplete.

Friends of Trees: Friends of Trees is a nonprofit dedicated to empowering communities to improve the natural world by planting trees. By gathering an army of volunteers every weekend during planting season, Friends of Trees plays a pivotal role in the success of Tree for All. In 2015 alone, Friends of Trees mustered more than 17,000 volunteer hours with a value of $375,000. A decade of partnership translates into millions of dollars leveraged, and thousands of urban Washington County residents connected to water resources.

Tualatin Hills Parks and Recreation District: Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District (THPRD) is a pivotal partner with more than 1,300 acres of natural areas in Beaverton and adjacent areas. One example is a 35-acre complex on Bronson Creek, owned by THPRD since the early 1990s. The complex improves habitat diversity and water quality in the area while complementing and connecting with nearby restoration projects. By forging this partnership and harnessing multiple interests, the benefits are tangible and growing, all at lower cost than if we each did it alone. Through this partnership, THPRD is making a big contribution to sustaining and enhancing the Tualatin Watershed where residents may live and work in harmony with the environment.

Tualatin Soil and Water Conservation District: Twelve years ago, we saw the first farmer sign up for a new riparian restoration program developed jointly by the local farming community, foresters, environmental groups, and Clean Water Services. By year three, this program caught its stride, leveraging millions of additional Federal Money from the U.S. Congress’ “Farm Bill” dollars allows the Tualatin Soil and Water Conservation District to offer a voluntary and truly integrated agricultural incentive program. Today, this transformative partnership simultaneously delivers irrigation efficiency, wetlands enhancement, integrated pest management, cooling shade, wildlife habitat and farm conservation plans that address nutrient/pest management and soil erosion. This partnership has restored more than 35 agricultural river miles to date, involving more than 10,000 acres on 80+ farms, while bringing many additional benefits to the farmers and Mother Nature.

Click to enlarge.

Speaking a common language: using a voice that engages and inspires

What’s happening in Washington County is not an accident. We’ve got an incredible effort of all different organizations working together towards one thing, and that is to work with Mother Nature. But we’re all doing that with the understanding that those benefits to each and everyone of us are far, far greater—and it’s not just to us. It’s to the future generations.
– Carolyn McCormick, President and CEO, Washington County Visitors Association

The slap of a beaver’s tail on the surface of the pond sends ducks scurrying, the turtle diving and the songbirds chirping. A red tailed hawk decides to stop and say hello. Isn’t it fascinating how that one voice/tail engaged and inspired such a diverse audience?

How many times do we humans shoot ourselves in the foot when we forget to communicate with a voice that engages and inspires? When I think about my conversations with school children, farmers, and government representatives, it can be challenge to communicate the importance of watershed health using a single message that resonates with all of these groups. It requires accounting for their concerns, speaking to the common values we all share, and conveying the benefits we all experience when we invest in our natural resources. The truth is, we all need clean air, water and healthy soil to be resilient and happy. There are many ways of telling the story about the interconnection between humans and our environment. Tree for All has found great success in telling that story through the many different voices of our partners while speaking a common language through engaging stories and inspiring conversations. This voice becomes very important as partners from diverse backgrounds come to the table to share resources and their experiences across broad landscapes.

As we witness the many stressors associated with interesting weather events and the human desire to grow and prosper, Tree for All partners have clearly demonstrated that it is possible work locally and create the actions needed for watershed resiliency. The next essay in this series will elaborate on how Tree for All catalyzes this community impact through business innovation and co-investment, targeting efforts that provide the best return on investment, and planning for the interests of future generations.

–Bruce Roll, Portland

Bruce is the Director of Watershed Management for Clean Water Services ( and the nonprofit Clean Water Institute (CWI) in Hillsboro, Oregon.

If you’re interested in learning more, check out this video about Tree for All partners and the tree planting challenge that started it all.



Transportation for Everyone: A New Accessibility Rating System

August 26th, 2017 · No Comments · Transportation

By Todd Litman, Executive Director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute
Re-posted with permission from Planetizen

Todd Litman, an Evergreen Master of Environmental Studies graduate, is founder and executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, an independent research organization dedicated to developing innovative solutions to transport problems. His work helps to expand the range of impacts and options considered in transportation decision-making, improve evaluation methods, and make specialized technical concepts accessible to a larger audience. His research is used worldwide in transport planning and policy analysis. 

To be efficient and fair, a transportation system must serve diverse demands, including the needs of people who for any reason cannot, should not, or prefer not to drive. For example, it is inefficient if inadequate sidewalks and paths force parents to chauffeur children to local destinations to which they would rather walk or bicycle, or if inadequate travel options force urban commuters to drive although they would prefer to use more affordable and resource-efficient modes such as ridesharing and public transit. It is also unfair if automobile-oriented planning deprives non-drivers of their share of transportation investment dollars, and of the mobility options they need to access to basic services and activities.

Transportation diversity [pdf] is particularly important for physically, economically, and socially disadvantaged people, who tend to use multiple modes and value affordable options, but even people who primarily drive can benefit from having alternatives in their community that reduce their traffic problems and chauffeuring burdens, and from having options that that they may need sometime in the future.

I can report from personal experience that it is possible to be happy and successful without a car, if you live in an accessible and multimodal community. My wife and I have been blissfully car-free for almost a decade, which is possible because we live in an older urban neighborhood with good walking and cycling conditions, adequate public transit, and abundant nearby services.

Multimodal planning was normal before 1950, but for most of the last century planning has focused on accommodating automobile travel, with major investments in roads and parking facilities, and dispersed development that is difficult to access without driving. Such planning ignored non-automobile travel demands, such as those in the following list.

Non-Automobile Travel Demands
  • Youths 10-20 (10-30% of population).
  • Seniors who do not or should not drive (5-15%).
  • Adults unable to drive due to disability (3-5%).
  • Lower income households burdened by vehicle expenses (15-30%).
  • Law-abiding drinkers.
  • Community visitors who lack a vehicle or driver’s license.
  • People who want to walk or bike for enjoyment and health.
  • Drivers who want to avoid chauffeuring burdens.
  • Residents who want to reduce traffic and parking congestion, accidents and pollution emissions.

There are several ways to describe the value of improving transportation options. You can say that transport planning should be more diverse and multi-modal, and less automobile-dependent. You can evaluate the degree that a community is accessible or location-efficient, and whether it is walkable, bikeable. or transit-oriented, and whether it is suitable for living car-free.

Good planning requires quantitative analysis. Multimodal analysis is an emerging field. New multimodal level-of-service ratings can be used to evaluate walking, cycling and public transit service quality, to identify barriers to their use, and to set targets for improvement. New accessibility mapping systems, such as those described in the following box, calculate the time required to reach various destinations by different modes.

Accessibility Mapping Tools

This box describes tools for measuring the time and money required to reach common services and activities (shops, schools, jobs, etc.) by various modes.

Access Scores

Access Scoring uses GIS mapping tools to measure people’s mobility demands, their ability to access work and common non-work activities by various modes and at various times and locations, and indicate how specific transportation system changes will affect that accessibility.  It can even account for factors such as travel comfort and safety based on roadway size and type (arterial vs. neighborhood), and traffic speeds.

Access to Everyday Destinations

The study,What Makes Housing Accessible to Everyday Destinations in Southern California?analyzed the accessibility of five million Southern California homes to 31 destination types including stores, banks, schools, hospitals and open space. They find that accessibility tends to be greater in older neighborhoods.

Accessibility Observatory

This is a leading resource for the research and application of accessibility-based transportation system evaluation.

Moving To Access Initiative

The Brookings Institution’sMoving to Access (MTA) Initiativeaims to inform and promote a more socially focused, access-first approach to urban transportation policy, planning, investment, and services.

New York City Transit Explorer

This mapping system indicates the time required to reach any destination by public transit in New York City, and allows users to compare travel times of different routes.

Opportunity Score

This program ranks locations in 350 U.S. cities based on the number of jobs that can be accessed within a 30-minute walk or transit ride.

Smart Location Mapping

This program provides interactive maps and data for measuring location efficiency, including the effects of the built environment on per capita vehicle travel, and methods for measuring access to jobs and workers by public transportation.

Sugar Access

Sugar Accessis an integrated Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software program that communities can use to quantify the access (time and financial costs) of accessing various types of services and activities (healthcare, shops, schools, jobs, parks, etc.) by various travel modes in a particular area.

Urban Accessibility Explorer

The Metropolitan ChicagoAccessibility Exploreris an easy-to-use mapping system that measures the number of activities, including various types of jobs, schools, parks, stores and libraries, that Chicago region neighborhood residents can reach within a given travel time, by a particular mode and time of day. It represents current state-of-art for multi-modal accessibility mapping. The results are displayed on maps which can be adjusted by scale and area. This tool can help policy makers, planners and residents easily evaluate how transportation system and land use change could alter accessibility.


Although these tools are useful, none is truly comprehensive. Some measure local walking and cycling conditions, some the availability of neighborhood services, some indicate regional driving and transit travel speeds, but few consider travel financial costs, emerging mobility options such as taxi, ridehailing, and delivery services, and none integrates all of this information into a comprehensive accessibility index. These tools are also constrained by their complexity and cost: they require lots of data and analysis, and so can cost millions of dollars to create and manage. Although this may be an excellent investment, it is often infeasible. As a result, few communities have the information needed for comprehensive multimodal planning.

To fill this gap I developed the Transportation for Everyone rating system, based on extensive research concerning factors that affect accessibility. For example, good research indicates that increasing land use density and mix tends to increase the services and activities that can be reached within a given travel time, and that people who live in more walkable, bikeable, and transit-oriented neighborhoods, with carsharing services, tend to own fewer vehicles, drive less, and rely more on alternative modes. The rating system identifies ten specific factors that affect non-drivers’ ability to access services and activities which are rated from 1 (worst) to 10 (best), resulting in a total score from 10 to 100. This analysis can be applied at any geographic scale, from an individual house to a neighborhood, city or region.

Transportation for Everyone Rating System
Rating Factors Rate from 1 to 10
1. Compact, mixed urban development which creates Transit-Oriented Development (if located near a major transit station) or Urban Villages (if pedestrian oriented), where most commonly-used services (shops, restaurants, bank machine, schools, parks and recreation centers, public transit stops, etc.) can be reached within a 5-10 minute walk or bicycle ride of most homes and worksites.
2. Good walking and cycling conditions, including adequate sidewalks, crosswalks, paths, bike lanes, bike parking, and motor vehicle traffic speed control.
3. High quality public transit services, with good geographic coverage, frequency, comfort, safety and affordability, both within the urban region and connecting to other regions.
4. Good connectivity, including dense walking and road networks, and intermodal connections such as walking and cycling access, and taxi services at transit stations.
5. Convenient and affordable carsharing and bikesharing, taxi and ride-hailing services (e.g., Uber and Lyft).
6. Universal design (transportation systems and services accommodate people with diverse needs and abilities, including those with disabilities and heavy loads).
7. Good telework options, such as on-line shopping, banking and municipal services.
8. Efficient delivery services by mail, courier and local shops.
9. Convenient user information concerning transportation options, such as integrated public transit websites.
10. Social marketing that promotes non-automobile modes and enhances their status.


This table identifies ten factors that contribute to a multi-modal transportation system. They can be rated from 1 to 10 to provide an overall “Transportation for Everyone” score.

Of course, individuals’ abilities and needs vary. Some people need an automobile for their work or personal activities, or because they have an impairment which limits their walking. On the other hand, skilled cyclists who live close to their work and have minimal caregiving responsibilities (they don’t care for children or people with disabilities) may manage to live car-free in automobile-dependent areas, but these are exceptions. For most people, transportation system diversity determines whether they can meet their needs without driving. This rating system provides a good indication of an area’s transportation diversity, and therefore the feasibility of households reducing their automobile ownership and use, and associated costs. An area’s overall Transportation for Everyone score is indicated below.

Transportation for Everyone Score

70–100  Multimodal – A car is unnecessary for most daily travel. Many households are car-free.

50–69  Mixed – It is possible but often difficult to rely on non-automobile modes. Most households have at least one car.

0–49  Automobile Dependent – It is difficult to live without a personal car. Most households have one car per driver.

An important point is that multimodal accessibility requires an integrated system of transportation options. Multimodal planning therefore involves identifying and correcting the weakest link in the mobility chain. For example, a high public transit service rating is good but insufficient if stations have poor pedestrian access, or lack convenient taxi services and user information; this rating system can help identify those gaps.

People sometimes criticize multimodal planning as a “war on cars,” but everybody can benefit from a more diverse transport system: Living in a multimodal community can provide a variety of savings and benefits, including direct user benefits and indirect external benefits, as summarized below.

Direct User
Indirect and External
Transportation cost savings

Reduced time spent driving

Improved mobility for non-drivers

Reduced chauffeuring burdens

Improved fitness and health

Increased enjoyment

Reduced traffic and parking congestion

Public infrastructure cost savings

Increased safety

Energy conservation and emission reductions

Improved neighborhood quality

Local economic development

Transportation for Everyone is a small but important step toward more comprehensive and multimodal transportation planning. It is a work in progress. Please let me know what you think and how it can be improved.



Stillaguamish Tribe Receives $1 Million Grant to Research Omni-Processor Technology

August 19th, 2017 · No Comments · Waste, Water

By Christopher Andersson, North County Outlook
Re-posted with permission from North County Outlook

The Stillaguamish Tribe received a national $1 million grant this month to research the applicability of a machine that could process dairy water to improve stream quality.

Stillaguamish Tribe’s environmental manager Pat Stevenson outside of the Tribe’s Natural Resources Department. Photo courtesy of Stillaguamish Tribe.

The Tribe was the lone Washington state recipient of the Conservation Innovation Grant from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The technology the Tribe is working with would process farm water that is contaminated with fecal matter and turn it into water and provide fertilizer as well. The water would be clean enough for an animal to drink, or could be used for other purposes.

“It’s a project we’ve been working on for a few years,” said Pat Stevenson, environmental manager for the Stillaguamish Tribe.

They started with a grant from the Department of Ecology in 2013, and through that work found the Sedro-Wooley business Janicki Bioenergy, which produces it’s “Omni-Processor” to clean human waste out of water from Third World countries.

“We found these devices that they use in Africa to treat water with human waste in it,” said Stevenson.

“We approached Janicki and asked if they would be able to build one that would work on animal waste,” he said. “They finally got back to us about a year later saying they thought it would be possible.”

The Tribe’s grant research will be to see if the machine can work and if it does improve water quality.

“The Stillaguamish Tribe is seeing if they can transport that concept for a trial run on dairy farms,” said Bonda Habets, Washington state resource conservationist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Farmers can currently receive funds for a variety of projects that reduce their impact on the environment.

If the Stillaguamish Tribe can demonstrate that the dairy water processors are effective, those machines could be added to the list giving easy access to the technology for many farmers, said Stevenson.

Currently, water with dairy manure in it is often kept in lagoons, which can get into streams.

Stevenson said that shellfish are hurt the most because of bacteria from the manure.

“They’re filter feeders, so they just filter out all of the material in the water,” he said.

However, too much bacteria and manure will make the water less habitable for all the animals there in general.

“It contributes to poor water conditions in general which hurts the fish,” said Stevenson.

Fish are important for a lot of tribes around the state and nation.

“Washington has a lot of areas with a lot of salmon, which is an endangered species,” said Habets.

“There are 33 federally recognized tribes in the state and many rely on salmon for food,” she said.

Many tribes are downstream in watersheds, she said, so they receive a good deal of pollutants from industrial, urban and other lands.

“The Stillaguamish Tribe is next to an area with a lot of dairy farmland, and that land doesn’t have many other land applications,” said Habets, so cleaning water from dairy farms would be beneficial to them.

She said that the group effort between the Stillaguamish Tribe, Janicki Bioenergy and other partners “makes it a richer project.”

“This could be a win-win-win for the tribe, agriculture interests and the salmon,” she said.

Stillaguamish officials hope to start fabrication of the processor in August and install it in a Stanwood farm in May or June of next year.

The machine will be the first one built anywhere.



Sovereign Power Brings Solar Jobs and Renewable Energy to the Spokane Tribe

July 26th, 2017 · No Comments · Energy

By Jason Campbell, CEO of Sovereign Power, Inc.

Working with the Spokane Tribe of Indians and others, Sovereign Power is “building self-sustaining native nations through energy independence”. Recently this exciting work was featured as a front-page story in Eastern Washington’s top weekly newspaper, The Inlander. To learn more about Sovereign Power’s great work, please check out the video below!

Our vision at Sovereign Power is to attain true sovereignty by attaining self-sufficiency.  Sovereign Power has been tasked with promoting self-sufficiency through energy independence for the Spokane Tribe of Indians.  Our resulting mission is then to identify, leverage, and develop opportunities in the renewable energy market sector in a manner that reflects our historic culture of sustainability.

To successfully fulfill this mission, we identified capacity development opportunities in a few specific areas.  Sovereign Power knew it could develop self-sufficiency through fostering relationships with industry experts that share aligned values.  Through an existing partnership with Make It Right Solar and by identifying incentives in the State of Washington, we knew solar PV (photovoltaic technology) was a great place to start.

So, we identified partners for classroom training of solar PV and rooftop installation.  Respectively, we chose Solar Energy International (SEI) to come to the reservation for introductory concepts in solar PV as well as battery back-up systems, and we chose GRID Alternatives for their experience in rooftop solar applications.

GRID Alternatives also has extensive experience in skilled labor force development in tribal settings.  Those 8 days of classroom training by SEI and the 4 projects we deployed with GRID Alternatives created the necessary experience base for our local labor force to pass the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) Entry Level exam.

The intent is to leverage those experiences and expand on education and certifications to have the appropriate resumé to compete as a market driven business both on and off the Spokane Indian Reservation.

Our approach simultaneously expands the skilled labor force, reduces unemployment, mitigates monthly utility burdens for local residents and the tribal government, moves the community toward energy resiliency, addresses climate change, mitigates rate risk, and boosts the economic multiplier effect within the reservation.  That’s a pretty good day of nation building!

To connect with Sovereign Power and learn more, you can visit them online at



By Bullet Train From Portland to Seattle to Vancouver, BC? Feasibility Study Underway

July 24th, 2017 · No Comments · Transportation

By Tom Banse, Regional Correspondent for NW News Network — Re-posted with permission from NWNN

With an assist from Microsoft, Washington state’s Department of Transportation has launched a feasibility study of bullet train service in Cascadia.

Late this spring, the Washington Legislature budgeted $300,000 for a study of what it would take to connect the region’s biggest cities by bullet train—a train that would whisk you along at 250 miles per hour or more.

The Legislature requested an analysis of a bullet train alignment between Vancouver, BC, and Portland with intermediate stops in Bellingham, Everett, Seattle, SeaTac, Tacoma, Olympia, and Vancouver, Washington. Lawmakers also asked for evaluation of a possible east-west extension across the Cascade Range to Eastern Washington.

Speaking to a conference of regional policy makers gathered Wednesday in Portland, Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith said his company will chip in an additional $50,000 to validate the idea.

“Why not a high speed train from Vancouver to Seattle to Portland? If we lived in Europe it would already be there,” Smith said.

“We know there is a compelling case for this. We’re going to do an in-depth study,” said Charles Knutson, a transportation policy advisor to Washington Governor Jay Inslee, at the same conference.

The feasibility study will look at potential sticking points, including “financing mechanisms” and suitable rights of way. A bullet train would need a dedicated railway.

The current Amtrak Cascades service shares the rails with freight trains. Amtrak’s passenger trains in the Pacific Northwest are limited to a top speed of 79 miles per hour. The twice-daily service from Seattle to Vancouver, BC, usually runs slower than an automobile because of rail congestion and track limitations.

The feasibility study is due for completion in mid-December.

Microsoft’s interest in high speed rail is an outgrowth of a larger initiative launched by its corporate leadership last year to establish a smoothly-connected, high tech corridor between Vancouver, BC, and Seattle—and now Portland too. Microsoft has a growing development center in Vancouver that Smith said employs nearly 700 workers.

Smith also spoke Wednesday of wanting a seaplane operator to begin direct service between Seattle and Vancouver’s downtowns.

“We need to raise our sights and our ambition level as a region,” Smith said.

Engineering consultancy CH2M got the contract to perform the high speed rail study. The consultants have scheduled a kick-off meeting Thursday with an advisory group of more than 20 representatives of local government, the business community, non-profit organizations, universities and state/provincial agencies.

A feasibility study launched this month by WSDOT will analyze what it would take for Cascadia to get bullet trains like these in Japan.


Michael Singer Shares his Vision for Integrated, Community-focused Infrastructure Systems

July 14th, 2017 · No Comments · --Integrated Systems--

By Nancy Rutledge Connery, longtime infrastructure renewal advocate

This Spring, CSI jumped at the opportunity to host groundbreaking artist and designer, Michael Singer at the Olympia Center, where he shared with us his unique aesthetic vision for beautiful, integrated infrastructure systems that provide multiple community benefits to local residents. Thank you Nancy for bringing Michael to Washington and for sharing a bit about his work with the CSI Blog. For more examples of Michael Singer Studios’ infrastructure design work, please follow the links below or visit

I am delighted to introduce Michael Singer to the CSI Community.  Michael’s efforts to advance sustainable infrastructure for more than 25 years have yielded a wealth of real-life examples that illustrate and validate the core mission of the Center.  They are also stunning projects—a term rarely used for things like solid waste facilities, floodwalls, parking structures, and co-generation power plants.

Our paths crossed serendipitously in 1991.  I had recently completed my tenure as executive director of a joint-Presidential/Congressional study on the state of the nation’s public works in Washington, D.C, after completing a related project in the State of Washington, which led to the development of the Public Works Trust Fund.  Michael Singer was an artist based in southern Vermont who had sculptural works in major museums and public art settings throughout the world.  He had just been unceremoniously recruited, along with Dallas-based artist Linnea Glatt, by the City of Phoenix Arts Commission to help design the City’s first solid waste transfer and recycling facility (pictured below)—a task that neither had applied for nor claimed any special knowledge.

Ironically, I was already familiar with this project because I had heard long-time Phoenix Public Works Director Ron Jensen publicly announce in 1989 that he wanted this new facility to be the “…2nd biggest tourist attraction in Phoenix after Camelback Mountain.”  This was a pretty radical statement for a traditional engineer to make but I knew that Ron had to break through stiff local resistance just to get the facility built and even more to convince more than a million Phoenix residents to recycle for the first time in their lives.  He believed in aiming high and was ultimately vindicated.  Michael and Linnea helped him to achieve and vastly exceed his goal, though the process was anything but smooth.  (Ask me for details later, if you’re interested.)

I met Michael in person for the first time at a conference in Phoenix organized by the National Endowment for the Arts where we were both invited to speak before the new transfer station was completed.  Our conversation had actually begun on the telephone a few weeks earlier.  Mainly, he asked tough but really interesting questions I couldn’t answer.

The conversation has continued for 25+ years and I still struggle with his questions, the pace of which has never slowed.  In the meantime, the major focus of Singer’s work has shifted to what he likes to call “Integrative Infrastructure.”  In “Infrastructure and Community,” a publication he produced with Environmental Defense (available at, he describes it in part this way:

Rather than using a predetermined approach, successful infrastructure aligns facilities with individual settings. Design that is responsive to the habitat and to specific light, wind and water conditions increases efficiency and reduces environmental impact. Design that attends to the needs and interests of local communities cultivates positive relationships between the agencies responsible for utilities and the populations that they serve.

I have personally witnessed many of his projects, written about some of them, and collaborated with his studio on several more. Working with him and his studio has been a dazzling learning opportunity.  To impolitely quote myself from that same document, “…these examples serve as dynamic touchstones for next generation infrastructure design.”

Recycling Facility in Phoenix, Arizona

“Michael Singer and Linnea Glatt were hired as artists by the Phoenix Arts Commission and the Department of Public Works to provide the conceptual design for the 27th Avenue Solid Waste Transfer and Recycling Center. The project, a 100,000 square foot facility on 25 acres, transformed an “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” piece of infrastructure into a dynamic facility that stands out proudly within the city’s landscape. At the forefront of the design was the mission to create an aesthetically beautiful and functional facility that would engage the public to promote recycling while simultaneously creating a sense of communal pride in this critical piece of civic infrastructure”

“Renewal, innovation and transformation were the key concepts behind the re-thinking of the 27th Avenue project. The engineering site plan was re-imagined to improve truck and small vehicle circulation patterns, move the self-haul area closer to the visitor’s center, balance earthwork cut and fill and expand and integrate landscape areas with the main building as terraces and courtyards… The building core where the recycling takes place was fitted with numerous skylights with solar tracking mirrors to optimize daylighting. The facility design also added a multipurpose community room, laboratory, viewing galleries, exhibition spaces and office spaces for private and nonprofit organizations. While the project was once derided as a Taj Mahal of trash, the facility was actually completed for $4.5 million less than the original engineering plan budget.”Excerpt from MichaelSinger.comLearn more about this project.

SWA Waste-to-Energy Facility in Palm Beach County, Florida

This recently-installed facility “…produces electricity from waste, reduces landfilling by over 90%, displaces the need for fossil fuels and powers approximately 44,000 homes. The Studio developed the conceptual aesthetic and environmental design for this new $700M Facility, assisted in establishing design criteria, and was involved in design and implementation oversight throughout the construction process. The SWA and Singer Studio goal was to utilize aesthetic enhancements, environmental design and educational outreach to create a place that engages the public and presents itself as a locus of civic pride and commitment to the environment.”

“The Singer Studio conceptual design included numerous aesthetic, functional, environmental and educational elements and programs that have been incorporated into the built project. Large areas of translucent panels are integrated with the primary facades to naturally light interior spaces and in specific areas allow for views into the facility. A skybridge connects tour groups from the LEED Platinum Visitors Center to the main process building to witness the internal waste-to-energy process. The entire facility is designed as a singular rainwater harvesting system to capture and store two million gallons of rainwater for use within the waste-to-energy process and for site irrigation. This harvesting system, combined with air-cooled condensers and the re-use of wastewater from an adjacent facility, creates one of the most innovative industrial water systems in the nation. As a result the facility uses no potable water in its process and produces zero (or net negative) waste water. The air-pollution controls in this new facility are also the most advanced and the cleanest compared to any similar facility in the nation. Other notable features of the design are the extensive use of green walls, an innovative oval stack to minimize visual impact, a naturalized landscape and advanced stormwater management practices.”Excerpt from MichaelSinger.comLearn more about this project.

Sculptural Flood Wall in Grand Rapids, Michigan

“The City of Grand Rapids invited Michael Singer to propose a public artwork in a site of his choice within the city limits. Singer chose 600 feet of riverbank along the Grand River between the Blue Footbridge and the Fulton Street Bridge where he observed severe erosion of the river bank… With the aid of city staff and his team engineers, Singer was able to realize a sculptural environmental regeneration project that restores the river’s edge in a manner that creates habitat and engages the public, while simultaneously meeting the necessary engineering requirements of a flood wall. The 300 foot layered sculptural element is comprised of granite, concrete and pockets of soil and vegetation. The sculptural wall functions as a flood wall while softening the river’s edge with native vegetation and creating small niches that shelter birds and other wildlife living along the river. The sculptural wall is reminiscent of stone foundations from an earlier time, emerging through the steep side of the riverbank. The indigenous plantings as well as the patina of the stone encourage associations with the past. The project also includes a fully accessible walkway to the river’s edge to connect the public to this natural and historic place central to Grand Rapids. The Riverwalk Floodwall became a key precedent for further redevelopment of the river’s edge and riverfront walkways in downtown Grand Rapids.” – Excerpt from Learn more about this project.

Cogeneration Power Facility Design for NY

“Trans Gas Energy (TGE) asked Michael Singer to work with Stephan Solzhenitsyn of TRC Environmental Corp. on the early stage planning of a new cogeneration gas fired power facility in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The plant was engineered to use natural gas to generate 1,100MW of electricity and up to 2 million pounds per hour of steam; about 10% of New York City’s peak steam and electric energy needs. Singer began his process by bringing together a team of outstanding professionals in design, planning, science and engineering. The Singer Team goal was to bring the state-of-the-art engineering design found inside the power plant to the architectural structure and exterior site. The team investigation centered on the question: can there by a close relationship between a power plant and its surrounding community and a communion between functional needs and environment, natural systems and innovative design?”

“One of the primary concepts is to wrap the main power plant building exterior walls in green houses, taking advantage of these highly structured walls, natural light, CO2, waste heat, and harvested rooftop rainwater already inherent in the project. These greenhouses could grow local food, wetland plants for nearby restoration projects and even host alternative uses such as a community heated indoor swimming pool and hot yoga classes. One associated concept was to utilize some of the greenhouses for algae biofuel research that could also tap a portion of the facility CO2 output. The facility was also planned with an extensive naturalized green roof for avian wildlife and rainwater collection.” – Excerpt from MichaelSinger.comLearn more about this project.

For more innovative examples of integrated infrastructure design, such as the Studio’s Living Shoreline Seawall Renewal and Living Docks projects, or to view Michael’s sculptural gardens, fine art, or green building designs, visit



Crossing the Bridge to Sustainable Infrastructure Investing

July 8th, 2017 · No Comments · --Integrated Systems--, Energy, Transportation, Waste, Water

This summary was produced for the CSI Blog by Mercer
Thanks to Alex Bernhardt and Shounak Bagchi!

The world today is in dire need of sustainable infrastructure (SI), most notably in developing and emerging markets. As the global population continues to grow, the need for sustainable infrastructure grows with it. The New Climate Economy estimates that within the next 15 years the global requirement for new infrastructure assets will surpass US $90trillion (more than the current value of the current capital allocated towards all infrastructure projects).

Despite the growing attention and support for sustainable infrastructure projects, overall progress has been suboptimal. Current allocations and projected plans of investments still fall below the estimated $6 trillion per year needed to spur healthy economic development. Further, investors lack a formal approach to sustainable investing, many in the investment community require additional education on the topic, and those willing to make an allocation to this sector often have difficulty finding suitable opportunities.

To further understand what is happening on the ground, identify key barriers to investing, and propose possible funding gap solutions for SI the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) partnered with Mercer to engage in a multiphase project commissioned in November 2016. This paper further supplements Mercer’s previous research in Building a Bridge to Sustainable Infrastructure to offer the reader granular details on the SI financing gap, testimonials from those in the investment community on participating in this space, and possible approaches to fully embed SI within the investment decision making process.

Learn more and download the full report!



Stormwater Management: Lessons from Our Forests

June 21st, 2017 · No Comments · --Integrated Systems--, Energy, Water

By Alexandra Ramsden and Jennifer Barnes
Reposted with permission from the Sightline Institute.
A new report from the Urban Greenprint project recommends biomimicry-inspired design elements for Northwest cities to wrangle their rainfall!

Take a moment to recall your last hike through a Pacific Northwest forest. Maybe close your eyes, listen for the quiet of such lush flora around you, and breathe in the evergreen scent.

If you’re really imaginative, and if your hike was recent, you might also recall the rain. Perhaps you see drops suspended from pine needles, or you feel the buoyancy of the leaf litter below your feet. What you don’t remember, likely, is seeing gushers of stormwater runoff, like you might in a city.

That’s because Earth’s biosphere has about 3.8 billion years of design experience at managing its rainfall. Compared with the typically impervious urban environment, where about 80 percent of rainfall becomes runoff, in a healthy Northwest forest, just 0.2 percent of rainfall does.

A new report from the Urban Greenprint project looks to capitalize on that natural expertise, employing principles of biomimicry to improve how we build our cities. “Seedkit: Design Concepts Learned from Pacific Northwest Forests” identifies properties of forests that cities and towns can imitate to manage the massive quantities of rainfall for which western Cascadia is known.

Here, we summarize the report’s nine components, including the purposes they serve in the forest and the potential to mimic those functions—and their feel—in our built environment. The full report has more, such as questions about materials and product development and images of design concepts.

1. The obstacle course of a layered forest

If you think back to that hike, chances are you imagined a mix of taller and shorter trees, tiers of leaves and flowers, lichen and ferns and moss, and fallen wood, fungi, and other matter underfoot. Together, these make up a multi-layered canopy that, when it rains, helps to break up, slow, and hold water, as well as shield sunlight. From these dispersed drops and small pools, the water has a better chance of evaporating before it even hits the ground, reducing the absorption load of the earth by 10-20 percent in a typical Northwest forest.

How could we mimic that in the urban environment, so that less rain even reaches the pavement? A series of angled rain- and sun-screens is one idea to slow the flow of rainwater down the surfaces of our buildings. They could include mesh materials that separate and hold the rain in more evaporation-prone droplets. Below these, landscaping like planters and bioswales could catch the remaining trickle.


A design concept of rain-/sun-screens, by Jennifer Barnes. Used with permission.

2. The sponge service of textured flora

The vegetation of a Cascadian forest works as a living sponge. From the canopy to the forest floor, different surface textures hold water in greater and lesser quantities, again facilitating evaporation.

Designers could incorporate such texturing into their buildings in many ways, some playful, some sleek. Living walls, meandering downspouts, and sculpted or vegetated gutters slow or even make use of stormwater running down a building—and they look beautiful to boot.

3. Evergreen needles’ drop-by-drop interceptions

There’s magic to the way a conifer looks after a rainstorm, each needle suspending at its tip an ornamental drop. Of course, this splitting, splashing, and holding is yet another means for the forest to intercept and evaporate more rainfall.

How might an urban space mimic this intricate arrangement? Wire sculptures, awnings, and screens hold a variety of answers and can adorn buildings from rooftop to ground.


Shoal revisited (mesh sculpture) by Jes used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

4. Conifer cones: water-smart seed pods

No Northwest forest picture is complete without pine cones. To release their seeds at the best time, conifer cones respond to moisture levels in the air, closing when wet and opening when dry. (Fun fact: Pine cones can serve as an indicator of forest fire potential. If the cones on a forest floor are all open, it means fire danger is high.)

Some buildings already incorporate similarly dynamic elements, such as sunlight-responsive facades and wind-responsive canopies. Could they also get smart to water and humidity in the environment, helping to slow or capture rainfall when it is present?

5. Leaves: Micro-lungs flapping in the breeze

Transpiration—did that word just send you back to a middle school science class? As a refresher, transpiration is the process of water movement through a plant: in through the roots and out through other plant parts. Ninety-five percent of transpiration occurs through the pore-like stomata on plants’ leaves or needles.

What might transpiration look like in the built environment? It could be as simple as flapping fabric: banners, flags, canopies, or fabric-wrapped walls. An absorbent and loosely attached bolt of fabric could divert gallons upon gallons of water from drainage systems, returning that moisture to the air once wind and sun return post-shower.

6. Bark’s textured wrapper

The nooks and crannies of tree bark, grown and fissured over decades or centuries, provide countless spaces to slow or store rainwater and increase evaporation. Though building facades can’t actively grow, they could feature some bark-like texturing in their material: stamped metal or ceramic panels, textured cladding, and poplar bark are all available to builders already, and designers could develop new “bark” options.

7. Moss: An absorbent rain-screen

A Pacific Northwest resident likely would not be surprised to learn that there are over 12,000 species of moss. Moss’s water content typically matches that of its surrounding atmosphere, and its leaves are concave to collect and hold water. Moss lacks “true roots,” so it can grow nearly anywhere. And the undersides of moss repel water so they can be used for photosynthesis.

Porous building materials, living walls, wood rain-screens, and newer synthetic materials could serve as absorbent rain-screens, to soak up and hold rainwater. Replaceable, breathable, and attached directly to buildings, such materials release moisture through evaporation after the clouds blow away.

8. Mycorrhizae: Smart networks for sharing

Mycorrhizae are the symbiotic webs connecting fungi and plants. They serve as a sort of natural internet to collect and pass along information and to distribute nutrients among organisms.

While many cities already employ smart systems to manage energy or monitor water leaks or usage levels, they could step up their game. Imagine dynamic systems that, say, monitored and responded to changing weather systems, opening valves to redirect stormwater or rescheduling irrigation based on a rain forecast. A smart, connected water management system would disburse resources exactly as needed.

9. The forest’s holistic success

The specific Northwest forest elements listed above, in combination with countless others, weave a balanced water cycle because they operate together in a holistic system. If designers approached buildings with the same model in mind, they could blend multiple strategies to emulate natural processes.

The Watershed office building going up in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood has in fact done just that, anticipating it will reuse or treat fully a half-million gallons of rainwater annually on its corner, just under the Aurora Bridge and mere blocks from Lake Union. Firms Rushing and 55-5 Consulting worked with Weber Thompson designers to explore several of the strategies listed above. For example, the team looked at whether the façade could include multiple downspouts, evaporative porous fins, absorptive moss beds, and percolating gutters. (This exercise also led to a competition submission as well with Eleven Magazine. The winner has yet to be selected, but the team is hopeful.) Although not all of the strategies explored were integrated into the final design, this project has been an example of a dramatically altered design process which could be carried through the industry to further improve the way water is handled by the build environment of Seattle.


The Watershed office building in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. Image courtesy of Weber Thompson.

A sylvan city future

Urban dwellers across Cascadia are debating what they want their changing cities to look and feel like, how they will manage worsening housing shortages, and how these urban centers will remain thriving and diverse centers of culture and opportunity.

If we looked to our much lauded natural surroundings for inspiration, Cascadians could learn a great deal about how to build better cities. Biomimicry holds promising techniques to inform how we manage everything from stormwater to energy use, improving overall performance and efficiency—and perhaps even aesthetic, giving the urban street scene a little more of that special feeling Cascadians treasure when out amidst our region’s rich and complex forests.

Sightline Institute is a community-sponsored resource: Make a donation here to support their work. Alexandra Ramsden and Jennifer Barnes are guest contributors to Sightline Institute.

Alexandra leads Rushing’s Sustainability Studio in providing consulting for sustainability strategy development, LEED and Built Green management, charrette facilitation, and training. Her expertise lies in guiding teams to identify project or company-appropriate sustainability solutions. Alexandra’s passion for looking to nature for design solutions inspired her to co-found Biomimicry Puget Sound. She is a guest contributor to Sightline Institute.

Jennifer is an architect and sustainability consultant with over 20 years of project experience. She splits her professional life between her company, 55-5 Consulting, and the Urban Greenprint, a project that applies biomimicry at a city scale.  Jennifer is co-founder of Biomimicry Puget Sound and is active in the Northwest green building community. She is a guest contributor to Sightline Institute.