How Stormwater Infrastructure Balances Utility and Placemaking

By Mark Hough, University Landscape Architect, Duke University

Mark Hough has been the university landscape architect at Duke University since 2000. While there, he has established a significant legacy of stewardship, influencing all aspects of campus design, planning, historic preservation, and natural resource management. He is a prolific and award-winning writer, addressing complex issues associated with cultural and urban landscapes for various print and online publications. He is currently working on his first book. Hough has served on numerous design juries and is a frequent speaker at national conferences and symposia. In 2014, Hough became a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA).

Many higher education campuses in the U.S. operate like small or medium-sized cities. They are often significant landowners with high tech utility infrastructure systems, and student and workforce populations numbering in the tens of thousands. These academic communities are typically culturally complex and face increasingly familiar environmental dynamics wrought by a changing climate. Cities certainly deal with similar issues, but the pedagogical and cultural perspectives often embedded in the missions of colleges and universities make them unique. In support of their commitment to research, these institutions often use their campuses as laboratories for solving complicated problems.

This is certainly true at Duke University, which in 2015, built a nearly six acre stormwater reclamation pond on its campus in Durham, North Carolina, in response to changing environmental conditions. The project emerged in the wake of a devastating drought, and had the intention of reducing the university’s dependence and impact on the municipal water supply. Now, after nearly five years in the ground, the numerous benefits and challenges generated by the pond are becoming apparent. While some of these may be unique to Duke’s specific context, there are concrete takeaways that can be applied to other campuses and different types of communities. Perhaps the most important of these is proof that merging the creation of practical infrastructure with cultural and aesthetic placemaking, particularly in the landscape, is worth the effort and cost.

The genesis of what is casually referred to as Duke Pond dates back to 2007 when the southeastern U.S. struggled through one of its worst droughts on record. For North Carolina, it was the most severe in history. All one hundred counties experienced at least moderate drought, while more than half reached the most severe category: exceptional, which essentially signifies emergency conditions. The governor at the time called on residents to cut their water consumption by 50 percent, as the general mood of the public steadily progressed from frustration to a sense of panic eagerly stoked by a media clambering for a compelling story. Major water users, including Duke which is the single largest consumer of potable water in Durham County, were hit with the reality that counting on unlimited supplies of cheap water was a thing of the past.

To further situate this in context: 2007 was also the year that environmental sustainability began permeating campus culture. That summer, during the peak of the drought, Duke’s president signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, signifying the university’s intention of being a leader in addressing global climate change. The United States Green Building Council’s LEED program, with its sustainability rating system, was rapidly changing the way Duke plans and designs new buildings and facilities. Responsible water use was a focus even before the drought, but it intensified that summer and fall. At the time, Duke used over six hundred million gallons of water per year, nearly all of which was potable and provided by the City of Durham. Obvious and relatively inexpensive practices to reduce that amount, including installing efficient toilets and shower heads, were implemented almost instantly.

Building a pond for the explicit purpose of capturing and reusing stormwater emerged as an attractive “big move.” The planning stage showed that the pond could reduce Duke’s need for city water by as many as one hundred million gallons per year by providing water to make up what is lost through evaporation in the cooling towers at the chilled water plant, the university’s single largest water hog. It would also serve as an emergency reserve in case of future droughts or other disasters. Conserving potable water is a better environmental choice, and it also made sense economically since the pond would pay for itself over time through savings on future water bills. A stop-and-start design process kicked-off in 2009, and construction began five years later. As is typically the case, hindsight clarifies lessons learned, and several of the essential lessons are listed below. Bear in mind that this is from my perspective as a landscape architect; an engineer would likely come up with different lessons learned. For me, cultural landscapes are most successful when they are simultaneously responsive, functional, resilient, contributory, and importantly, beautiful within their specific context. Although it hasn’t always been easy, I believe Duke Pond succeeds in this regard.

Think Big: Multi-use is better than single purpose.

Initial proposals for the pond presented a utility built for the sole purpose of providing a source of water for the chilled water plant. It could be engineered with little thought paid to design, fenced off for safety, and “hidden in the woods,” I was told, and I was confident that the pond could be more. I presented the argument that the pond should be a landscape for the students and the university community, providing space for passive recreation, stress release, social gathering, communing with nature, and opportunity to teach and research responsible stormwater and natural resource management. The fact that a pond in about the same location showed up on the historic master plan for the campus by the Olmsted Brothers firm strengthened my case. The university was big on promoting sustainability, so why not make this a highly visible model for responsible environmental practices while also creating a great new place for the campus? It was a logical argument for a landscape architect to make, and thankfully, senior administrators supported it with little hesitation.

The pond was ultimately designed and built with practical amenities such as a pavilion, bridge, overlook, and boardwalk; all connected by a universally accessible path system. The extensively planted landscape now serves not only the environmental and pedagogical missions of the university, but also its goals for student life and high-quality design. Over the past few years, the pond has expanded its influence. It continues to win awards, be the subject of journalistic articles and case studies, and serve as a destination for local school groups and students from other universities wanting to learn more about innovative and responsible practices in stormwater management.

Mitigate Negative Impacts Where Possible

The project was not without controversy or detractors. Since the site is surrounded by more than twenty acres of remnant woodland, construction was dependent on removing a lot of trees. Duke refers to itself as the University in the Forest, and even though it has more than 7,000 acres of forested land for research, this loss caused some heartburn. To balance this destruction, all of the felled trees were milled and either reused onsite for boardwalks and other structures, or stored for use in various applications across campus. Hundreds of native trees were subsequently replanted on disturbed slopes to begin the establishment of a diverse native forest.

The Army Corps of Engineers took issue with the proposed pond since it would be built atop an existing stream corridor running through the site. This practice is equated to destroying the stream, even though, in this case, the stream was degraded and supplanting it with a healthy pond would dramatically improve downstream conditions. To gain necessary approval from the Corps, a lengthy run of stream in another location on campus was fully restored to mitigate the impact, creating a win-win situation that would further improve the health of campus waterways.

In addition to these measures, the copious amount of fill soil amassed by excavating the pond was used to raise a sunken recreation field on another part of campus to avoid hauling it to a landfill. Where possible, materials were sourced locally, including the stone for site walls, which came from a nearby quarry owned by Duke. By using such a material that already permeates buildings and landscapes across campus, the pond became an extension of Duke’s established aesthetic character.  Mitigating the negative impacts of construction moved discussions beyond the specific environmental benefits provided by the pond to include a broader consideration of campus-wide needs and ecosystems services. Along with their practical impact, these efforts also enhanced the overall narrative espousing the pond’s multiple benefits.

Be Prepared for Things to Change…Fast

Landscapes, by their nature, change. Even the best design can’t anticipate precisely how or when change occurs. We knew from the beginning that the pond landscape would eventually evolve on its own, but the speed with which it started was surprising. Landscape maintenance staff was involved in every step of design and construction, which helped, but still could not adequately prepare for the heavy maintenance required to get things established. The Duke campus is made up largely of remnant woodlands and designed landscapes filled with lawns, trees, and formal plantings, so this was a whole new beast from both aesthetic and maintenance perspectives. Its naturalistic messiness provides its own sense of beauty, but also presents something far different than the more manicured landscapes on campus; a distinction that became more pronounced as invasive plants took hold sooner than expected.

We engaged a landscape contractor for a two-year maintenance period, which was beneficial, but not a solution in itself. In hindsight, investing in a full time staff position with expertise specific to this type of landscape could have eased the transition between the establishment period and long-term routine maintenance. Since the early days of LEED, the design and construction industry has been fed a misguided and readily perpetuated notion that naturalistic landscapes; native meadows, rain gardens, and such, are inherently low-maintenance. This is far from true, and buying into it without adequate research can trigger failure in the short or long term. These types of landscapes need to be understood, evaluated, appreciated for their unique requirements, and planned for carefully. Establishing a sense of stewardship, and embracing change as part of the challenge rather than something to fight, will go a long way toward creating effective and attractive places.

I see the outcomes of Duke Pond as being representative of the important role landscape architects play in today’s world. Once obscured by the glaring light and booming voice long-generated by building architects, landscape architects are steadily emerging as the designers needed to tackle complex 21st century problems. As both leaders and collaborators, their work is addressing the effects of rising sea level on coastal cities, creating multi-modal pedestrian and vehicular transportation systems to reduce carbon emissions, reimagining outdated infrastructure as great urban places, and as with the case of Duke Pond, mitigating the impacts of worsening drought.

While resiliency and placemaking are critical to their work, they have also been boosted by the increasingly indisputable recognition that parks and green space are integral to making healthy places. Whether in cities or on campuses, landscapes are not merely the space between buildings, leftover and waiting for something to be built on them. When we invest in landscape spaces in ways that maximize their potential by capitalizing on their social, aesthetic, and environmental benefits, we make our communities infinitely more livable.

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