It starts with a single drop of water falling from the sky into the heart of Syracuse, New York. Slowly, these drops accumulate and expand into a rainstorm. As the storm strengthens, water runs down the cracked city streets, dribbles into drains, and rushes through underground pipes. Eventually, it will make its way to a water treatment facility. Or, at the very least, this is the hope, but aged infrastructure and heavy precipitation often lead to a very different story.
If rainfall is especially high, the surge of water into a traditional stormwater system can cause overflows. This is especially problematic as in many cities, including Syracuse, stormwater is combined with sewage water. When these stormwater systems overflow, both sewage and stormwater is spilled into nearby creeks and lakes. Between the months of January and August in 2017, the city of Syracuse boasted 50 combined sewer overflows.
This likely doesn’t come as a surprise to those familiar with Syracuse’s environmental history. The city has struggled with issues of water pollution and environmental justice for decades, a situation complicated by formidable social and economic issues facing the city.
A place called Skunk City
Skunk City is one of many places commonly affected by combined sewer overflows. Located on the west side of Syracuse, the neighborhood received its unique name from the abnormal number of skunks in the area. Skunk City has long been defined as a working-class neighborhood, but recent economic hardships and suburbanization have depleted the population and left the area largely disenfranchised. A profile of the neighborhood published by the city listed median household income as less than $20,000, far below the median for both the entire Syracuse metro area and Onondaga County.
The report additionally notes that the vacancy rate has been “growing for decades,” mirroring a greater trend in the Syracuse area. A 2012 survey found more than 3,500 vacant parcels in the city of Syracuse, many located in disadvantaged neighborhoods like Skunk City. As well as being visually displeasing, vacant lots can lead to decreased property values in the area and may be targeted as sites of crime and arson.
Beyond the social issues faced by Skunk City, the stormwater management practices in the area have long been unsatisfactory. Sewer overflows are common and many residents note that their roads and household basements are more prone to flooding than other areas.
The green infrastructure project
Stormwater management and vacant lots may seem unrelated, but a study being conducted at Syracuse University and the State University of New York College of Environmental Sciences and Forestry (SUNY-ESF), in conjunction with Atlantic States Legal Foundation is linking the two issues. The team has focused their attention on the recent greenifying of city infrastructure, in particular, more environmentally sustainable ways to manage increased stormwater runoff. Over the next few months the team, which includes Elizabeth Vidon, Mary Collins, Christa Kelleher, Lauren Tarr, and Crystal Burgess, will be studying how the installation of rain gardens affect the biophysical and social conditions of Skunk City.
Traditionally, “gray infrastructure” has been used in Syracuse to manage stormwater. This method includes traditional wastewater treatment plants and water storage facilities and often has created environmental justice issues for disadvantaged communities.
“Having a sewage plant next to you — it gives off a smell and it just gives neighborhoods, especially disadvantaged neighborhoods, a lower quality of life,” says Burgess, a graduate student working on the project. “Green infrastructure is working toward having a more natural system, a more beautifying system that also treats water.”
Green infrastructure seeks to create solutions by mimicking natural processes. Rain gardens capture rainwater before it enters drains and pipes, decreasing the probability of a sewer overflow. In addition, chemical reactions taking place in the soil clean the water of many pollutants before it is cycled back into creeks and lakes.
“Everything that happens in the city is very directly related to human impacts and human values. And, so it doesn’t make sense to have environmental projects that don’t consult the humans that are a part of this environment,” says Tarr, a doctoral student working on the project. The green infrastructure project reflects this perspective and distinguishes itself from similar ecological engineering projects by combining a traditional biophysical research approach with a social science perspective.
“The goal is to create an adaptive management approach,” Tarr says. She has been conducting surveys with community members in Skunk City. “That way, as the project goes on, it can be changed based on what’s working for the actual people living next to (the rain gardens).”
The researchers hope that the project will foster a voice that outlives their presence in the community.
“This may be like a jumpstart,” Burgess says. “They get involved in these rain gardens, they’re going to want to be involved in the new store being built down the street. It just lets them know that they can have a say, a voice over what happens in their community.”
Tarr agrees: “I would hope that…the community can feel like they’re being heard and see the impacts, see their voice represented in what’s happening in these lots, so that even if the community itself no longer legally owns the lot, it still is reflexive of what their values are.”
While the green infrastructure project addresses the area of hydrology, it also directly addresses the environmental justice issues that have plagued Syracuse for generations and paves a sustainable path for the future of Syracuse and other metropolitan areas.
It ends with a community
The green infrastructure project is still in its beginning stages, but the results already are promising. The first rain gardens are currently scheduled to be installed in April of this year, and both Tarr and Burgess are enthusiastic about the future of the project. With any luck, the coming spring showers will encourage the growth of these new rain gardens, and allow Skunk City, and the realm of stormwater management to grow with them.