Adaptation focus: Is sustainable drainage a cheap answer to inner city flooding?

By Tierney Smith

Over half of the world’s population live in urban areas, and that number is expected to grow to five billion by 2030.

As development intensifies, it affects the surrounding environment in complex ways.

One obvious change affects water. When it rains in the countryside, the soil, plants and trees soak it up and slow its progress towards streams and rivers. In cities, water rapidly runs off roofs and roads into the drains, often leading to localised flooding.

Even in the UK the effects of climate change are predicted to cause an increase in heavy downpours, placing extra stress on drainage systems across the country.

There are many solutions to this dilemma – and one is called ‘Sustainable drainage’.

This mimics the natural movement of water, and can help limit local flooding, improve water quality and provide attractive features, which make town and cities more attractive for residents.

As part of a series focusing on Adaptation projects in the UK, Sue Pritchard from the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust explains to RTCC how they have been working on a sustainable drainage project with a North London school.

Rain gardens, ponds and swales are all options being considered for the SuDs project and will also help manage water sustainably (Source: Ian Yarham/Creative Commons)

RTCC: Tell us more about Sustainable Drainage…?

Sue Pritchard (SP): We are building sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) in ten schools in the Pymmes Brook catchment in London. SuDS are drainage and landscape features that mimic natural processes to slow the flow of water, to allow it to be absorbed by plants rather than traditional concrete drains that move water quickly into watercourses. SuDS being built as part of the project include rain gardens, ponds, swales and detention basins.

I work for the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) and the organisation has partnered up with the Environment Agency and Thames Water – who are the funding partners to the project. The Environment Agency and Thames Water have provided £300,000 of funding and also provide support and advice through the project steering group and various departments within the respective organisations.

The SuDS will have environmental benefits – they provide water quality benefits for the Pymmes Brook (the local watercourse), help reduce flooding and sewer overflows, and increase biodiversity in the school grounds.

The SuDS will be used as a learning resource by the school. SuDS can be used for environmental topics related to water and wetlands but also for cross curricular learning – for example counting the number of different plant species and learning new terms can help with maths and literacy. It is also hoped that the SuDS will increase the amount of learning taking place outside the classroom – in a lot of the schools there is not a lot of learning happening outside. So the SuDS will help get kids outside and get them learning about sustainable drainage, biodiversity and their local watercourse.

The schools will act as SuDS demonstration sites for the community where local residents and businesses learn a little bit more about them. We plan to run garden workshops for the community where they can learn how to build an implement SuDS in their own properties.

This project is the first time this sort of thing has been undertaken so it is a trial of sorts to establish what works and how this model can be adapted for similar projects in the future.

RTCC: How did you get started?

Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust hope to engage students from local schools in biodiversity and sustainability (Source: Nick Cottrell/WWT)

SP: We contacted all 64 primary and secondary schools in the Pymmes Brook catchment to ask for expressions of interest to take part. We knew we wanted to get ten and thankfully we had 16 schools respond. Then there was a bit of selection process – we used different criteria such as the leadership of the school, management and the links already with the local community.

We also looked at types of school – we needed some secondary and some primary – we looked at things like how many children were getting free school meals as a socio-economic indicator and how many children spoke a language other than English at home. We wanted to ensure that we had a good diversity across the whole ten schools. We then met with schools as well to see what people were like and gauge the enthusiasm of the people.

We decided on the final ten schools in April and since then we have been working with consultants to develop SuDS designs.

We now have concept plans for all ten schools which identify a number of potential options for each school and we are now in the process of cutting that down –to select options which are best for the school and which suit our budget whilst achieving your project objectives. We are working with the schools to work out which options to go ahead with.

We have also, as part of our baseline monitoring; conducted a thorough survey of staff and students that asks questions related to current knowledge, behaviour and attitudes to water and wetlands. We will repeat the survey again at the end to show the impact of the project.

For example, one of the questions we asked was do you know what the Pymmes Brook is? Many students and staff were not aware of what the Pymmes Brook was even though their school is in the Pymmes Brook catchment.

We also asked teachers how many times do you go outside to learn with your students? What kind of learning related to water and wetlands do you have at the moment? We also asked if teachers would like to go outside more and what sort of resources would help you do that? So hopefully we can use that to make sure that we are putting out efforts in the right place.

Now we are moving towards getting the SuDS built before the weather turns because the construction can be a bit weather dependant.

RTCC: What challenges have you faced?

SP: One of the main challenges is the timeframe. It is not very long to get capital works built especially in ten schools because usually from an actual idea to getting something built can be quite a long process especially because we are trying to do it in a collaborative way where we are involving the school stakeholders (staff, students and parents) and they are actually driving it rather than us. That’s quite a challenge.

Because we are working with schools we also have to deal with impact of school holidays on the timing of everything we do.

The schools are very enthusiastic about the project but school staff in general are very very busy and this project can be seen as an “extra” thing that they are doing so it is not always their number one priority, which is fair enough because they have got other stuff happening. So that is a little bit of a challenge sometimes – just chasing up the ten different schools and trying to get things done can be a bit difficult at times.

From my perspective it is just being one person co-ordinating with the ten schools and everything like that is a bit a challenge at times – just trying to find enough time to do everything.

Also because SuDS are not a well known topic before you do any sort of engagement there is that initial hurdle to get over. For instance one of the schools recently wanted to put some new playground equipment in using a very democratic process where they talked to all of the students and they got everyone to put in ideas about what playground equipment they wanted.

They could easily get people involved because everyone knows what play equipment is. We want to do a similar thing and get everyone involved and get their input but initially you have to explain a lot about a topic that they don’t understand initially which can be quite difficult. Without being informed about the topic I found a lot of the time when we ask them for their opinions they say ‘oh I don’t know, you’re the expert’.

RTCC: How have you worked with the local community?

The group hope the project will encourage more outside learning in schools (Source: Martyn Poynor/WWT)

SP: We were really impressed that when we wrote to the 60 schools initially – we really didn’t know what response we would get because although we tried to use lay person terminology SuDS is largely an unknown topic. We emailed all of the schools and then I followed it up with phone calls. I also emailed some of the PTA groups who had contact details available on the internet – several of these got in touch with staff at their school and asked them to respond.

We were also concerned about what kind of response we would get because schools are just so busy anyway would they really want to take on additional projects that would take some work from their part? We found the initial response of 16 schools out of 64 very encouraging

The ten schools that we are working with are just really enthusiastic and really into it and that are certainly encouraging. The work they are willing to put into it is really good.

We have not had a chance to do a lot with the wider community outside of the schools. I went to several school summer fairs in July with parents, students, staff and also the wider community. I think it is like any other environmental issue, some people are into it and some people aren’t. I had a chat with quite a few people – often it was people who were already interested in environmental issues already.

I have been in touch with a few resident association groups and they have put articles in their newsletter to let their members know about the project so I think word about the project is getting out there. Apart from that I don’t have a lot to gauge how engaged the local community will be.

We are working with schools already have good links with the local community so we are planning on using those.

RTCC: How much support have you received from the government?

SP: I have been in contact with the three councils that the catchment covers and all of those councils are very welcoming of the project. I have been in touch with the councils regarding planning permission and school cluster contacts – the staff that I have spoken to have been very supportive and willing to work with us to make the process as easy as possible.

The support from councils has been really impressive both in terms of working with us and also the general enthusiasm for the project.

Unfortunately we didn’t end up with any schools in the Haringey council area; they were quite disappointed that there wasn’t a school in their area so this is an indication of the enthusiasm for project amongst local government staff who wants to see these kinds of projects in their area.

As part of the initial call to schools for expressions of interest I emailed all of the councillors in the relevant wards – several responded and encouraged schools in their wards to get involved. There are also a couple of councillors who I have met through different contacts with the council and one who I met at a school summer fair – they are very interested in the project and have put me in touch with different community groups .

Generally we have been impressed by the level of community in the project.

RTCC: Why did you get involved in the project?

The group are working with 10 schools in the Pymmes Brooke Catchment (Source: Deb Pinniger/WWT)

SP: From an organisational point of view this project fits with WWT’s aims to safeguard and improve wetlands for wildlife and people. This project is about creating wetlands in the form of SuDS in urban environments and also increasing awareness in the community. The SuDS also help protect existing wetland environments (in this case the Pymmes Brook). WWT have wetland centres across the UK – this project is going beyond the centres and taking the messages out into the community.

For me personally I have worked on similar projects related to SuDS in Australia (where they are referred to under the umbrella of Water Sensitive Urban Design). I worked on a Water Sensitive Urban Design project in the Cooks River Catchment in Sydney, Australia.

My background is in Zoology and then I went into River Management. Water Sensitive Urban Design is a very interesting and clever way of addressing river management problems. What I like about this project and the project I worked on in Sydney is that they recognise that you can’t just look at purely technical solutions. You need to involve the community in planning and designing these technical solutions in order to for them to be successful. Local knowledge and ownership is very important.

RTCC: What advice do you have for anyone wanting to start a similar project?

SP: A lot of the early work I did was identifying and getting in touch with relevant stakeholders – this included local community groups such as resident associations, as well as government contacts, academic experts in the field and industry contacts. Through this I have established a good support base who I can call on when I have a random question to ask or if I just want to have a general chat with someone who understands a certain aspect of the project. It helps that these contacts have known about the project from the start so that if I need an answer quickly they are already on board and I don’t need to start the relationship from scratch.

As a result of making contact with Middlesex University very early on for example I found out that they were looking for community projects to partner with – as a result we have established a mutually beneficial relationship.

Also if you are working on a new project that is a model that has not necessarily be tried before it is important to be able to roll with the punches a little bit – take everything as a learning opportunity and be aware that it is not always possible to plan things perfectly but you will learn a lot!

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