It’s easy to forget about storm drains — those curbside basins that catch rainfall on the street. That is, until their metal grates get clogged up with leaves, trash, or debris. Then, runoff can easily overflow and cause street flooding, as has happened recently in Atlanta, Los Angeles,and Sacramento, Calif.
To keep the drains clear — and raise awareness of how crucial this unsung infrastructure really is — a growing number of cities are tapping into citizen energy. From Nashville to New Orleans and from Virginia Beach, Va. to Vancouver, British Columbia, a growing number of cities are asking residents to “adopt” these drains. The efforts aren’t just ensuring the drains stay clear of debris. They’re also helping build community pride, civic engagement, and neighborhood resilience in the process.
Jersey City, N.J., has added a visually striking twist. When a resident adopts a storm drain, the city hires a local artist to incorporate the drain into a colorful mural. These paintings of fish, turtles, and other aquatic creatures serve multiple purposes: They celebrate volunteerism, they put a little money in the pockets of local artists, and they amplify the educational impact when pedestrians stop to look at the murals and share photos with their friends.
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“It gives people the chance to post about it on social media, which in turn gets more people talking about it,” said Brian Platt, the city’s chief innovation officer. “Murals beautify the street and bring attention to the infrastructure people are walking on top of.”
The program is a product of Jersey City’s innovation team, one of more than 20 “i-teams” funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies to help city halls think differently about problem solving. Jersey City’s focus on storm drains is part of a broader effort to raise awareness about stormwater, flooding, and pollution in local waterways. With memories of inundation from Superstorm Sandy still fresh in many minds, Platt’s team is working to build community buy-in around prevention.
Participants are asked to regularly sweep litter and debris from their drain and then throw it into the trash. They’re also asked to pay special attention during heavy rains, and to make sure their drain is clear after snowfall, as well. “It’s very simple,” Platt said. “We let volunteers work around their own schedule. And we regularly communicate with them and do surveys and spot checks to make sure things are going well.”
Residents are now adopting the drains faster than can be painted; about 100 have been adopted and 50 painted since the program started in October. And the program has been so effective in engaging residents that it’s now being replicated in neighboring Newark, where city officials are partnering with Cities of Service to engage residents and high-school artists to adopt and design storm drains.
“The biggest payoff,” Platt said, “has been engaging citizens and empowering them to be more engaged in their community — by volunteering and learning how they can improve it.”