How Tactical Urbanism is Creating Communities of Resilience Experts

As many coastal cities around the world, Norfolk, Virginia, faces increasing flood risk. Norfolk has experienced tidal and precipitation flooding in varying degrees for centuries but more frequent coastal storms, more intense rain events and rising sea levels are exacerbating risks, forcing Norfolk to evolve the way it lives with water.

Norfolk’s strategy is to tackle flood risk across all scales from big projects at a watershed scale to small-scale interventions at a parcel level that can be undertaken by residents and businesses.

This was demonstrated earlier this month when the City of Norfolk joined forces with 100 Resilient Cities and its platform partners Street Plans, IOBY, and Amec Foster Wheeler, along with local community groups to show residents how they can be part of the solution and active participants in a citywide, systemic approach to water management.

In a novel, hands-on “how-to” workshop called “Retain Your Rain: Boxes, Barrels & Brew” residents learned how they can get started on small-scale flood mitigation projects such as rain barrels, bioswales, blue/green roof, planters, cistern and more on their parcel to help address rainwater flooding in their neighborhood. By holding rain water where it falls, the workshop demonstrated that residents can make a significant difference by reducing the amount of water entering the storm water system, which in turns helps reduce flooding.

The workshop had several parts. In short presentations, more than 30 participants from three flood-prone neighborhoods first learned from Street Plans about tactical urbanism and power of community-driven, low-cost small-scale scalable interventions, from Amec Foster Wheeler about the effectiveness of and science behind specific green infrastructure projects, and from IOBY about strategies to raise funds to implement these projects on a block or neighborhood scale.

A “Before and After” rain simulation showed residents how much water one gutter contributes to the system during a typical rain event with and without a rain garden or rain barrel The difference from a single gutter was stunning and clearly showed that if every resident, parcel or business retained its rain, nuisance street flooding could be significantly alleviated.

Residents got outside to build and plant rain gardens and rain barrels alongside the community’s green infrastructure experts including City’s staff from multiple departments and from community groups such as Master Gardeners and Norfolk Botanical Garden crew.

Finally, the workshop concluded with a resilience party and a project expo where workshop participants and the general public could explore various already assembled, small-scale rain retention demos, learn about most effective soils and plants, paint rain barrels, and even have their address-specific rooftop rain runoff calculated by architectural and engineering students from regional universities, all while cooling off with local beer.

The next step for the city is to continue to work with community organizations and neighborhood leaders to develop a “train the trainer” program to scale this concept in pilot neighborhoods and city-wide in an effort to encourage all residents and businesses to become water managers and experts. Through these efforts, everyone in Norfolk can be part of the solution.

To see Norfolk’s “Retain Your Rain” workshop in action and learn more about Resilient Norfolk efforts, watch this video.