Strategies for Urban Stormwater Wetlands Los Angeles & Houston

Strategies for Urban Stormwater Wetlands Los Angeles & Houston
Alan Berger, Department of Urban Studies and Planning
Heidi Nepf, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Period of performance: 

September 2015 to August 2017
food, water, stormwater, environment, water quality, urban, constructed wetlands, ecology, cities


Our research project explores the potential of constructed wetlands not only as a stormwater solution, but more fundamentally as urban resiliency infrastructure. Managing stormwater is a key problem in securing urban resiliency worldwide. Stormwater’s volume and toxic mix of pollutants threaten the ecological function of water systems, impairing critical ecosystem services cities need for resiliency: water quality, aquifer recharge, flood protection, soil conservation, urban heat island reduction, biodiversity, and others. Plus, stormwater represents a potential water source for cities, which increasingly face water shortages. As urban expansion accelerates around the world (the UN estimated an additional 2.5 billion people will live in cities by 2050), the stormwater problem will worsen as impervious surfaces and ecological degradation increase. Investigating constructed wetlands as a flexible, holistic, and multi-functional urban infrastructure for stormwater is relevant not only for retrofitting existing North American cities, but also as a low-cost solution for new development in the Global South.

To minimize its impact and enable possibilities for re-use, stormwater must be treated. Unfortunately, upgrading water infrastructure requires huge financial investment at a time of dwindling federal funds. Constructed wetlands have been shown to effectively clean water at a lower cost than conventional water treatment plants. However, there is an overall lack of design guidance on stormwater constructed wetlands and almost no research on their integration in cities. This project represents an opportunity to develop the specifically urban constructed wetland as a multi-functional resiliency feature for cities to improve ecosystem services, re-use water, and create amenities in cities.

We propose to create design guidelines for urban constructed wetlands that fulfill ecological and urban design goals at the same time as treating stormwater. The design guidelines will be developed using two cities as example sites: Los Angeles as a drier city and Houston as a wetter city. LA and Houston are America’s top two cities facing water shortages, and both are growing rapidly. The urban design team and the engineering team will collaboratively design the wetlands and their integration into the urban fabric. The geometry of wetland designs will be investigated by building prototypes of wetlands and testing their performance potential via tracer studies run in the Nepf Environmental Fluid Dynamics Lab.

By offering a well-articulated, scientifically-based vision of urban constructed wetlands for stormwater and their ecological and amenity benefits, we can demonstrate the full potential of wetlands as holistic urban resiliency infrastructure. The design guidelines will be disseminated via academic articles, meetings with stakeholders in Los Angeles and Houston, and lectures at conferences and major engineering firms. Stakeholders can use these guidelines to push forward a wetland project in their own city, promote more sustainable ideas for stormwater, or create stormwater and constructed wetland policies.