The High Cost of Free Curb and Gutter

The U.S. is in need of new approaches to managing stormwater. Though the EPA has been slow to provide guidance, there's plenty that can be done now. Parking reform provides a handy model for solving seemingly intractable entitlement problems.
Andrea Allen / flickr

In mid-June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) delayed, yet again, new rules for managing water and runoff in cities.  Advocates for clean waterways, yet again, returned to the rulemaking waiting game.  What gets lost in this back and forth is that we don’t just need an updated version of the same rules; we need to completely rethink stormwater.  The model for this?  Parking.

Historically, parking has been an intractable entitlement problem.  The perceived right to free parking, combined with codes that assured abundance, forced a landscape where habitat for cars trumped habitat for people.  These days, parking no longer goes unquestioned, and is now a serious planning topic.

Much of the credit goes to Professor Donald Shoup, whose book “The High Cost of Free Parking,” exposed the destructive effect of unfettered parking on livability and local economies.  But credit also goes to smaller steps, like international “Parking Day” and the app revolution, which is bringing technology to help better match spaces and demand.

So what can water learn from parking?  Since both deal with flows, there are quite a few lessons.

The Tyranny of the Individual Site – The national stormwater rules are such a powerful tool because they essentially forced their way into local zoning codes.  But these very codes are under assault for creating isolated islands where each property must anticipate and solve all its own problems.  Designing for “peak flow” site-by-site, whether it’s Black Friday parking or the 100-year rainstorm, requires space.  This is how lot sizes and sprawling suburbs grow. 

Share, Share, SHARE! – Parking gurus learned better parking is not achieved by strike-and-replace in codes for individual sites.  Instead, advocates went to work on a suite of parking and demand management options, both on and off sites.  For water, federal rules quietly acknowledge offsite management, but urban water lacks its version of “Shoupistas,” passionate advocates who fight for a better array of options.  In fact, one water activist I met scorned this approach because it let developers “get away” with runoff responsibilities. 

What’s the objective here?  Shared practice allows for better design, better maintenance, and economic incentives that can deliver higher performance, lower cost and faster installation. Neighborhoods need distributed, shared solutions to manage what densely developed lots cannot - even with on-site measures.  Just like parking.

Stormwater Management Zone Map for Silver Cliff and Westcliffe and Custer County, Colorado. Image: Crabtree Group Inc.

The Implementation Reality – Then again, you really can’t blame ardent supporters of regulation-by-zoning codes.  Institutionalizing the strictest water (or most generous parking) measures in zoning automatically generate your program for you.  Planned districts, on the other hand, are a process.  But the district (or small area plan) is emerging as the most important economic, environmental and community tool in the planning profession.  This is where the design, the details, the sharing, the pricing, the contingency, and other interlinking parts of successful placemaking come together in new development and redevelopment alike.  Given the relationship of impervious cover to stormwater, area planning and placemaking should be the primary stormwater management practice, not a grudgingly-accepted alternative. 

The recent Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District ruling adds another implementation wrinkle, given the central role of off-site mitigation in the case.  The Supreme Court ruled that monetary requirements for such mitigation must still meet Constitutional tests for nexus and rough proportionality.  For water and land planners, this ruling defines two areas of focus: (1) much needed refinement of sub-watershed models to better assign developer’s requirements for protecting water and downstream properties, and (2) detailed resources for how to design shared stormwater systems as an economically advantageous alternative or supplement to on-site requirements.

The Messaging/Pricing Nexus – Parking leaders recognized early that market based pricing was a critical, yet tricky, step for improved placemaking.  The tricky part is one of mankind’s most difficult challenges: charging money for something that has traditionally been free.  The communications answer was to expose how expensive free parking actually is.  Stormwater has its own messaging challenge, but it will require a pivot.  Low impact devotees (myself included) have made a huge tactical error by talking about rainfall as a wonderful resource.  You know what stormwater managers got with that messaging?  The rain tax

It’s time for a new strategy that still pronounces rainwater as a blessing, but only until it runs off the property.  Beyond the lot line, it’s garbage.  The curb, gutter and storm sewer acts as a giant garbage disposal system once the soil is saturated.  The hidden costs of this cheap garbage disposal emerge in the form of flood repair, law suits, closed beaches, strained infrastructure and smelly water. 

OK, this might sting a bit since water is precious and since a court recently ruled [PDF] that stormwater cannot be considered a pollutant.  But this is public relations.  Try explaining the court ruling to a homeowner with six inches of “not a pollutant” in their basement.  People understand paying monthly bills for garbage removal because piling it up in the backyard or front stoop is unimaginable.  Stormwater should be the same way.  Imagine a city telling residents it doesn’t care how you handle your stormwater, but you don’t have the option of the street.  It would soon become clear that property values and public health rely a lot on the service of curbs, gutters and storm sewers. 

It is true that many cities already assess annual stormwater fees.  But these fees are not popular and are often tied back to EPA regulations instead of a message that links the service to the homeowner.  Parking leaders rebranded the parking space by invoking competitive real estate concepts.  They then used technology to set prices and built support by devoting the funds to improvements in the fee collection area.  Property owners need to understand that if they want to build more value by squeezing out absorptive space, they need to “rent” pipe space, filter pores or green infrastructure to realize that value.  Of course, property owners can lower their “rent” by putting less stormwater into the system. 

Cities and Suburbs are Different - This is the biggest lesson.  For the past decade, smart growth advocates have attacked standards that drive inefficient landscapes for all manner of rules: roadways, parking, and building design (a petition is circulating right now to correct roadway classification systems).  The first generation of stormwater rules tend to exact suburban standards everywhere, either directly by assigning land-consumptive Best Management Practices (BMPs), through limited lists of accepted BMPS, or through performance standards that end up dictating land-consumptive BMPs.  This is an area where the Congress for the New Urbanism’s initiative, Rainwater-in-Context, is forging a new language for matching BMPs to development context.   

There are also urban constraints.  Infiltration standards set up a competition for subterranean space.  Where land costs are high, much of a city or suburb’s built environment is underground where infiltration rules say water should go.  Living space and water don’t mix, so the result is an arsenal of sumps that pump infiltrate directly back into storm sewers, thus undermining stormwater rules.  Like parking, technology and the previously unthinkable must play a role.  For example, public health directors and building inspectors are largely closed to the idea of capturing rooftop water for toilet flushing, despite the public health benefits of capturing and using rainwater where it falls.  Even as Western states are slowly coming around to residential rain barrels, they are facing a much bigger policy crisis: an obsolete economic and legal system designed around slow snow melt. 

Even with the big picture challenges, powerful steps can be implemented even if a new stormwater rule never comes out.  Better urban + water design needs a concerted focus on area planning, shared solutions and a new communications/economic message.  Certainly many of EPA’s intended changes on leveling the regulatory playing field between cities and suburbs are critical, but there is plenty to start on now. 


Lisa Nisenson is principal of Nisenson Consulting in Arlington Virginia, specializing in smart growth, comprehensive planning, and water policy.  She is author of the blog Planning Edges.

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