When the Floodwaters Receded in Ellicott City

Ellicott City, Maryland, a suburb located 12-miles from Baltimore with a historic Main Street that has experienced catastrophic flooding twice since 2016, offers a case study of the complementary effects of sprawl and climate change.

2 minute read

November 13, 2019, 9:00 AM PST

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell


Maryland GovPics / Flickr

Two national feature stories explore the sage of Ellicott City, a Maryland suburb that has on several occasions been made into a poster child for the need to prepare for climate change, extreme weather, and the failures of past planning.

Rebecca Hersher and Ryan Kellman report for an interactive feature, published by NPR, with testimonials, maps, and harrowing videos of stormwaters repeatedly flooding down the city's historic Main Street, destroying property and taking lives.

After floods in 2016 and 2018, county officials decided to create a new stormwater plan that would require removing ten buildings on Main Street to make room for floodwaters.

"The original plan, calling for 10 buildings to be removed, would reduce the water level to about 5 feet if a similar flood happened again," according to the article. Eight feet of water had flooded Main Street in 2016.

The idea brought serious blowback on social media and in the town, and the city went back to the drawing board. 

"On May 13, 2019, the county announced the final flood plan for Old Ellicott City. It will spend at least $113 million to tear down four buildings on lower Main Street and bore one tunnel," report Hesher and Kellman.

In a separate article by Amy Plitt, published by Curbed, the story focuses a little more on the flooding as a consequence of sprawl and climate change.

First, there's the effect of sprawl in the mix of factors that created the terrible scenes on Main Street in Ellicott City in 2016 and again in 2018:

The historic center of Ellicott City was clobbered, in part, because of the suburban developments that sprung up around the town after 1960. Farmland and forests were replaced with housing, driveways, and big-box shopping centers with hundreds of parking spaces, creating geographical conditions that exacerbate the impacts of weather events like severe storms. That suburban sprawl is, on a larger scale, contributing to climate change—and there are some who think Ellicott City needs to do more to curb it.

Then there's a fact that is also true of many other cities in the United States: there's just more rain.

According to the National Climate Assessment, 'heavy rainfall events have increased' in the Northeast—which the assessment defines as the area spanning from Maryland to Maine—more than in any other region in the country. "The amount of rain that falls during these events increased by 70 percent between 1958 and 2010."

Thursday, November 7, 2019 in NPR

View of downtown Los Angeles at golden hour from top of grassy hill with wooden bench in Vista Hermosa Natural Park

Downtown Los Angeles Park Wins National Award

Vista Hermosa Natural Park, designed by the landscape architecture firm Studio-MLA, has won the ASLA 2023 Landmark Award. Completed in 2008, Vista Hermosa was the first public park built in downtown L.A. in over 100 years.

September 11, 2023 - ASLA The Dirt

View of small-town street with brick buildings and cars parked in diagonal parking with string lights going across street in Cleveland County, Oklahoma.

Norman, Oklahoma Eliminates Parking Mandates

The city made a subtle, one-word change that frees up developers to build parking based on actual need and eliminates costly unnecessary parking.

September 14, 2023 - Next City

Few passengers waiting in subway station with multiple platforms and "North Station" signs in Boston, Massachusetts

Boston Transit Riders Report Safety Concerns

Almost three-quarters of current and former riders report feeling unsafe while using MBTA services.

September 18, 2023 - Hoodline

Google street view of back of brick building housing bar in Nashville, Tennessee

Nashville Opens First Permanent Parklet

The city recently created a parklet permit process designed to help local businesses replace street parking with interactive public spaces.

4 minutes ago - Nashville Tennessean

Fast paced scene with people bike and cars at the busy intersection of 14th Street and 5th Avenue in New York City.

When it Comes to Transportation, It’s All About Options

Debunking the notion of the personal automobile as liberator.

1 hour ago - Strong Towns

Mosaic mural at Little Tokyo/Arts District transit station in downtown Los Angeles.

Prioritizing Equity in Federal Transit Funding

TransitCenter recommends several transit capital projects deserving of federal transportation dollars.

September 20 - TransitCenter

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.