Knights Cities Challenge finalists work to improve local stormwater management, greenways after flooding

Columbia is undergoing a transformation to become a desired destination for business, technology and the arts. Part of that movement is redesigning streets, parks and greenways to be more pedestrian friendly and environmentally sustainable.

Efforts between city leaders and neighborhoods to change how people interact with downtown areas are becoming a reality, either through reducing lanes on Green Street or creating walkable areas or revitalizing Finlay Park.

Rain parks can be designed on a smaller scale to accommodate backyards, Architect Neil Chambers said. (photo courtesy of Chambers Design Inc.)

Rain parks can be designed on a smaller scale to accommodate backyards, according to architect Neil Chambers. (photo courtesy of Chambers Design Inc.)

The Knight Foundation for the second year in the row has enlisted the help of innovators — artists, community leaders, musicians, entrepreneurs or everyday residents — to come up with the next best ideas to redefine how people live and work in their cities.

The $5 million Knight Cities Challenge has picked 158 finalists from thousands of applicants, and two projects from Columbia made the cut.

“The finalists reflect what the Knight Cities Challenge is about: uncovering new civic innovators and motivating people to realize ideas, big and small, that can contribute to the success of their cities,” said Carol Coletta, Knight Foundation vice president for community and national initiatives.

Architect Neil Chambers designed his plan around a popular concept in urban green design called “rain parks.”

[cp_quote style=”quote_left_dark”]“People believe we need to control and discipline our rivers, streams and waterways. What that’s really doing is creating more problems that we’ll have to fix.” – Neil Chambers, Knight Cities Challenge finalist[/cp_quote]

The spaces are made up of foliage, concrete or other materials that have the ability to soak up or redirect rainwater to mitigate the effects of stormwater and reduce flooding.

The parks are built to be functional for recreation but also can be integrated on a large scale as part of a community’s infrastructure.

“Embrace stormwater versus seeing it as something you manage or control,” Chambers said.

Chambers’ submitted proposal, “Stormwater City: Columbia, South Carolina,” was inspired by October’s floods in the Midlands. He said the damage caused by the flooding was indicative of outdated methods used by cities around the U.S. use to deal with water.

“People believe we need to control and discipline our rivers, streams and waterways,” Chambers said. “What that’s really doing is creating more problems that we’ll have to fix.”

Chambers said new ideas about managing stormwater systems must move toward fresh ideas on how cities cope with changing weather patterns that bring about the floods and hurricanes often seen in this region of the country.

Cities harshly affected by natural disasters, like Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy, are beginning to have conversations about re-imagining a community’s relationship with rainwater, according to Chambers.

“We basically haven’t innovated since the Roman Area. We’re still using natural waterways and pushing water into them,” Chamber said. “We don’t have to have same amount of damage. We can redesign cities to embrace water.”

Chambers designed this rendering of what a rain park situated in the middle of a corporate office space would look like. (photo courtesy of Chambers Design Inc.)

Chambers designed this rendering of what a rain park situated in the middle of a corporate office space would look like. (photo courtesy of Chambers Design Inc.)

Chambers said the change can start at home with residents learning how to add rain gardens to their backyards. Rain gardens attract birds and use rainwater to help plants thrive. Pocket parks, river restoration to manage rainwater, or a concrete skate park that doubles as a basin to hold stormwater — similar to what already has been built in Denmark — are some ways Chambers said cities can make water a public amenity rather than a hindrance.

“It’s kind of a scalable approach,” he said.

If Chambers’ proposal is selected, he said he would use funding from the Knight Foundation to develop a toolkit that helps local residents understand how rain parks and other rain mitigation systems work.

He said he also would build a small example of a rain park, so residents can get a feel for what it looks like and how it works. Chambers said he likely will partner with the Central Carolina Community Foundation and focus his project on downtown Columbia’s core, specifically from Main Street to the Congaree River and from Gervais Street to Elmwood Avenue.

The Central Carolina Community Foundation had earned a grant from the Knight Foundation for $135,000 last fall to conduct a study on the relationship between public spaces and the community.

Chambers is no stranger to developing ways to build sustainable spaces that transforms communities. The Gaffney native studied architecture at Clemson University before heading to graduate school in Baltimore. He later moved to New York to work with an engineering firm on the city’s bridges and tunnels.

His work in sustainable design began through a nonprofit he started called Ground Green Zero after the Sept. 11 attacks to help rebuild lower Manhattan with sustainable design practices.

Chambers started his company, Chambers Design Inc., in 2004. He since has retooled his firm to focus on residential projects, including constructing more than 15 rain gardens, in the U.S. and abroad.

The New Jersey resident has spent the past seven years restoring the oyster population along the Atlantic coast near Myrtle Beach. The oysters are able to filter the water improving the quality of the coastline, as well as Withers Estuary and creeks found along Middle River and Georgetown.

Chambers garnered support from Coastal Carolina University and Clemson, but he also built a coalition of community leaders, high schools and boy scout groups to plant reefs for oysters to thrive.

He said the same commitment can be found in Columbia.

“I see the same thing happening in Columbia,” he said. “ Let’s be the leader in this in a really forward thinking way.”

City planners tackle Canal Connector

Lucinda Statler, Columbia’s urban design planner, is going for Round 2 to see if the city can win part of the $5 million Knight Cities Challenge prize money.

The planning department submitted a proposal in 2015 to connect the Three Rivers Greenway — a strip of pedestrian trail that runs from downtown Columbia up to Broad River Road in the Congaree River — under the Jarvis Klapman Bridge.

City planners hope to connect the Three Rivers Greenway near Canalside toward Coble Plaza (photo provided).

City planners hope to connect the Three Rivers Greenway near Canalside toward Coble Plaza (photo provided).

The pathway would create a seamless connection from Canalside to Coble Plaza at Riverfront Park just behind EdVenture Children’s Museum.

The plan also called for restoring the old CCI steam plant building near Coble Plaza to repurpose it as the city’s arts center. Statler said the proposal was ambitious and came with a high price tag, which she thinks led to it not being selected.

“It was a big project,” she said.

Statler said the floods and subsequent construction to the damaged Columbia Canal caused planners to re-examine their proposal and re-submit a scaled back version that solely focused on building out the access point under the Jarvis Klapman Bridge.

“We end up scooting our proposal further north,” she said.

Riverfront Park as of now has steps that lead to the Esplanade, but it lacks accessibility for disabled persons. Statler said plans call for building a ramp to connect the park to Canalside.

Statler said planners are in the early stages of creating a design but that one is in the works.

Columbia City Council last year approved $100,000 to repair and reconfigure a pedestrian bridge to make it ADA compliant and to make improvements to the handicap spaces at Riverfront Park.

“What we’re seeing, especially with the residential population growing downtown, is that connectivity is important,” Statler said. “We’re getting to that point where people need to walk and bike because they live there.

Statler said the funding from the Knight Cities Challenge would allow the city to finish upgrades that would connect the greenway trail and supplement the estimated $40 million in repairs to the Columbia Canal currently underway.

“It’s a blessing in disguise,” she said. “The silver lining is that we’re going to rebuild better than we have. We’re going to turn this into an opportunity to fill in those gaps and make this place better than it was before.”

Winners for this year’s Knight Cities Challenge will be announced in the spring.

Categories: Richland County

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