How can we deliver SuDS in the Public Realm?

Written By: Sustainability Engineer, Lambeth Council

Photograph of a highway

At the London retrofit launch event in April part of my presentation touched on how traffic calming contributed to poor drainage design and an approach or attitude that drainage is an expensive burden and distraction.

I mentioned that the previous Government set a clear ten year target to reduce road accidents by what was considered at the launch of the ten year plan an unachievable target of 20% reduction. However, not only was this target reached it was exceeded and is an achievement which has never really been rightly recognised or celebrated.

Exceeding this target has come at a cost – in many instances large concrete build outs were created which may have had a tree stuck in it with no thought on how it would gain its water.  Gully covers were raised to match the new “footway” level, or catch pits installed with a chute to the nearest pot (which has been blanked) to accommodate a raised table.  Levels have not been clearly considered and cleaning of the gullies was certainly never considered.  It seems that in many instances the most fundamental question has never been asked or considered in the whole design process – “Why was that gully there in the first place?”

We can then turn our attention to the London Cycle Hire Scheme or more commonly referred to as “Boris Bikes”. Again an incredible vision supported by budget and the political weight and governance it needed. With a significant amount of these installations across London (and growing) it is accepted that these assets do not affect drainage.  However, the question needs to be asked ‘why do they need to be on asphalt and concrete?  The examples of a similar singular approach to delivery of initiatives can almost be exhaustive, the mayors 10,000 trees, high specification public realm such as Trafalgar Square are examples of a single focus approach.

We then turn to SuDS and this brave new world, and getting them onto and into the public realm, so off we go to concentrate and focus our minds on delivering this much needed and beneficial infrastructure which will aid and is part of the solution to greater water management.  We can put in a swale here, rain gardens there…

Lets just stop there, does this sound familiar?

Are we not going off to create the same follies and mistakes – which although have delivered great benefits on their singular focus has it all been at the expense of other equally important considerations, assets and infrastructure?

In the whole SuDS process it is clear that we are trying to bring together many different disciplines to deliver these particular assets or infrastructure, ranging from Highway Engineers, to Urban designers, to planners, to Drainage Engineers, to architects, to modellers etc, and if we look back 30/40 years was there not a person who existed in local authorities who could oversee all this within their day to day work and have the vision and knowledge to understand that there is a holistic approach to delivering all this without compromise to assets and infrastructure and that there is actually a sensible solution where all these singularly focused competing demands can be incorporated without detriment to the public realm, is it now the time to accept that the Municipal Engineer needs to be resurrected?

The Municipal Engineers training was designed to be holistic and understand all the differing needs and this was due to the training in that they had to work in all departments, from highways, to transport and traffic, to drainage etc this gave a breadth and depth of knowledge and understanding to the public realm, which is quickly becoming a forgotten skill due to the drive to create these separate silos where a drainage engineer will not speak to a road safety engineer, who won’t speak to a highway engineer who won’t speak to a Urban designer and this cycle continues in ever decreasing circles. Unless we realise and start to address this separation I feel that for SuDS in the public realm we may be delivering the equivalent of traffic calming.

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