A corporate-sponsored urban rain garden demonstrates food-growing techniques, renewable energy and stormwater management—all in one square block in downtown Kansas City.
Street-level bioswales gulp water running down city streets before it heads to sewers. Planted with native plants and grasses, especially those resistant to damage from heavy metals and salt, the bioswales are modeled after a forest floor.
Kansas City’s historic and now-bustling Crossroads Art District has seen many revitalization efforts over the past decade. But few have offered as many community benefits as the new 18Broadway project, an urban rainwater-harvesting food garden in the heart of downtown—the first of its kind in the country.
Originally conceived to help tackle the city’s stormwater and wastewater treatment problems, the garden has evolved to do much more. Volunteers demonstrate gardening techniques in container, raised-bed and in-ground gardens, all watered from an underground 40,000-gallon rainwater-catchment cistern. The cistern is fed by rainwater that’s filtered through a street-level bioswale system—a vegetation-filled drainage system that captures and filters rain or other water. The food grown is donated to local food banks, and the entire site is powered by a photovoltaic array and prototype wind turbine.
When It Rains, It Pours
In 2008, financial services technology provider DST Systems was planning to build condominiums on a plot of land at 18th and Broadway, just a few blocks from its headquarters. But a sudden decline in nationwide economic conditions led the company to set aside those plans. DST had already demolished the building that had stood on the site because of structural integrity failures, and the company was left with a large, empty plot of land. “We had this vacant, bare, highly erodible site, and we needed to stabilize it,” says DST vice president Steve Taylor. The company turned to its neighbors, 360 Architecture, whose stated mission is to create projects that “enhance the well-being of people, organizations, communities and the environment.”
DST envisioned building a series of rain gardens as part of Kansas City’s 10,000 Rain Gardens initiative. Because Kansas City’s sewage and stormwater runoff systems are linked, large storms overflow the city’s water treatment system and send untreated sewage into area waterways. Though the municipality will invest billions of dollars over the next 25 years to remedy the situation, the citywide 10,000 Rain Gardens initiative is a stopgap measure to proactively involve individuals and businesses in rainwater management until major renovations are complete.
DST and 360 were determined to showcase how much one city block could affect one big environmental problem—then they realized they could also directly benefit community members and build on DST’s history of community gardening by growing food. “Once we started to find a solution, it became a platform for a more expansive idea,” Taylor says. For 18 years, DST staff volunteers have been growing food in a garden in the nearby Quality Hill neighborhood and donating it to a local soup kitchen. They decided to expand on the idea at 18Broadway, storing and using rainwater to irrigate food gardens that would produce fresh vegetables for area food banks. “It’s a nice synergy with our gardening core and expands our community gardening efforts,” Taylor says.
Lead by Example
18Broadway showcases a range of environmental and social justice solutions. It shows developers how a commercially viable project can easily incorporate a bioswale system that helps save both water and energy for the city. And it displays stormwater management techniques for area homeowners. “Anyone can apply these principles on their street,” says Gene Lund, project architect at 360. “You can divert stormwater and get heavy metals off your street before they get to the sewer.”
Eventually, DST plans to make good on its intentions of developing the land for residential or commercial use, but the bioswale and stormwater storage systems are designed to remain in place, and the food gardens could be relocated to the rooftop. “It demonstrates for cities and other developers how to integrate stormwater management into future developments,” Taylor says.
Managed by DST master gardener and volunteer coordinator Kathy Pemberton and a team of about 12 company volunteers, 18Broadway’s first harvest yielded 75 pounds of fresh produce for Harvesters Community Food Network, a local food bank. Food banks are generally hungry for fresh produce, as they often receive grocery store leftovers. When food bank workers put the 18Broadway food out on shelves, “the fresh produce was gone in 12 minutes,” Taylor says. The gardeners conservatively estimate that their five-tiered garden, which ultimately will include nearly 100 raised beds, will produce 2 to 4 tons of vegetables each growing season. The gardens display a wide array of techniques for growing food in the city. “It’s very scalable,” Taylor says. “We have a large palette here, but you could take one or two of the techniques home. We hope Kansas City neighborhoods can benefit from the concepts here at 18Broadway.”
Though the garden was completed at the end of the summer of 2010, 18Broadway has already held educational community events and plans to host more this year. DST is also talking with area schools—the garden is across the street from a charter school and a day-care center—about organizing children’s gardening projects. Large signs designed by 360’s graphic design team, Tilt, explain the site’s environmental and community benefits to passersby. “We’re very well-lit at night and highly visible,” Taylor says. “We’re in the shadow of the new performing arts center. There’s a lot of opportunity for Kansas Citians to see the site.”
A prototype wind turbine feeds the garden’s pedestrian lights. Passersby will also see 12 grid-tied GE photovoltaic panels. Calculated to generate about 1,400 kilowatt-hours per year, the panels offset the power used by the garden’s pumps, ultraviolet filters and receptacle loads. “We were demonstrating sustainability in water and food. We wanted to bring in energy,” Lund says.
DST believes future residents will be eager to move in and even pay a premium for a site so loaded with green spaces. “If we can help the city and the environment, and create beautiful urban spaces that also provide the property owner an economic benefit, everybody wins,” Lund says.
A Toast to Recycling
Standing adjacent to the garden at 18Broadway is a large, purple recycling bin, a symbol of one of Kansas City’s other recent eco-minded advancements. Recycling isn’t big in Kansas City. Historically, residents have recycled glass at a paltry rate of 5 percent—less than a quarter of the national average of 25 to 30 percent—and the city’s curbside recycling program doesn’t accept glass. These numbers made local Boulevard Brewing executives John McDonald, Jeff Krum and Mike Utz squirm. Despite their company’s penchant for regionalism and waste reduction (its 2006 energy-recovering brewery expansion building features a green roof with a rainwater catchment cistern), it was still responsible for sending about 10 million beer bottles to the landfill each year. Determined to become part of the solution, Boulevard execs collaborated with DST and other leading Kansas City businesses to found Ripple Glass, a “self-contained” metropolitan glass recycling company with big purple bins all across the city. Several hundred tons of glass collected in the bins—including about a ton of glass from Boulevard each week—is delivered to a processing facility for cleaning and crushing. Eliminating the problems associated with transporting heavy glass to the nearest recycling plant in St. Louis, Ripple sells about 85 percent of its glass to Owens Corning, which reuses it in its Kansas City fiberglass insulation production facility. Since its launch November 2009, Ripple Glass has more than doubled the region’s glass recycling.
Natural Home editor Jessica Kellner loves common-sense ways we can work with nature to improve our cities and our world.
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