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Remaking stormwater as a resource: Technology, law, and citizenship

Overflowing Stormwater


Joshua J. Cousins, Department of Geography and Environmental Studies Program, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire & Department of Environmental Studies, SUNYCollege of Environmental Science and Forestry, Syracuse, New York

This review examines how stormwater is being rethought of as a resource in urbanplanning and governance. No longer administered simply as a conveyance prob-lem, a range of actors are progressively repurposing stormwater as an underutilizedresource that can resolve water quality and quantity challenges. I suggest this tran-sition emerged out of the need to address a host of problems rooted in the institu-tional and infrastructural legacy of treating stormwater as a waste and flood controlproblem, as well as a new set of concerns associated with climate change, contin-ued urbanization, and fiscal and administrative cuts. As a response, a number oftechnical and political mechanisms are looking to remake stormwater as a resource.In particular, the review focuses on the role of green infrastructure and technologi-cal change, legal structures, and incentives to enroll citizens into the governanceprocess. These practices assemble stormwater as a resource by configuring diverseforms of knowledge, technology, and relations that meet political goals to buildsmart, resilient, and sustainable cities

This article is categorized under:
Engineering Water > Sustainable Engineering of Water
Human Water > Water Governance
Science of Water > Water Quality


environmental governance, green infrastructure, stormwater, technopolitics,
water security


Stormwater and urban drainage are among the most pervasive urban planning and design challenges of the urban era. As precipitation patterns shift and sea levels rise as a consequence of climate change, more variable weather patterns will bring floods and droughts that will test the social and technical systems engineered to address water in the city (Castán Broto &Bulkeley, 2013; Chappin & van der Lei, 2014; Grimm et al., 2008; Wong & Brown, 2009). This is illustrated by major floods associated with Hurricanes Katrina, Harvey, and Maria, but also by the impact of severe droughts on cities such as Capetown, Sao Paulo, Los Angeles, and Melbourne. These problems associated with the material absence or abundance of rainwater, however, have significant implications on how cities structure their relationship with water. This can be seen from Shang-hai to Los Angeles, where planners are looking to design “sponge cities” capable of resolving the water quality and quantity challenges that arise with climate change and urbanism in the Anthropocene (Liu, 2016; Pincetl, 2017; Standen, 2015). Cities are also recognizing the financial consequences of inaction and the need to rethink how they address stormwater and secure future water supplies in the face of climate change (Cousins & Newell, 2015). In many cases, stormwater is no longer considered a nuisance, hazard, or waste. Instead, planners, politicians, and technical experts are designing schemes that fix water quality and quantity dilemmas in the city by managing stormwater as a resource. The aim of this review is to document how this shift is occurring in response to a number of perceived problems and challenges related to urban water governance and sustainability.


The rise of stormwater to the top of the urban environmental policy agenda during a time of increased climate variability, however, is emblematic of a broader shift in urban water governance. Increasingly, holistic and integrated methods are being rolled out to address the fragmented and complicated nature of water resources governance (Brown, 2005; Mitchell, 2005; Roy et al., 2008). The goal among a growing set of urban planners, policymakers, engineers, and non-governmental organizations is to rework both the infrastructures and institutions shaping how stormwater flows through the city and facilitate climate change adaptation (Carmin, Nadkami, & Rhie, 2012; Cousins, 2017a). Instead of depending on centralized, or gray infrastructures, with single purpose targets, such as sewers, canals, and channels that can efficiently convey stormwater out of the city, municipalities are increasingly drawing on green approaches such as bioswales, permeable pavements, and other features that try to mimic the natural hydrology (Brown, Farrelly, & Loorbach, 2013; Karvonen, 2011; Loperfido, Noe, Jarnagin, & Hogan,2014). These distributed and decentralized techniques present important tools for climate change adaptation planning and as a means to garner multiple benefits—from water quality and quantity to increased access to urban green space (Bell, 2015; Mar-low, Moglia, Cook, & Beale, 2013; Tompkins et al., 2010).

Assembling stormwater as a resource, however, requires a different understanding of stormwater’s social, political, and material life. Water embodies multiple functions as a flow resource that transverses political boundaries, social and cultural categories, and economic functions (Bakker, 2012, 2014; Cousins, 2017d). This requires a need to address the specific political and ecological conjunctures in which stormwater emerges as a viable water supply alternative, as well as where, how, and for whom stormwater becomes a resource to advance water quality and quantity goals. Initiatives for stormwater capture are often embedded within the wider decentralization and neo-liberalization of water (Lane, Bettini, McCallum, & Head, 2017; Usher, 2018) and the need to harvest rainwater as a resource can also reflect disenfranchisement from safe and potable public water supply systems (Bakker, Kooy, Shofiani, & Martijn, 2008; Wright-Contreras, March, & Schramm, 2017). Developing green spaces within the city can also produce equity and environmental justice issues through displacement and gentrification(Dooling, 2009; Wolch, Byrne, & Newell, 2014).

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