Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of participating in a landmark event held in Annapolis, Maryland. It was a two-day Roundtable discussion related to how Low Impact Development (LID) and Green Infrastructure (GI) can be utilized more effectively to lower costs, improve performance and ultimately provide the basis for a more rapid and reliable solution to the challenges of meeting Chesapeake Bay urban retrofit TMDL goals.
Convened by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 3, sponsored by the Low Impact Development Center, led by LID pioneer Larry Coffman and aimed at exploring lessons learned in the national experience, a group of roughly forty LID experts, researchers, regulators, private sector innovators, non-profits, consulting engineers and invited guests from across the country came together in an effort to share ideas and develop recommendations that could be difference-makers in the quest to meet stormwater goals.
The discussion centered on advancing LID/GI technologies beyond the 1990’s era criteria that currently dominate our design guides; removing obstacles to innovation in our verification processes; minimizing regulatory barriers that lock in old ideas and shut out new ones; engaging private industry more fully in a competitive effort to help solve our stormwater problems; and, utilizing public private partnerships to fund and rapidly implement urban retrofit.
It was a truly unique experience.
An innovative discussion tool involving a set of ‘straw man’ proposals addressing the key issues were the centerpiece of the conversation. The idea to start with a set of potential end results and then thoroughly pick them apart in order to develop an answer offered new perspectives and was mind bogglingly effective. The unusual approach stimulated rapid-fire discussion and cut through to the most important issues without spending a lot of valuable time getting all the parties on the same page and without wandering, self-serving, circular discussions which often limit valid results when complex issues are more traditionally served up for discussion. It kept everyone engaged, and the conversation focused and moving forward. How often does that happen with issues like these?
As the second day drew to a close, it felt like we’d been a part of something that could change the course of our future. I was reminded of a scene from the 1989 movie, Dead Poet’s Society. It was one of Robin Williams’ first dramatic films; set in a very conservative boy’s prep school in 1950’s Vermont. Williams’ character is the unorthodox, former student and new English teacher, passionate about opening the minds of his students, resigned to meeting their families’ expectations for them as doctors and lawyers, to the beauty and inspiration of poetry. Each day, Williams tells them to focus on carpe diem. One day, frustrated with their seeming inability to think outside the limits of their own everyday existence, he pushes their desks aside and drags his own to the center of the room. He pulls a chair to the side of his desk, steps up, and stands on top, surveying all he sees. He commands them to form a line at the chair and one at a time they take their turn standing on top of the desk and looking out in all directions across the classroom. Williams exhorts them to recognize that while it’s the same room, it looks completely different from this vantage point. He tells them to take the room in with new eyes and appreciate how looking at something from a new perspective is a powerful tool for discovery. This seemingly small exercise was the spark that led to the beginning a whole new future for several of the boys.
From my perspective, the Chesapeake Bay Program, like many of our stormwater programs across the country is mired in its everyday existence. Most of the players I know, from regulators and researchers to engineers, NGO’s, manufacturers and innovators, to one degree or another, feel trapped in unnecessarily burdensome and contradictory regulation, obligated to rely on outdated, ineffective and unreliable BMPs, with no truly viable path to anything better. Add underfunded and over budget to the mix and it’s a system that most of us know in our heart of hearts is destined not to achieve the goals we must achieve. The Roundtable offered the opportunity to explore refreshing new perspectives on old issues. If we’re lucky, this exercise will be the spark that ignites the start of a host of new ways for dealing with otherwise impossible goals.
Notes and supporting documents are being assembled, additional comments from participants are being sought, and in the coming weeks a Report and Guidance will be produced. I can’t wait to see it. I believe that in it lies a roadmap for the future of stormwater management in general, and in specific, the path to insuring success in the Chesapeake Bay.