Call Us Bioswale City

Markeshia Ricks PhotoA new batch of bioswales are popping up in New Haven, which has captured a national award in the quest to fight climate change.

The bioswale effort, which officially is called the Advancing Green Infrastructure Program, and the public-private partnership that sustains it, were announced the winner last week of the 2018 Roy Family Award for Environmental Partnership. The award is given by the Environment and Natural Resources Program at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Every two years the Roy Family Award is presented to “an outstanding public-private partnership project that enhances environmental quality through novel and creative approaches,” according to a press release from Harvard. “This year’s winning project was selected for its inclusive, replicable approach to dealing with the negative impacts of more frequent and intense rainfall events due to climate change.”

Bioswales resemble ordinary sidewalk tree wells. They are depressed areas slightly below street level that divert rainwater that would otherwise run into the sewer. Once in the swale, the water will seep down into the soil, reaching the water table without mixing with contaminated sewage.

And New Haven has embraced them in a big way.

Urban Resources Initiative at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, EMERGE Connecticut, Inc., the City of New Haven Department of Engineering, the Greater New Haven Water Pollution Control Authority, and Common Ground High School came together in 2014 to find a way to tackle the city’s persistent problems of combined sewage overflows and flooding.

URI pulled the partnership together and a 2014 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation paid for a pilot project that started with 15 bioswales. But instead of just contracting the work out the pilot also had a green jobs training program that employed high school students and adults who had previously been incarcerated. New Haven’s partnership bested projects from around the world, according to the press release.

City Engineer Giovanni Zinn recalled the first bioswale went in on Trumbull Street, not after a typical flooding event, but after roadwork created a bit of a birdbath in the street. Instead of just jackhammering up an intersection, the city decided to put in a bioswale to help resolve the problem came up as part of the solution.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” Zinn said.

Since then, the project has secured funding for another 275 bioswales in the city, 200 of which will be Downtown. Project Manager Dawn Henning said about 10 percent of that Downtown 200 are in place now, and another 35 are in place throughout the rest of the city. The engineering department handles the design and URI and EMERGE act as the contractor providing the labor.

Zinn said bioswales have been a cost-effective way to address what has traditionally been a very expensive problem. He said that over the last four years the partners have learned a lot about what works best in terms of design and a lot of that information has come from the crews that dig them.

“The crews really act as ambassadors for the program,” he said. Crews are usually made up of New Haveners, often from the very neighborhoods where a bioswale is being installed. Bioswales are installed pretty much by hand with crews excavating part of the sidewalk with shovels. When neighbors see someone they know, Zinn said they ask and the crew educates about the bioswale, giving everyone a sense of pride and ownership when they’re done. (Read about an installation in Dwight here.)

Henning said because of the outreach efforts of URI to educate neighbors and homeowners the bioswale program has a lot of buy-in. That isn’t always necessarily the case in other cities that don’t take the extra step, she said.

Just as URI was the catalyst that pulled the partners together for the grant that helped start the project, Zinn gave URI credit for applying for the award.

“We are truly fortunate to be able to work with such extraordinary partners, which has allowed us to simultaneously address environmental and social challenges facing our city,” Colleen Murphy-Dunning, URI’s director, said in the press release. “Our collaboration has made it possible to connect resources to seemingly fragmented problems. Working with our partners through an integrated approach has led to solutions that bring co-benefits that would otherwise have been unrealized.”

Henry Lee, director of the Environment and Natural Resources program at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, which coordinates the award, said in the press release that the selection committee “was especially impressed with the program’s integration of social and environmental goals.”

“We believe that this partnership demonstrates the impact of a highly-local, adaptive, iterative approach in addressing a critical environmental and municipal capacity challenge – and one that can be replicated in cities and towns all over the world,” he said

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posted by: deathandtaxes on July 30, 2018  7:34am

Which organization is responsible for maintaining these bioswales?  I walked past two recently-completed ones on the way to work, and they were littered with potato chip bags and soda cans.  Will volunteers do the maintenance?

posted by: Smitty on July 30, 2018  7:50am

I agree deathandtaxes….New Haven is awful when it comes to cleaning trash and debris….They have all these “beautification” projects and street sweeping but….I how is it that I still see the same pile of trash growing in different pockets around the city.  I know that see-click-fix might help bring attention to specific areas BUT….How is it that the city can’t inspect its own city for problem areas….No they rather look for homeowners to fine for code violations which is fine BUT….I have traveled a particular route that has the same old sweatshirt hypodermic needles beer bottles and trash littered in a green area.  It looks very slack and there is just no way New Haven officials don’t see it especially living and working in New Haven.  People need jobs and would happily clean up the mess as the New Haven ambassadors that are ONLY assigned to the downtown area picking up trash and debris do.  Assign these ambassadors all over the city to make it look nice.

posted by: Patricia Kane on July 30, 2018  7:57am

Every passer by can pick up one piece of trash and put it in a container.
Problem solved.
Hopefully, over time, people will invest in the appearance of these bioswales and not throw trash on the streets or in the bioswales.
Ultimately residents have to maintain their appearance.

posted by: TheMadcap on July 30, 2018  8:18am

I imagine like most street litter the answer is the collective residents of the area are responsible for it.

posted by: ebw1957 on July 30, 2018  8:50am

Nice idea, I’d love for it to work out, but the city’s history of care taking is worse then bad. My first thought when seeing this picture was “weed bins”. Take a drive along Whalley and the number of recently planted trees that are dead almost out numbers the live ones.

posted by: Paul Wessel on July 30, 2018  9:01am

These are good projects.  Well conceived and well executed.

posted by: 32knot on July 30, 2018  9:12am

It would be nice if everybody picked up one piece of trash off the streets and disposed of it in the proper trash container. However, there are no places, no trash barrels, no trash receptacles to dispose of the picked up trash!!  during my twice daily walk from the area around High School in the Community to the train station there is not one place to throw away trash. in fact who is responsible for that route from HSC across the bridge down Union Ave under the RT 34 bridge past the Police station to the train station? Who is responsible for trimming the bushes and trees and pulling up the 6 foot weeds growing out of the sidewalks?  the City is responsible and I think that is the point “Smitty” may be trying to make: the city of New Haven does a bad job of taking care of the areas for which the City is responsible. great at starting but terrible at sustaining.

posted by: Smitty on July 30, 2018  9:20am

I think people with experience handling landscaping and trash removal should be in charge of these things….There are drug needles and hazardous waste products that shouldn’t be handled by anyone but whomever the city contracts.  These trash dumps are in vacant lots unoccupied areas near train tracks and wooded street sides and sidewalks. I agree that people who live in the city can help clean BUT I thought we pay taxes for that very reason.  People can get paid to do it (AGAIN AS THE NEW HAVEN AMBASSADORS DO DOWNTOWN)....Where did the funds for biosware come from? Picking up trash is surely cheaper than installing bioswares.  Not that I see anything wrong with bioswares BUT if the City is trying to appear like they care especially with this anti-blight LCI thing involving fining residents then they aren’t being proactive enough….They are perusing residents they can fine money but….Why aren’t they fining themselves and practicing what they preach for their lack of inaction in places where they can’t blame home owners?  Where do you draw the line?

posted by: Smitty on July 30, 2018  9:51am

No excuse for the city NOT to be proactive with the litter across the city….If they believe their only responsibility is to go onto peoples private properties and hand out fines…

Shouldn’t the city feel obligated to Set an Example by cleaning areas NOT occupied by residents?  Hiring ambassadors throughout the city coupled with ACTUALLY enforcing no littering laws is a win win….It is possible because there are cities that exist that promote AND maintain cleanliness

DON’T laugh but SINGAPORE is very good at enforcing anti littering laws….Punishment for bad behavior apparently works there but only when the enforcement is serious about enforcement. lol

posted by: 1644 on July 30, 2018  9:56am

The top photo looks like it was taken in from of Vanderbilt Hall on Yale’s Old Campus, across the street from what are likely Yale owned commercial buildings.  I would think Yale could maintain it.  Overall, though, this sounds like the school building program:  grant money to build it, but no money to maintain it.

posted by: Brian McGrath on July 30, 2018  11:10am

Chapel West is getting their fair share of bioswales. We get some complaints from property owners but we tell them that Chapel West is in favor of the project. CW has two interests here;
1. URI has given us/planted many new trees. In fact our 4 Alders have pooled their tree allotment to help this happen. Some of these trees are in very urban paved areas and get very little water and die in the first years. A bioswale anywhere near a new tree pit will prevent that.
2. These deep pits do collect floating trash from the curbs when it rains but our crew cleans them out constantly. Normally this trash goes into the city storm drains. The city drains eventually clog and cause flooding at the intersections and cost the city a fortune for the contractor who cleans them.This flooding is a problem for CW as the property owners expect us to fix it immediately. Better if it does not happen.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on July 30, 2018  12:50pm

Smitty, the ambassadors only work downtown because they are employed by the Town Green District, not the city. The district is funded by an extra tax paid by downtown property owners.

Ebw1957, I’m pretty sure that ConnDOT, rather than URI, planted those trees on Whalley (part of Whalley is a state highway). URI makes sure that the volunteers who plant their trees water them (I know this from personal experience, having schlepped hundreds of gallons of water at URI projects). I don’t know that the ConnDOT contractors are quite as conscientious.

I think that several of the commentators mistakenly believe that the bioswales are primarily a beautification project. They aren’t. The Water Pollution Control Authority is under a consent order to stop dumping raw sewage into New Haven Harbor. This happens when a major rainstorm dumps stormwater into the combined sewers, overwhelming the sewage treatment plant (Climate change is making these “extreme precipitation events” more frequent and severe.)  Giovanni Zinn and Dawn Henning are both Professional Engineers, and cost-effectiveness is important to them.  Beyond their environmental benefits, the bioswales are the cheapest way of addressing the sewage problem.  The alternative, building new sewer lines is both more expensive and highly disruptive.

posted by: robn on July 30, 2018  1:25pm

Trash and drainage are Two exclusive issues. The trash will be there whether or not the bioseales are. And th bioswales will continue to do a better job mitigating flood water whether or not thebtrash is there.

posted by: Smitty on July 30, 2018  3:42pm

Kevin McCarthy…You know I never thought about that…They do have the Ninth Square emblem on their shirts.  I stand corrected…BUT the point is the city should facilitate something similar throughout all districts. 

I did mention beautification but aside from aesthetics the environment is impacted by pollution….Trash on the ground is hazardous to nature and humans are part of nature….Of course we can’t deny that a clean city is a good looking city. 

I am saddened that the ambassadors are part of a one district deal

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on July 30, 2018  5:23pm

Smitty, thanks. The Chapel West District Brian mentions is similar to Town Green There have also been conversations about setting up districts for Upper State Street and Grand Avenue.

posted by: 1644 on July 30, 2018  5:48pm

Smitty:  Connecticut is replete with special taxing districts.  If the property owners where you live want more services than the city of New Haven provides, they can create a special taxing district to levy an additional tax and pay for those services.  It’s how West Haven got three fire districts, because different areas of the town developed at different rates.  Likewise, the shore communities in towns like Milford and Branford created civic improvement associations chartered by the state so that they could provide services that the predominantly farming population of the towns didn’t want to pay for.  For a while, Pine Orchard had its own police because it was not happy with what Branford provided.

posted by: HewNaven on July 31, 2018  10:21am

The ONLY reason downtown is a relatively decent place to live, work and shop is because of the ambassadors. They do all the heavy lifting.

posted by: Bill Saunders on July 31, 2018  1:39pm


Given recent tax hikes, I can’t see ANYBODY wanting to set up another special taxing district.

This concept was set up by Democratic Boss Evelyn Schatz back in the 1986.
Chapel West was the first of these ‘districts’...... hell, part of Chapel Street is named Evelyn Schatz Way…

Your tax dollars at work!

posted by: 1644 on July 31, 2018  2:51pm

Bill, you obviously missed Mayor Harp on Mayor Monday, stating how low New Haven’s taxes were compared to Hamden and West Haven.  I was reminded of the Marty Feldman line in Young Frankenstein, “Could be worse, could be raining.”  So, I hope your roof is watertight, ‘cause a storm is a coming.

posted by: Bill Saunders on July 31, 2018  3:42pm


Thankfully I had my roof done about a decade ago…...rain isn’t going to be the problem….
Falling Branches, maybe…... 

But I could see all of the crucified taxpayers in New Haven singing a rousing rendition of ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’, from Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’...  but that will be too little, too late.

Long Live the Money Changers!

posted by: Patricia Kane on July 31, 2018  5:36pm

@Bill Saunders: If you can get the music, I’ll join you (and any other volunteers) to sing “Always look on the Bright Side of Life” outside City Hall. What else can you do but laugh sometimes. I’ll start practicing my whistle.

posted by: Bill Saunders on July 31, 2018  6:10pm

But back to the Bioswales…...

When one was going in across the street from me a month or so ago, a college-aged white male came over to borrow some water from me, so he could measure the how fast the liquid would drain…. I thought it an odd over-sight for a major city project, but I am a neighborly sort…. 

Another note—The bioswale pictured at the top of this article has a good fencing barrier around it… the one across the street from me has a loose chain which is anchored on posts in the ‘swale’ itself… this looks like a potential trip and fall hazard for the unwary, especially the ‘looking at your cell phone while walking’ generation…..

As for the garbage in the swale—yeah, it was there….  provide some tongs and an adjoining garbage receptacle, and you might inspire some ‘intervention’.... otherwise it is destined to become an attractive nuisance.  I don’t think you want people walking in the swale to pick up the trash…..besides, the only ‘access’ point is from the road, not the sidewalk.

posted by: Bill Saunders on July 31, 2018  6:21pm

Patricia Kane,

I’ll rewrite the lyrics!

posted by: Bill Saunders on August 1, 2018  10:58pm

This project was obviously pretty well thought out….

Chapel Street bioswales have a nice wrought iron railing in sympathy with the historic downtown, as pictured.

A little up Dwight Street from me, the bioswale has curbing all the way around it’s perimeter, in conjunction with the ‘loose chain’ anchored in the swale itself… 

In the bioswale across the street from me, their is no curbing, only the loose chain.  Granted, the apron portion of the sidewalk is grassy rather then paved, but there is still a hazard at sidewalk’s edge that should have been dealt with with curbing…

This is how we get treated just a hundred feet outside of ‘downtown proper’.

Give my neighborhood swale with the nice fencing barrier or the curbing!
Otherwise, it is a potential hazard!

Why is our ‘swale’ treated different on the planning end?  It is the cheapest and worst design!
We are just not worthy at the edge of Ward 23! Our taxpayer contribution is just not good enough!