Porous Public Space: People + Rainwater + Cities



Pacifica, CA, USA | Roxanne Lee, Associates ASLA; James Wohlers, Student ASLA | Graduate | Faculty Advisors: Nancy Rottle, FASLA; Louise Grassov
University of Washington


Our porous public space booklet takes the reader on a whimsical journey, playfully intertwining people and rainwater in our cities. It is a tool to deconstruct the concepts and terminology of green stormwater infrastructure because, although the term is widely understood in built environment fields, to the layperson the phrase can often be meaningless. We break the concept down to the basics of designing our built environment to improve both human and watershed health, framing the environmental problem of stormwater as an opportunity to design good public places using rainwater in our streets, plazas and neighborhoods. Presenting a framework that structures a porous community-based design process, we outline seven Porous Public Space principles to create an inspirational and actionable toolkit for communities, designers and local officials to collaboratively design solutions for improved urban watershed health. The booklet is an inspirational tool to bring consciousness to urban rainwater, embedding its presence into our narrative and experience of everyday life.


Our Porous Public Space booklet is an inspirational tool for reimagining our relationship to rainwater in our cities. Rainwater is the main source of freshwater in the world, yet urban rainwater, or stormwater, is often perceived as a waste. Currently, urban rainwater is made invisible through underground infrastructure designed to hide, concentrate and remove it rapidly. Culturally, the visual erasure of urban rainwater from our built environment removes it from our consciousness, severing our experiential memory and emotional connection to urban rainwater. Ecologically, this framework for managing urban rainwater disrupts the hydrological cycle’s ability to clean, filter, store and infiltrate rainwater, creating environmental impacts to surface waters, aquatic life, groundwater resources and human health. The resulting degradation to the watershed diminishes a region’s ability to respond, adapt and recover from unpredictable climate change induced disasters such as flooding, drought, rising temperatures and access to clean water or fresh foods.

Our Porous Public Space booklet is a response to the built environment’s detrimental impacts to our cultural and ecological systems. We use the term porosity in a dual sense: to characterize changes to the physical built environment as well as building social infrastructure through an inclusive community-based design process. We reframe the conventional wastewater treatment of urban rainwater instead as an opportunity to keep rainwater above ground for community delight, store it for reuse, clean it for healthy aquatic habitat and infiltrate it for groundwater recharge. Porous Public Spaces intertwine ecological design with urban design. We use strategies from both design frameworks to bring people and rainwater together in cities, to create vibrant public life. Porous Public Spaces build social connectedness around water, stewardship of local water resources, understanding about the hydrological cycle’s interaction with the watershed and the city’s context within the larger watershed. We define seven watershed and site-scaled principles that double as a guide for the design process and as a checklist to evaluate existing public places. We apply our principles for design and evaluation to streets, plazas and neighborhoods by redesigning common street typologies and evaluating exemplary sites through case studies. In the booklet, our two and three-dimensional diagrams illustrate how commercial, residential, and mixed-use streets can be reconfigured into Porous Public Spaces through application of our Full Water Cycle, Human Health + Well-being, Full Soil + Vegetation Cycle, and Adaptive Design principles. Through both the community-based design process and experience of place, the booklet focuses on interweaving urban rainwater into the network of our built environment and collective consciousness to simultaneously improve both human and watershed health.

Our Porous Public Space booklet was created drawing on inspiration and knowledge from two countries: the US and Denmark. Our process focused on intertwining ecological and social functions by learning from each city’s expertise, one in green stormwater infrastructure and the other in creatively activating public life. We received guidance from both our American and Danish advisors, which helped us create an international perspective on Porous Public Space.

We wrote our booklet as an educational and inspirational tool for community members, designers and local city officials. Although green stormwater infrastructure is widely understood in fields that work with the built environment, to those outside of the field the term can be confusing jargon. Porous Public Space unpacks green stormwater infrastructure down to basic principles, strategies and tools for designing our cities to better manage rainwater to improve watershed and human health. It is a tool to generate momentum and excitement about reclaiming concrete surfaces, transforming them into vibrant porous public spaces for both people and water. It can be used by designers to educate and empower community members with tools to actively participate in improving the health of their watershed. It can be used by community members to generate excitement about achieving shared neighborhood and watershed goals. It can be used by municipalities to engage students with urban rainwater’s impact to aquatic habitat health. Our booklet is a point of conversation between citizens about how to push our cities to do better.

Our intended impact is to inspire and encourage community members, designers and local city officials to critically evaluate the ecological and social performance of how their city manages urban rainwater. We hope that our set of Porous Public Space principles will empower citizens with the tools to actively participate in the design of their own cities.

It is premature to measure the effectiveness of our booklet, but would ideally be assessed by increased ecological literacy, active civic participation and strengthened social connectedness around urban rainwater and watershed health.

Our booklet will be distributed in print and electronic format through our departmental urban ecological design lab, which will give 200 printed copies and feature a downloadable pdf on the lab’s website.

“Well researched, engagingly colorful, and whimsical graphics. A good project that has a strong narrative and tells a complete story in a logical sequence. It has an engaging fun quotient. It would make a great game.”

- 2016 Awards Jury