We need to talk about maintenance.
Posted on: November 16, 2017
Last Friday, the third and final day of the 2017 GSI Operations and Maintenance Course kicked off in the field at Kemble Park and La Salle University’s rain gardens. We spent the afternoon learning more about each site’s design processes and technical aspects, turning a specific lens to the role that maintenance and monitoring play in each system’s function. Our discussions also focused on how to both increase understanding and communication of the value of maintenance and monitoring of GSI projects across our city, region, and beyond.
Participants also had the opportunity to learn from one another by sharing experiences and challenges in their own work. One apparent need bubbled up from our conversations:
The role that maintenance and monitoring play in a project’s success is undervalued and this is a huge issue.
For a GSI site’s lasting success, community buy-in, aesthetic beauty, efficacy, and the ability to uphold a Triple Bottom Line approach all depend considerably on the development and implementation of a long-term maintenance plan.
Because of this, it is necessary to create more effective communication around why maintenance cannot be relegated to an afterthought, but instead, must be part of the conversation between designers, architects, and contractors during the entire timeline of the project.
Setting up a vision for the long-term success of a project begins with setting a realistic expectation with all stakeholders, especially the communities closest to the site.
“In Philadelphia, especially, people see these incredible landscapes, but the expectation for them is not always real,” said Rachel Streit, Environmental Consultant at CHPlanning for Philadelphia Water Department. “A lot of times we’ll get calls from people who think projects are supposed to be flowering in March. People don’t always understand the natural cycle of these nature-based systems, and we’ve had to do a lot of education to tell people about their natural cycle.”
Streit, who guided the Kemble Park site tour, mentioned PWD’s Public Affairs Team and their work developing outreach programs and materials to bring to community meetings to illustrate what the project will look like at all the stages of the project’s process. This helps invite the community into the long-term vision of the site and to create realistic expectations regarding performance. “People know that in the first few years, the project won’t necessarily be beautiful. It’s going to take time for that site to grow,” said Streit.
As stormwater management practices, GSI Projects are not only landscapes, but also living systems. They require a combination of prescriptive and adaptive management techniques so they can effectively mature over time and remain successful.
“When you first complete a project, it’s like a baby,” said Jimmy Kreider, Director of the Field Operations Division at LandStudies. Bringing the project into the world, so to speak, is not enough; instead, “there needs to be routine maintenance every year.” The living system needs to be cared for and watched over so that any necessary intervention that is needed to ensure lasting favorable outcomes can occur. In Kreider and LandStudies Landscape Architect Bob Gray’s experience, it is necessary to “educate the clients as much as possible at the beginning of the project so they understand that the long-term maintenance and monitoring of the project is critical for its success.”
Julie Snell, Principal at TEND landscape, also stresses the importance of talking about maintenance up front. “We always educate on expectations and work to adjust those with the client to anticipate what the challenges may be at the forefront,” said Snell. “That way should staff or contractors change, you are handing over the same info and guidelines to maintain the integrity of the landscape.” She also stressed that it is important to update those guidelines over time as the landscape evolves.
When a site is routinely and properly maintained it not only continues to perform as intended but this can also prevent many unexpected costs to fix a project that wasn’t properly cared for. Bonus: it also remains a beautiful site that a community can be proud of as our city continues to be known for our innovations in green stormwater management.