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Rhode Island must adopt greener infrastructure amid increased flooding

We are not prepared for frequent flooding events in Rhode Island, but changes in land use could help

Cleanup at the flood damaged Citi Trends clothing store at the Branch Avenue Plaza Shopping Center on Branch Avenue in Providence, Rhode Island on Sept. 12, 2023.Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

On a recent Sunday afternoon, as water pooled in my driveway, I received a text from a friend that Dean Street in Providence had not only flooded, but had a current. The downpours that weekend resulted in massive revenue losses for artisans and vendors at PVD Fest, and Branch Avenue Plaza flooded, transforming the parking lot into a river and destroying store merchandise.

We now receive near constant reminders that this climate emergency will not wait for our slow-moving bureaucratic systems to change. We can debate this crisis, and even call it a hoax, but it will not stop storm surge from flooding homes and taking millions of lives. These events will only become more frequent and intense, and the speed with which this has occurred is alarming, even to top climate experts. We cannot be naive in thinking that we are somehow immune from the tragic disaster that has plagued Libya, when stores and homes flood during a precipitation event, never mind tropical storm or hurricane.


Simply walking in Providence, the land-use issues are clear. Downtown feels like a giant parking lot. According to a study completed in 2007, Providence has over 30 percent impervious surface area coverage. This abundance of pavement, known as impervious surfaces, seriously inhibits our ability to manage precipitation induced flooding. Paved roads, rooftops or any other cemented surface cannot absorb rainwater. Instead, water runs off into streams and storm sewers directly, which in turn, creates flooding. Lawns don’t help: Short grass generally has weaker roots with limited ability to absorb water. And these surfaces threaten water quality as the stormwater carries any pollutants present on lawns and streets.

In fact, the Department of Environmental Management conducted its own report in 2010 documenting the damaging impacts of impervious surfaces. The DEM clearly outlines green-infrastructure options, which all function to manage stormwater runoff using plant systems or permeable materials. They reference rain gardens, bioswales, natural landscapes, and tree planting, to name a few. However, the report encourages “development projects” to invest in these forms of green infrastructure, placing the onus on the individual.


What if the city and state supported all residents in planting native species in their front yards to support stormwater management? What would Capitol Hill look like with pollinator or rain gardens instead of manicured lawn? What if Brown University removed its lawned areas? What if the city pledged to double the number of bioswales? Perhaps a radical suggestion to some, what if we went beyond advocating for permeable parking lots and reduced the number of parking lots altogether?

I am not proposing that these green infrastructure alternatives are foolproof, nor am I claiming that they will save us from the inevitable hurricane and storm surge we are bound to experience.

However, we must learn to navigate increasingly regular flooding events without concern that stores and homes will flood, creating an immense cost burden for families and local business owners. There are steps that can be taken to avoid frequent flooding. The city can act as an example to the rest of the country, exhibiting the benefits of implementing green infrastructure policy to offset the cost and impact of extreme weather events.


I recognize that these investments would be no small feat. However, we have an opportunity to implement a truly transformative policy that can change our daily lives. The clock is ticking. The weather waits for no one, not even Li’l Rhody.

Sarah Blau is a researcher and writer. She received her master’s degree in public health from Brown University, and specializes in the impact of the climate crisis on urban communities, local food systems, and federal food policy.