Residential Rain Garden Project Addresses Urban Stormwater Runoff

by Chris Andersen

JHU student, MS Environmental Sciences & Policy, anticipated graduation 2013


As part of this summer’s AAP Applied Sustainability course taught by Professor Paul Kazyak, my classmates and I are learning about a broad range of sustainability issues. The class addresses a number of topics, including energy use and conservation, alternative energy, public infrastructure, agriculture and food production, natural resources practices and management, biodiversity, invasive species, systems thinking, and sustainable initiatives leadership. The three-week intensive course includes a number of field trips for students to talk with sustainability leaders in academia, industry, and government, and to see some sustainable (and some not so sustainable) practices first hand. The course culminates with each student presenting a required, direct-action sustainability project they have undertaken.


Urban stormwater is a major cause of water quality degradation where I live in the Puget Sound region of Washington State. As a more sustainable way to address rainwater runoff that is generated from the roof and deck surfaces of my house, I decided to build a residential rain garden in my yard. During storm events, rainfall that hits these surfaces is collected by the house’s gutter system and is conveyed a few feet away from the house via downspouts and splash blocks. During light to moderate rains, the runoff flows across the yard and infiltrates into the ground. But during heavier rains, the water can’t infiltrate fast enough and ends up ponding next to the house before leaving the yard and entering the public stormwater system.

The rain garden provides an area in the yard away from the house where runoff can be directed and detained until it has a chance to infiltrate into the ground. By keeping stormwater ‘on-site,’ it doesn’t contribute to the amount of stormwater that the public storm system needs to convey, store, provide treatment for, and ultimately discharge to natural receiving waters. The use of rain gardens as a low impact development (LID) technique for residential development provides a number of benefits including improved water quality, decreased load on (and associated cost to construct, operate and maintain) public stormwater infrastructure. And in my case, it provided for improved drainage around the house.

I had a lot of help from family, friends, and neighbors in building the rain garden. But as part of the project, I also wanted to promote the use of residential rain gardens as a sustainable alternative to traditional residential stormwater management, and to encourage others to build their own. So I registered the completed rain garden with the “12,000 Rain Gardens by 2016” initiative being conducted by a local stewardship organization. I also created a short video showing how it was constructed as way to tell people about the project and see if I could inspire others to build their own. It’s still too early to tell whether I will be successful in encouraging the construction of other rain gardens, but for me, building the rain garden turned out to be a great learning experience and a very rewarding project.

Build a Residential Rain Garden from Chris Andersen on Vimeo.

One intent of this assignment was to see if we could encourage a change in behavior towards sustainability.  After watching the video and learning about the benefits of rain gardens in a residential setting, would you consider building your own rain garden within the next 12 months? Please share your answer and a word or two ‘why not’ if your answer is “Maybe” or “Definitely No” so that I can understand what barriers there are to behavior changes related to sustainability.

(Image courtesy of Chris Andersen)

9 Responses to “Residential Rain Garden Project Addresses Urban Stormwater Runoff”
  1. Mara says:

    Great job, Chris. Love the educational video!

  2. Dan Kulpinski says:

    Great post and video, Chris! Rain gardens are great projects. I’ve taken a rain garden workshop before, but our small townhouse yard is not a good candidate. I’m active in my local watershed group and hope to work with landowners here to get more rain gardens built.

  3. Chris Andersen says:

    Thanks Dan. Another benefit is that we have noticed in the several weeks that it has been is that the birds ant butterflies seem to love it too. Glad to hear you’re involved in constructing these, they are a really great way to help maintain water quality.

  4. Matt Robinson (MS 11') says:


    My office at the District Dept of Environment is doing some great work around the nation’s capital. I’d be happy to lead a tour of some of our LID projects here at the Dept. I oversaw the construction of a bioretention project right in front of our building. Here is a description of the project on our website:

    Let me know if you have any questions.

    Matt Robinson
    MS 11′

    • Chris Andersen says:

      Hi Matt,

      Thanks for commenting and apologies for my delayed response. And thanks for the link, the DDOE project really demonstrates how these techniques can be incorporated into development. Here in Western Washington, the new Phase II NPDES municipal stormwater permit has been issued by our state Dept of Ecology, and cities are in the process of working through its phased implementation requirements. Chief among those is the requirement that cities revise their local development regulations by 12/31/2016 to make LID “the preferred and commonly-used approach to site development”.

      Also, thanks for the offer to lead a tour of LID projects. Since I’m in the other Washington, I am forwarding your offer and contact info to Hopkins’ AAP MSESP Progam Associate Director David Elbert, and the instructor of the Applied Sustainability course Paul Kazyak, I think they would really appreciate the opportunity to be able to have students see the implementation of these techniques first hand.


  5. David says:

    Great article and video Chris! Thanks for doing your part… for the Puget Sound *and* the JHENS blog!

  6. Chris, great video and beautiful rain garden! Can you provide some comments on maintenance? Does a rain garden require the same maintenance as a traditional garden or green roof, such as weeding, adding or replacing soil, and if so at what intervals?

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