What should we do about an ugly bioswale?

Published: April 19, 2024

Visitor Question: Our town wanted to have some better flood control along a creek that is ordinarily very small.

The problem is that when we have a lot of rain in a short period of time, we can get flooding in the nearby streets that dead end at the creek.

In their wisdom the town's public works people figured they would put in what they called a "bioswale" along the creek, which has a concrete lining at that point. They planted some perennials that they sold as something that would always look good. Unfortunately, that hasn't been the case. It looks more and more like a weed patch, and this spring the weeds are even hanging over the concrete part and look terrible.

What can we who are the neighbors do about this? Is this common in the USA?

Editors Reply: Bioswales and other such measures to use the natural qualities of vegetation to reduce flooding are increasingly common. This is partly due to climate change causing increasingly violent storms, as well as an emphasis on environmentally sound solutions instead of thinking like an old-fashioned engineer.

If readers are not familiar with the term, usually it means a slightly or moderately built up area of earth, sometimes comparable to a berm. The "bio" part means it is a planted area, most frequently planted with either perennials or plants native to the area. The native plants have the advantage of deeper root systems, which both mean more uptake of storm water and a lower likelihood that the bank or swale or berm erodes away.

It is often the case that people who are used to manicured and somewhat formal landscapes feel that bioswales of natives or self-tending perennials look unkempt. So it is not surprising to hear that your neighborhood has some aesthetic objections.

The best thing to do is to organize yourselves to have a polite but confrontational conversation with whoever planted the swales and is in charge of any maintenance needed.

Incidentally, it is not uncommon for a city government to plant something like this while completely ignoring the care aspect. Sometimes the public works people, who are rooted in engineering more than landscape architecture, genuinely believe that the perennials and natives don't need any maintenance.

Thus the first step for your group would be to look into the history to understand who you need to talk with about maintenance.

Secondly, you may want to engage in some self-education about changing tastes and the increasing value being placed on environmentally sound solutions to problems such as flooding. I have to say when I saw the first unmowed front yard in my neighborhood, I was not a fan. But after understanding the advantages both in terms of time saving for the homeowner and reduced pollution from running a gasoline-powered machine every week during the summer, I looked for a new way to appreciate the prairie look.

You might support this possibility for a change of heart by visiting any botanical garden, environmental center, or state park nearby where similar native plants are prominently featured.

Even if you still think the bioswale is ugly--and I would guess you probably will--you at least will understand more about how these plants perform.

Then when you are in dialogue with the maintaining authority for the bioswale, you know what other features they had in mind when they chose the bioswale solution. You may be able to work with them to select a more beautiful palette of plantings that will still perform the same ecological purpose.

If this is a city government department, as your question seems to state, you have the option to escalate the conversation to the city council representative serving your area, and ultimately to the mayor and city manager, if you have one.

In sum, first try reasoning with the maintaining authority about either trimming or replanting the area. If that does not work, you then have to go political, which entails getting the person you are complaining to out on the site to look at your neighborhood and the landscape. Photos can do plenty, but a field visit will be even better at helping to explain the context of why you would be upset by what to you is an ugly bioswale.

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