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cars and asphalt, no fountains or shade trees = uncapping hydrants

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  • Christopher Miller
    Via Planetizen, an interesting article and proposal for improving the urban environment in New York to provide an alternative to the practice of uncapping fire
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 23, 2009
      Via Planetizen, an interesting article and proposal for improving the
      urban environment in New York to provide an alternative to the
      practice of uncapping fire hydrants for relief from the urban heat:


      Uncapping hydrants is a widespread practice in NYC used by residents
      of paved over areas to alleviate the summer heat. It has its (not
      difficult to imagine) down sides, and the author of this article
      proposes street trees, gardens and closure to vehicles to help cool
      down the streets people live on.


      NYC Uncapped
      by Adrienne Cortez
      July 22nd, 2009
      environment, inwood,landscape architecture,manhattan,
      neighborhood,parks, plaNYC, play, public space, street,
      sustainability,washington heights, water
      share it
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      Adrienne Cortez is a landscape architect whose work explores themes of
      urban sustainability and the use of existing infrastructure as a
      framework for deploying green technologies. Last year she received a
      New York State Council on the Arts Independent Projects grant to
      pursue research on that quintessential urban summer pastime of playing
      in the rushing waters of open fire hydrants. Her subsequent project,
      nyc:uncapped, explores the social, physical, and environmental
      implications of this practice, and proposes an alternative strategy
      for beating the heat that encourages neighborhood recreational
      activity while dramatically reducing water waste.

      Swelter, by Keystone
      A gushing hydrant drenching happy kids is an iconic image of urban
      summertime. My first 4th of July living in New York was boiling hot
      and I was thrilled to see the open hydrants in person. It wasn�t until
      several years later that this article from the Times caused me to
      rethink the excitement of the open hydrant.

      The article provided a shocking statistic: at full power an open
      hydrant pumps out 1,000 gallons of water a minute. Uncapping, or
      opening, the local hydrant for relief from the heat had never struck
      me as anything more than a fun, and totally accepted, urban practice
      that had been going on for decades.

      But that 1,000 gpm figure stuck in my head. And my curiosity
      eventually led me to develop nyc: uncapped, a study of the common
      summertime practice, and, in response to those discoveries, an
      exploration of alternatives.

      Diagram courtesy of Flickr user takomabibelot
      Quick web-surfing yielded plenty of articles going back for a number
      of summers, chronicling the water lost from open hydrants all over New
      York and other cities like Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Chicago. The
      cumulative effect of so many running hydrants raised concern �
      especially since New York has had at least seven droughts in recent

      It is estimated that the average person will consume about 7,000
      gallons of water in their lifetime. At 1,000 gallons per minute, an
      open hydrant will have spent the entire lifetime supply of drinking
      water for two people in just 15 minutes. The water loss is staggering,
      particularly when you consider that hydrants typically remain open for
      much longer.


      This tension between the ability of an open hydrant to activate public
      space and the potentially serious impact it has on ecological health
      provides the foundation for nyc: uncapped. Exploring the uncapping
      ritual and its context, this project re-imagines the hydrant as more
      than a basic tool for firefighting � it can also be a valid
      opportunity for play and even a catalyst for ecologic improvement.

      Unless they are uncapped, or you�re in a car looking for a momentary
      parking space, hydrants disappear into the white noise of
      miscellaneous street appurtenances. The first step in my research was
      to understand how the hydrant worked and fit into the New York City
      water supply system.

      The city�s water originates in upstate watersheds encompassing more
      than 2,000 square miles of land. 21 reservoirs and lakes collect,
      hold, and distribute water into a system of aqueducts and tunnels that
      travel over 125 miles to deliver more than 1.3 billion gallons of
      water to the city every day (an amount that would fill the Empire
      State Building to the brim more than four times). After being filtered
      and treated, the water delivered to our kitchen sinks is identical to
      the water flowing to a hydrant � it is all potable water.

      At least 60 different boards, agencies, and committees across city and
      state borders form a complex web of organizations that manages the
      vast operations of the NYC water system. Chief among these is the
      Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which is responsible for
      maintaining the hydrants.


      Citizens are allowed to use their local hydrant only if it is equipped
      with a spray cap, provided and installed by the fire department at no
      charge. Holes in the cap on the barrel�s side reduce the flow of water
      from 1,000 to 25 gallons per minute. Opening the hydrant without a
      spray cap is illegal and citizens can be ticketed or fined for what
      the city terms �hydrant abuse�.

      When a hydrant is fully open, water pressure in the surrounding
      hydrants drops, rendering them ineffective in their primary role as
      sources of water for firefighting. Water pressure in nearby buildings
      is also affected, causing problems for hospitals, local businesses,
      and residents.

      On top of public safety issues, the water is not free. We currently
      pay indirectly for water expended from a hydrant through water rate
      hikes. If hydrants were metered to charge an on the spot pay-to-play
      fee, the water would cost $2 per minute plus an additional $4.30 per
      minute to take the water into the city�s treatment system for
      cleaning. At $6.30 per minute, three hours romping in the local
      hydrant would run just over $1,000 � which does not take into account
      extra costs associated with man-hours required to close, repair, or
      replace broken hydrants.

      nyc: uncapped
      While open hydrants can be found across much of the city, Washington
      Heights, the South Bronx, and South Jamaica neighborhoods experience
      the most frequent activity, according to the DEP. In preliminary
      research a single hydrant on 156th Street was notable for having been
      opened and closed 14 times in a single day, prompting my decision to
      focus nyc: uncapped on the Washington Heights and Inwood
      neighborhoods. For ease of information gathering, the study also
      includes everything north of 155th Street in Manhattan (the geographic
      boundary for Community District #12). While only 1% of the city�s
      hydrant inventory is located in this district, 20% of the calls to 311
      complaining of an open hydrant come from this area.

      Hydrant uncapped without spray cap

      Hydrant equipped with spray cap
      Beyond the obvious temperature driver, it became apparent that the
      physical environment of CD12 contributes to the frequent open
      hydrants. Looking at a map one would think that this area, the
      skinniest part of the island, surrounded by the Hudson and East Rivers
      and large swaths of park, would have plenty of shady opportunities for
      recreation. However, major highways run through the parks and steep
      elevation changes (up to 150�) make it a challenge to access much of
      the parkland and waterfront. Despite the acres of parks, CD12 has one
      of the lowest percentages of tree canopy cover in the city. The lone
      municipal pool in the district, which can handle about 2,400 visitors
      a day, has to serve the district�s 50,000+ kids under the age of 18.
      People often stand in line for an hour or more waiting to be admitted.

      Numerous visits to CD12 confirmed that hydrants were getting a lot of
      unauthorized use during the summer. I also found plenty of residents
      hanging out on the sidewalks in front of their homes in cooler months,
      suggesting that hydrant uncapping is partially fed by a broader
      socially-active sidewalk life, and is not singularly motivated by
      physical factors.

      Alternatives to uncapping
      The open hydrant tradition has to evolve. Given the projected
      increases in both summertime temperatures and the city�s population, a
      corollary increase in the number of uncapped hydrants can also be
      expected. While the creative appropriation of the hydrant and
      surrounding sidewalk for recreation is the beginning of a good multi-
      use strategy, my goal was to preserve the positive aspects of
      uncapping without sacrificing water resources.


      Part of the city�s plaNYC initiative is to plant one million trees by
      2030. Why not target streets with frequent uncapping activity and
      limited tree cover, close those streets to traffic for the summer, and
      transform them into seasonal tree nurseries? In so doing, these
      temporary parks would provide immediate relief to the residents of
      CD12 while supporting a city-wide green agenda.

      Each summer, growers would deliver a planting season�s lot of new
      trees to the Uncapped Streets, their leafy cover providing relief from
      the sun while mitigating the intensity of heat bouncing off paved
      surfaces. Temporary irrigation nurturing the boxed trees would also
      provide a cooling spray for locals playing tag among the boxes or
      pausing for a moment in the shade.


      By piggy-backing on an existing program and utilizing basic materials,
      the Uncapped Street program could be mobilized quickly with minimal
      investment. Assuming a successful reduction in �hydrant abuse� the
      temporary nursery/park program could be enjoyed for a number of years,
      rotating through streets in need. Supporting one of the city�s
      premiere green initiatives could become a badge of honor for these
      selected streets. And with a million trees to plant, CD12 would be
      able to develop a permanent tree canopy by planting their share of the
      new trees before the Uncapped Streets program is retired.

      The future uncapped
      While the Uncapped Streets nursery/park program meets immediate needs,
      I also wanted to investigate longer-term solutions to address the
      causes of uncapping: heat and park access. One possibility builds upon
      the simple technology of a tree box filter, envisioned here as a
      hydrant garden. Extending the entire 30� of a hydrant�s no-parking
      zone, a planted section of the sidewalk becomes a bio-retention
      component of the city�s drainage system. Storm water is slowed and
      filtered by the plants and their soil before entering the city
      treatment system.


      Framed by a pair of the million new trees, the hydrant is recast as
      the anchor of a mini-park and micro-climate generator. Reconfigured to
      use river water instead of potable water, the hydrant with its spray
      cap continues to provide cooling water, filtered from the river, on
      demand. The spent water collects in the garden, nourishing the plants
      as it percolates through the soil. Evaporation of the water and
      evapotranspiration of the plants �breathing� cools the local air. By
      making the hydrant the centerpiece of the mini-park, the hydrant
      becomes more visible as a signifier of the city�s hybrid approach to
      civil engineering, natural resource management, and recreation.
      Repeated from block to block, the hydrant garden, a decentralized
      segment of park, reiterates the presence of a larger ecologic and
      engineering system at work.

      nyc:uncapped was motivated by more than a concern for wasted water. I
      used this study to demonstrate how a more holistic approach to urban
      problem solving can allow a single intervention to address several
      municipal challenges more effectively than looking at each issue as a
      discrete problem with a singular solution (i.e. Problem: Unlawfully
      opened hydrants threaten public safety and ecological health;
      Solution: eliminate all hydrants and have firefighters access water
      mains through sidewalk vaults). Here, a hydrant garden provides an
      array of benefits to both city and neighborhood. The bio-retention
      capabilities of the hydrant garden/mini-park help protect water
      resources by slowing the storm-water as it enters the city�s treatment
      system, thus reducing peak flow of storm water and incidences of CSO
      discharges. The contaminant load entering the system and requiring
      treatment is also reduced. Yet the engaging ad-hoc event of uncapping
      can continue without threatening water resources. The mini-park
      promotes neighborhood gathering and recreation while contributing to a
      reduction in urban heat island effects across the city.


      I would like to gratefully acknowledge the sponsorship of the
      Architectural League and the financial support of the New York State
      Council on the Arts in completing this project.nyc:uncapped was funded
      by an independent project grant through NYSCA�s Architecture,
      Planning, and Design Program.

      Adrienne Cortez is a licensed landscape architect with degrees from
      the University of Virginia and Trinity University, Texas. Recent work
      has ranged from an intimate city garden to a large post-industrial
      site. She recently relocated from Manhattan to Dallas to handle
      project work in Mexico. She can be reached at cortez (at) nyc-uncapped
      (dot) com.


      Christopher Miller
      Montreal QC Canada

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