MSU’s research center to create rain garden for city corner

Landscaping design will address the ‘urban heat island.’

September 2, 2016
| By Pat Evans |
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Michigan State University
A rain water basin that collects water and filters it into the ground through vegetation is the main feature of the building’s landscaping. Rendering by SmithGroupJJR

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Once the Michigan State University Grand Rapids Research Center is complete, the corner of Michigan Street and Monroe Avenue should be much cooler — according to a thermometer.

The site’s “unconventional” landscape architecture will help make the corner feel up to 20 degrees cooler on hot summer days and prevent dirty runoff water making its way back to the Grand River, according to Keenan Gibbons, a designer at Ann Arbor-based SmithGroupJJR, the firm responsible for the design.

Site development is underway and will wrap up in the spring; the exterior of the building was finished in July, according to the most recent MSU Construction Junction report.

Instead of a conventional storm drain and sidewalk that directs water back to the Grand River and generates heat, Gibbons said the MSU GRRC will have a rain water basin that collects water and filters it into the ground through vegetation.

Originally, the plan was to install a storm water system, but SmithGroupJJR decided to go a different route, which raised some questions along the way, Gibbons said. Rain gardens are less expensive to create, economical and sustainable, he said. Water from the property, sidewalks — even winter snowmelt from heated walkways — and a majority of runoff from the adjacent Monroe Avenue will be diverted through the basin, he said.

“We’re recharging groundwater naturally by filtering it through vegetation,” he said.

Urban environments moved away from the pedestrian-friendly ease of getting from Point A to Point B, as highways were built throughout the United States in the 1950s.

Gibbons said a lot of American cities have struggled as “concrete jungles” but more are moving toward urban greenways, including work in Indianapolis and Detroit to enhance pedestrian activity and act as a catalyst for more development. As more projects, such as the MSU GRRC, incorporate these tactics, he believes more developments will begin to feature them.

“A lot of this isn’t new technology or new ways of thinking, it’s just being reborn in a modern, urban setting,” Gibbons said. “We’re trying to move away from conventional urban thinking and deal with the urban heat island.”

Gibbons worked at the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority for nearly a year and knows the corner of Michigan and Monroe well, especially its high-traffic tendencies. He noticed many of the city’s residents don’t realize how large of an urban block exists in downtown Grand Rapids.

Together with incremental landscape projects and the continued efforts along the Grand River, Gibbons believes Grand Rapids will become a friendlier city to pedestrians and the environment. He also said by working with The Rowe development team, he believes the pair of recent projects will set up for continued urban landscape through the North Monroe corridor and the slew of developments on the drawing board.

He believes following the completion of the new landscape at MSU GRRC, the corner will be less hostile toward foot traffic, while still effectively facilitating large amounts of motorists — all while alleviating storm sewer demands.

When working in landscapes, SmithGroup does its best to weave places together in an urban fabric, by fostering strong pedestrian connections with environmental factors, Gibbons said. The project will use recycled materials as much as possible in pavers, and benches throughout the space will have LED lights to help cut down on the “harsh orange and yellow lights” common in urban environments.

“When you look at what we’re doing, it’s all pretty vibrant,” he said. “It’s aesthetically pleasing, but everything has a function and a purpose.”

The garden is set up so a portion is designed to survive in low-water environments, while the lower portion is meant to be made of wetland vegetation. Gibbons said during the first several years, the greenery will be relatively the same but will develop over time.

“It’ll be fun to watch over the next few years to see how it develops,” he said. “It’ll be lush in a couple of years and take on a life of its own and attract butterflies and birds. It’ll be really fun to watch unfold.”

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