Public-Private Partnerships for Water Infrastructure and Stormwater

Helping the urban landscape become more receptive to water inflow

By Kimberly E. Diamond and Paul M. Gelb


Water projects have become a major focus of public support. One potential development area for the real estate industry is adaptive architecture that benefits from water flow and assists with stormwater management.

Impervious surfaces such as rooftops, driveways, sidewalks, and roadways cause heavy rains to be lost to stormwater runoff. Currently, almost three quarters of all rainwater in heavily paved cities ends up in sewers rather than in the ground as it would in a natural environment. Unfortunately, stream systems receiving this runoff are poorly equipped to handle the rapidly flowing, high volumes of water surging into them.

This is why innovative public works projects are attracting public interest and generating opportunity for architects, city planners, and investors. The prevalence of public-private partnerships has given rise to next generation technology and solutions to integrate water more readily into the built environment, helping the urban landscape to become more “sponge-like” and receptive to water inflow.

For instance, advances in modern architectural design facilitate the incorporation of foliage of various kinds in, on, and around commercial buildings. “Living walls,” or “vertical gardens,” consist of plants arranged to create mural-like, green artwork installations covering and attaching to indoor walls while arranging plants inside a custom-designed frame can create smaller, gallery-like pieces. Not only do vertical gardens provide attractiveness and air filtration systems to buildings, but they also make financial sense. Generally, they lower room temperatures by approximately five to 12 degrees, resulting in up to a 20 percent cost savings on air conditioning bills.

Commercial building exteriors can also showcase innovative, green design, as well as provide cost effective, sustainable solutions to rainwater runoff and absorption. Moss panel outdoor walls provide wintertime insulation that reduces overall heating costs. During summer, they help cool air around the building and reduce wall surface temperature by up to 50 degrees, resulting in significant savings on air conditioning costs. They also reduce noise levels by absorbing and refracting acoustic energy. Combine these advantages with moss walls’ ability to soak up rain, and it’s a strong business case for these structures.

Commercial buildings can also provide sustainable solutions for stormwater runoff if they contain green roofs which are roofs containing various types of plants. Green roofs can be installed on flat or mildly sloping rooftops. Plants grown on green roofs do not need deep, heavy soil. Rather, they use a lightweight growing medium, a root barrier system, additional waterproofing insulation, and a water drainage system. Similar to exterior moss walls, green roofs provide building insulation that can save approximately 80 percent in costs from the reduced amount of air conditioning needed to cool the building. From a cost perspective, green roofs make sound business sense and provide a practical, yet cutting-edge, answer for addressing stormwater management.

On the ground, water can be treated as a valuable asset, rather than as litter, thanks to avant-garde advances in rain garden, bioswale, and street designs. These contemporary and stylish urban infrastructure constructs assist in managing stormwater runoff from sidewalks, parking lots, streets, and roadways. Rain gardens, areas planted with native plants and grasses, located near a runoff source such as parking lots, absorb and re-use a large percentage of rainwater while enabling the ground to become an aquifer that absorbs and stores fresh water. This prevents water runoff contaminated with oils, fertilizers, and other pollutants from entering the sewer system. It also helps the environment by attracting migratory birds, bees, and butterflies while helping clean rainwater soak into the ground to recharge local groundwater systems. Additionally, rain gardens decrease mosquito breeding grounds by reducing pools of standing water.

Bioswales also offer benefits for stormwater mitigation. Bioswales are trough-shaped, man-made ditches that contain foliage-covered sloped sides leading to shallow drainage areas. They provide an alternative to storm sewers due to their ability to absorb and filter heavy rains and offer a way to integrate the built environment with natural resources.

A combination of innovative design and adaptive architecture is a good answer for public works projects aimed at leveraging a water-rich environment. Redesigning the urban landscape so that it becomes more permeable benefits the environment and helps shift people’s mindsets about adopting more sustainable approaches to cities. Creating public-private partnerships, backed by state or municipal funds, can present attractive opportunities for investors and enable cities to upgrade their architecture and infrastructure and become more water resilient.

Paul Gelb has litigated for 20 years. He is Counsel in the Los Angeles office of Drinker, Biddle & Reath LLP. He can be reached at

Kimberly Diamond is an Adjunct Professor of Energy Law at Fordham Law School in New York City. She is Chief Executive Officer of Boaz Energy Group. She can be reached at

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