The Heights

Environmental Justice: Safer streets, cleaner water in the Heights

High Ground News is working with Urban Art Commission on a series of stories about environmental justice at the neighborhood level.

Environmental justice is a response to environmental racism and focuses on how harm to the environment uniquely affects marginalized communities. Examples of environmental racism include placing dumps and factories in communities of color, or unequal access to healthy food and clean water. These systemic inequalities can create health disparities that affect families over many generations.

The Heights Community Development Corporation has installed the first in-road bioswale in Shelby County.

The new bioswale at the corner of National Street and Tutwiler is a part of the Heights CDC’s larger effort to improve local water quality. They will hold a public dedication ceremony for this part of the project at 752 National Street on Wed. May 25 at 10:30 a.m.

Bioswales are a type of green infrastructure with landscaped plants, flowers, and rocks. They replace traditional concrete gutters to collect stormwater and runoff. The vegetation in this bioswale serves as a filter and sponge, cleaning and reducing the amount of water draining to the Wolf River.

Installation of Shelby County's first in-road bioswale includes traffic calming features throughout the intersection of Tutwiler and National in the Heights. (Reginald Johnson).

Cleaning up

The Heights CDC started a massive street clean-up project back in 2020. At the time, their goal was simply to make streets and sidewalks safer for pedestrians and bikers. As they cleared discarded trash and tires from gutters and roads, they began to realize this project was also improving the quality of the stormwater.

“If we can improve the quality of stormwater, we’re improving the quality of water in our aquifer that we drink,” said Dane Forlines, Special Projects Director for the Heights CDC. “The aquifer, as with anything else that’s a natural resource, can be compromised, contaminated, depleted.”

Dane Forlines of the Heights CDC clears debris from a storm drain near the bioswale. (Reginald Johnson)

So they acquired more funding, extended the project timeframe, and expanded the project goals to include multiple efforts to address water quality. Forlines said that the CDC staff, work crews, and volunteers have cleared out over 30,000 pounds of litter, 2,600 pounds of recyclable material, and 300 discarded tires from the Heights neighborhood.

“[The aquifer] is a very valuable resource, one of the best things about Memphis, and we want to make sure it stays that way for the foreseeable future,” said Forlines.

Expanding impact

With the project expansion, the group was able to get more litter out of the road than originally planned, allowing them to progress with riparian restoration, community education, and the creation of the bioswale.

Riparian restoration refers to improving a habitat’s ecology by allowing natural elements to regrow. The Heights CDC will start the restoration process by planting new trees by the stream in Douglass Park in partnership with the City of Memphis Division of Parks and Neighborhoods.

The Heights CDC has also prioritized educating the public about water quality concerns and solutions. They engaged with 239 students at The Collegiate School of Memphis, a neighborhood middle and high school. They also hosted an interactive class, led by Kathy Justis from the Wolf River Conservancy, aiming to educate community members focusing on watersheds and water quality.

In August 2021, the Heights CDC partnered with Innovate Memphis and Memphis River Parks to host a free, outdoor concert as part of the “Soulin’ on the River” series. Special guest Sonya Homes from the City of Memphis Stormwater Division provided concertgoers with opportunities to learn about water quality and participate in the Adopt-a-Storm Drain program. The CDC also used its existing digital reach to educate followers on the connection between litter and water quality through newsletters and social media posts.

The new bioswale in the Heights will improve water quality on a neighborhood and regional level. (Reginald Johnson) The organization plans to post several permanent signs around the bioswale site so neighbors can learn about the function and benefits of this type of green infrastructure.

“This will provide a local case study intended to encourage construction of additional bioswales around the city,” said Forlines. “There are studies that show how green infrastructure can increase property values and how this reduces burden on public infrastructure.”

Pedestrian Safety

Crew members for the Heights CDC work on traffic calming features to complement the new bioswale construction at Tutwiler and National. (Reginald Johnson)The construction of this particular bioswale will add even more community benefit by making Tutwiler Avenue seven feet narrower. This will increase pedestrian safety, both by slowing down traffic and by decreasing the distance it takes to walk across the street. The Heights CDC marked the other three corners of the intersection to match, creating a complementary visual effect and maximizing the traffic calming benefit.

The Heights CDC has a long history of promoting pedestrian safety and community walkability. In 2021, they funded a public art installation that highlighted the growing number of pedestrian fatalities due to vehicle strikes in Shelby County. They have also been working toward incorporating a vertical park and walking path into the median on National Street.

The CDC’s efforts to clear debris and litter has resulted in more walkable sidewalks and more bikeable streets, meeting their original goal of boosting safety for pedestrians and cyclists.

“In several locations, sidewalks had virtually disappeared under decades of grime, sediment, and trash,” Forlines said. “We were able to redeem the sidewalks and reveal the original concrete that, in most cases, was in good condition.”

Community Connections

To clear the streets, the Heights CDC welcomed 312 volunteers, contracted with local businesses, and hired part-time work crews. Funding for the cleanup came from two grants—one from the Krege Foundation, and another from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Crew members for the Heights CDC work on traffic calming features to complement the new bioswale construction at Tutwiler and National. (Reginald Johnson)The CDC also partnered with several City of Memphis departments as well as the Wolf River Conservancy to install the bioswale, plant trees, and promote community education on water quality. 

All hired crew members were residents of the Heights. After they finished working on the project, workers received additional training and assistance to transition into full-time job placement. The Heights CDC helped four crew members find permanent, full-time jobs—three in logistics, one as a welder—and they provided another member with housing assistance.

Over the course of the combined litter abatement and water quality improvement project, work crews and volunteers had over 250 engagements with community members. According to Forlines, several residents and business owners said that seeing investment in the neighborhood made them feel safer and more connected.

Ripple effects
Every person in Memphis and on planet Earth lives in a watershed.

According to the National Geographic Society, a watershed is an area of land that drains or “sheds” water into another specific body of water. The Heights CDC’s efforts focused on the Workhouse Bayou, a 3.7 mile concrete waterway that collects street runoff and stormwater from the neighborhood. That stormwater continues into the Wolf River and then the Mississippi River, which empties out in the Gulf of Mexico.

Data from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (T-DEC) confirmed that the Wolf River experiences significant challenges to water quality, especially with high levels of E. coli and phosphorus. Too much E. coli can make water unsafe for people to swim or boat in. Too much phosphorus can lead to overgrowth of algae, harming animal life in the water by blocking access to oxygen.

“[Cleaning up stormwater] improves the quality of water people drink, it improves the quality of air people breathe,” said Forlines. “It also beautifies the public space, which cannot be understated.”
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Read more articles by Leigh Tatum.

Leigh Tatum is a behavioral health consultant with a M.S. in social work. She is a resident of The Heights and graduate of the first High Ground News Community Correspondents program.