In Southbridge, a predominantly black, working-class neighborhood of Wilmington, a little bit of rain goes a long way. Here, even the lightest of storms can result in overwhelming floods, halting traffic and damaging homes and businesses. Bouts of inundation are something of a tradition in Southbridge, an area laden with brownfields and the scars of once-boisterous industry.
The historic area of Southbridge sits tucked away in the southern portion of the city, straddling the Christina River to the north. Frequently, the waters of the Christina come creeping through the streets to form an all too common scene. Oftentimes, residents have to worry whether or not they’ll be forced to evacuate their homes every time the clouds open up.
“Everyone in Southbridge has a flooding story,” Marie Reed, the president of the Southbridge Civic Association, said. “For me, it’s been my entire lifetime. When I go to bed, and it’s raining, I don’t know what it will be like in the morning.”
Reed, whose family has lived in Southbridge for over 70 years, remarked that the flooding situation in her neighborhood seems to have worsened over the last few decades. Mold, sewage backups and cumbersome travel remain a constant issue. On her phone, she showed a video depicting the aftermath of a storm, wherein a car struggles to wade through close to a foot of water.
The sea level in Delaware has risen almost 16 inches since 1900, according to the 2017 Delaware Sea Level Rise Technical Report, indicating that sea level rise has played a significant role in exacerbating flooding events in Southbridge. Outdated and ineffective infrastructure lacks the ability to prevent water from intruding into the streets and, subsequently, houses.
“What happens when you have high tide, these tide gates that are supposed to let water out, they get backed up,” John Callahan, an associate scientist and climatologist at the Delaware Geological Survey, explained. “The excess stormwater, as well as household sewage, is mixed in some pipes.”
These pipes often become backed up from excess stormwater, forcing a combination of rain water and sewage to seep into the streets.
However, the relentless barrage of flooding in Southbridge may soon come to an end. The South Wilmington Wetlands Park, a project that the City of Wilmington says it has been working on since 2006 and hopes to complete by 2020, will undoubtedly help assuage the overspill of the Christina.
“The main goal of the wetland in general is to alleviate some of the flooding problem,” Melisa Soysal, an AmeriCorps Public Ally with The Nature Conservancy’s Delaware chapter, said. “We really believe that the wetland is going to be a great help.”
The wetlands park is currently under operation on a brownfield adjacent to historic Southbridge. The project includes restoring habitat using native plants to establish forested swamp, wetland marsh and other vegetative ecosystems. In addition, a boardwalk is planned for inhabitants to traverse the area. Working in conjunction with organizations like the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), the Nature Conservancy and Brightfields, Inc., a brownfield redevelopment firm, Wilmington and the Southbridge neighborhood have finally been able to establish a plan that is delivering hope and optimism to dissatisfied residents.
“After Katrina, for me that was the last straw,” Reed said, emphasizing the peoples’ frustration with the lack of assistance from their government.
Now, with the plans for the wetlands park in place, the tides seem to have turned for the better.
“The community is excited; it’s been a long time coming,” Reed said.
The activism of residents and the Southbridge Civic Association has finally paid off. “This has definitely been a community-based project,” Reed said.
Additionally, collaboration with professionals and organizations like the Nature Conservancy has been advantageous in educating the neighborhood’s populace and providing support for the scheme’s blueprint.
“We gave some input to the design team,” Soysal said. “We are still here for them if they need anything.”
First and foremost, the wetlands park aims to provide flood control. The City of Wilmington said that it will separate over 36 acres of combined stormwater and sewage pipes and reengineer the overflow system to drain into the wetlands park.
“A lot of the strong waves can really be dampened out by the vegetation. It also acts like a sponge or a container,” Callahan said of a wetland.
Beyond avoiding inundation, the South Wilmington Wetlands Park will have an immense impact on water quality and brownfield restoration. The proposed vegetation will assist in the absorption of noxious chemicals from water, while also providing habitat for birds and small mammals.
What’s more, the park will yield enormous social and economic benefits.
For one, the park will include a bike path that will increase the ease of transportation. Many low-income residents do not own cars, and are instead forced to walk or use public transportation. Furthermore, the presence of urban green spaces will improve both the mental and physical health of those living in the community. There is a clear connection between interaction with nature and increased immune function, according to the United States Forest Service’s blog page.
Additionally, a lack of both physical recreation and walkability is linked to 3.3% of deaths across the globe, according to the World Health Organization.
“People feel more relaxed and at ease when they’re around green spaces,” Soysal said.
Finally, the wetlands project will make the area of Southbridge more attractive to investors and businesses. Commercial development, in turn, can lead to the economic revitalization of a former industrial center.
But for all of the optimism generated by this project, there still exists the harsh reality of climate change-induced sea level rise. Moreover, most Southbridge residents understand that this is not a panacea.
“This Wetland park is not a cure-all, it’s a start,” Reed notes.
However, the community does hope to use the park as a springboard toward future environmental initiatives.
In fact, wetlands as a tool to help fight sea level rise are becoming more common.
“Those more natural approaches are definitely getting more popular,” Callahan said, noting that Organizations like The Nature Conservancy are also planning more green spaces across Wilmington. “We’re looking at implementing some rain gardens, stormwater management and green infrastructure in the city,” Soysal explained.
Regardless of whether Southbridge sees more of these green infrastructure projects, there remains little doubt that the South Wilmington Wetlands Park will provide much-needed relief from flooding. What appears even clearer, however, is the resilience and determination of the residents in Southbridge.
“Flooding has no color—it affects everyone,” Reed said.
Environmental issues are in fact color blind, but can unquestionably be combated by people of all colors, creeds and backgrounds. Fortunately, that is what communities like Southbridge have continued to do.