Using public art to tackle pollution from urban runoff

Stormwater runoff is intensified after a precipitation event over, in particular, urban areas; the large amount of concrete walkways and streets reduces infiltration and percolation of precipitation into the ground. A good drainage system is essential to removing precipitation rapidly from urban areas to prevent flooding.

Unfortunately, that means that any pollutants on the streets are washed into the drains by urban runoff. These pollutants includes chemicals from motor cars such as motor oil and improperly disposed household cleaning products, and also physical waste such as plastic bottles and other rubbish thrown onto the streets. These storm water often drains directly into natural water sources.

To tackle this problem, the city of Reno, Nevada, started a campaign, “Storm Drains are the Mouth of the Reno”, in August 2013. Painting attractive art on storm drains (these are definitely a lot more attractive than the metal storm drain markers) , authorities hope to educate residents on the difference between storm drains (which leads directly to water sources without going through treatment plants) and the sewage systems so that residents will be more aware of the potentially disastrous impacts of polluted storm drainage on the Truckee River and its ecosystem. This is done by painting various marine creatures over storm drains so as to “humanise the storm drains”, prompting residents to think twice before disposing rubbish or other chemicals into storm drains. The message is simple: “if we wouldn’t put radiator fluid, oil, or glass in our mouths, we shouldn’t put them in our river’s mouth.”

I thought that the use of prominent and striking public art is a good way to catch the attention of residents. Coupled with poster and social media campaigns, this campaign by the city of Reno seems promising (according to their video, which can be found below, they managed to reach 72% of their target audience through more than 100,000 shares over social media). Of course, it must be noted that outreach does not necessarily indicate the success of the campaign. More time is needed to observe if awareness did translate into education, and education did translate into action. I also had some doubts about the use of paints over drain covers — it seems to me that that chemical compounds from paints will contribute to urban runoff as pollutants too. Nonetheless, I thought that the campaign is definitely something ingenious and creative, and will be an effective tool for raising awareness. Perhaps the focus will shift more towards actively reducing the source of pollutants once more people are aware and understood the importance of doing so!


StormwaterPA (n.d.). Public Art takes on Pollution. [Online] Retrieved from [Last accessed: 27th January 2015]

Town of Truckee, California (2009). Stormdrain Markers. [Online] Retrieved from [Last accessed: 27th January 2015]

United States Environmental Protection Agency (2003). “After the Storm”. [Online] Retrieved from [Last accessed: 27th January 2015]

Storm Water Pollution Facts. [Online] Retrieved from [Last accessed: 27th January 2015]


1st Post — The Smoky Streets

Streets are peculiar places filled with life; they are where identities are played out, where minority groups make their voices heard, where the unique activities and character of streets are so very often marked by polluted environments. I thought that this topic will definitely be worth exploring!

Street pollution is of utmost concern, considering the dynamic environment of streets, which increases human exposure to various pollutants. Some pollutants creep stealthily into our bodies or cause us frustration (for instance, noise pollution), some affect the environment and ecosystems, while the others are more conspicuous. For instance, in Vietnam, coal stoves on the street (in addition to the huge number of vehicles) contribute immensely to the poor air quality in Hanoi.

The smoky streets begin a “new working day” after noon, when servers of the pavement food shops begin making a fire for their coal stoves. On the Thai Ha Market area alone, where there are tens of duck and dog meat shops located, tens of stoves begin operating, thus generating so many black columns of smoke.

— From ‘The smoky streets of Hanoi‘ (Retrieved 21st January 2015) [this article’s title is also the source of inspiration for this blog’s name 😛 ]

Polluted streets are all over the world, and this is just one of many examples. London’s Oxford Street, for instance, is said to have the worst nitrogen dioxide pollution in the world; it is noted from the discussions here that poor collection of data from other parts of the world may have left out many cities with streets that are just as, if not more, polluted than Oxford Street (perhaps we may explore more about data collection methodologies in subsequent posts!). Nonetheless, the fact remains that pollutants are well above the safe standard prescribed by the regional authorities.

It is definitely useful to look at street pollution then, with more places connected by roads and the increased number of vehicles around the world. While many cities are attempting to shift towards greener modes of transport (e.g. green vehicles, cycling), it is undeniable that street pollution is still an issue, especially in major cities; it is an issue that we should all be cognisant towards.


The Guardian (2014). Environment: The Eco audit. Does London have the worst NO2 pollution on Earth? [Online] Retrieved from [Last accessed: 21st January 2015] Bridge (2010). The Smoky Streets in Hanoi. [Online] Retrieved from [Last accessed 21st January 2015]