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]


2 thoughts on “Using public art to tackle pollution from urban runoff

  1. Hi, just curious! Actually, other than just this campaign, are there other measures in place? Because campaign sounds like it might take a while to change people’s behaviors?


    • Hi YKK!
      Definitely, one campaign alone does not tackle multiple aspects of the problem. To me, what this campaign does is to ensure sustainability of whatever measures that are taken to manage storm water in the city (and may also cultivate healthier practices such as recycling). We may look at the whole set of solutions from two perspectives:
      1) Control the pollution at source (which is to reduce the amount of waste that goes into storm drains)
      2) Treatment of the polluted storm water
      To answer your question, other measures in place involves promoting household recycling (to reduce the amount of waste generated), cleaning the storm water collection system, government monitoring and regulation of industrial facilities and any illegal waste disposals, and possibly engineering solutions to treat the polluted storm water. Public outreach is actually just one of the seven primary programme elements to Truckee Meadows Storm Water Management Programme (SWMP).

      For more details you may want to refer to the document “2011 Storm Water Management Program” (which includes revisions in 2014)
      and the other links that are found here!


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