Burien Rain Gardens

By Camilo McConnell

On a sleepy residential block in Burien, Washington, there is a house that stands in contrast with the rest.

This contrast is the result of the efforts made by Lidia, the homeowner, who knew that the changes she made on her property would have a reverberating effect on not just her neighbors, but on the overall ecosystem that sustains the health of the Puget Sound. With support from the Duwamish Infrastructure Restoration Training (DIRT Corps) and the City of Burien, and funding from the Rose Foundation, Lidia installed a rain garden on her property, a green stormwater infrastructure project. The rain garden diverts and filters stormwater runoff from her roof into a beautifully planted landscape, keeping rain from gushing onto the streets, and stopping pollutants from getting into Burien’s stormwater system, the Duwamish River, and the Puget Sound.

Photograph by Mary Eidmann

Photograph by Mary Eidmann

Lidia first heard about green stormwater infrastructure when she attended a class run by DIRT Corps last year. DIRT Corps launched in the last two years, providing a hands-on training program focused on rain garden and cistern design/build, operations and maintenance, vegetation management, and ecological restoration. Through education and hands on training, students can grow technical skills that can lead to jobs in the environmental restoration field. By learning those skills, DIRT Corps graduates can start their own businesses, find new jobs, or continue their technical education in this field. What makes this training program especially effective is that each student is paid to attend class and participate in projects. By feeling financially secure, more people can enroll in the classes and successfully graduate from the program.

The project first started after the City of Burien matched a funding opportunity from the Rose Foundation, launching an effort to install 10 rain gardens and enlisting DIRT Corps to help with the design and installation of the gardens. The focus on Burien specifically and the Duwamish River Valley more broadly is deliberate by DIRT Corps because of the area’s environmental and social challenges. The Duwamish River Valley is one of the most polluted areas of the Puget Sound, while the residents of Burien are majority low-income population. As a result,the health and economic outcomes for these communities remains low.

Burien, like Seattle, is going through major population growth. Unfortunately, the same mechanisms that have enabled Seattle to thrive are not transferable to a city like Burien. “There’s a big social awareness component to it,” said Jaen Gomez, the DIRT Corps project leader who designed the rain garden. “Seattle has the resources and established support groups to install and maintain green spaces.” In places like Burien, groups like DIRT Corps must start from the ground up and establish relationships in the community and educate them on the benefits of green infrastructure. Jean added, “There are not a lot of connected greenways in Burien. Residents appreciate the gardens because they resemble mini parks. Some of the schools are teaching these things in curriculum. Students are able to see things they are learning in the classroom and apply it to real life.”

With environmental justice efforts as the foundation, DIRT Corps focused on installing ecologically beneficial green stormwater infrastructure while increasing the job capacity for residents. Lidia was a great candidate for a rain garden installation–a homeowner who appreciated the value of green infrastructure and the importance of upkeep for long-term success. Lidia participated in the DIRT Corps program, gaining technical expertise as well as learning that the rain garden she installed would help clean up the polluted runoff that ends up in the Duwamish River. And she wants her neighbors and friends to follow in her footsteps. Lidia hopes that her beautiful and functional rain garden will create a ripple effect in the neighborhood.

Photograph by Mary Eidmann

Although 10 rain gardens seem like a small number, every single one makes an enormous impact. After each rain garden is installed, DIRT Corps gets a new influx of residents wanting to learn more. “This is the tip of the iceberg,” Jean told me. As Burien residents start to see their neighbors, family, friends with rain gardens, they will also want one in their yard. Shifting paradigms has so much to do with seeing our peers doing things differently and in turn making us question our current habits. Burien has a great opportunity to prepare for the upcoming environmental challenges facing many communities in the Puget Sound. DIRT Corps and the City of Burien are leading the way in making sure that the residents of these areas are adequately prepared and have the right resources and education to succeed in this ever-changing environment.

If you would like to attend a DIRT Corps rain garden installation event,visit their website:

If you would like to learn about the sustainable programming for the City of Burien, visit:

Photograph by Mary Eidmann

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