The Critical Role Surface Water Resources Play in Urban Revitalization

To create more livable, walkable and resilient urban centers, WSP USA collaborates with city leaders to find ways to improve, maintain and protect their water assets.

The growth and evolution of any city is significantly shaped and impacted by the availability, quality and simple presence of its surface water.

“Water is life,” said Michael Drennan, vice president of the California Water Business at WSP. “But people also enjoy living, walking or just being near water. Waterfront development attracts people and investment.”

WSP USA’s vision for urban revitalization includes stormwater management, river restoration, green infrastructure, resiliency and watershed management – all of which are essential in reimagining cities capable of enhancing quality of life.


A park in downtown Portland, Oregon provides a drainage basin for surface water management, as well as a natural public area.

Water at the Heart of Cities

Cities often developed along and around waterways to be near a consistent water supply. That relationship was at the center of a city’s ability to flourish. Aside from the obvious importance of the resource to human survival, rivers and water bodies also provided opportunities for exploration, goods movement, commerce, relaxation and more.

Unfortunately, many rivers and waterfronts were also used as waste disposal sites, which adversely impacted water quality and, with it, the value of those assets and the appeal of waterfront property.

“For decades, cities had their backs turned towards rivers and waterfronts, but many are turning that around and recognizing the value to residents, visitors, and the local economy,” Drennan said. “Environmental regulations, as well as a desire to improve quality of life in urban areas, are driving cities to reclaim their rivers and waterfronts as assets to be enjoyed.”

With property values typically higher in desirable areas adjacent to water, it is also making financial sense to restore and protect those areas.


Vancouver Waterfront Park features a scenic pier, plazas, extension of a public trail, performance area and an urban beach along the Columbia River.

Greener Cities

Until the past few decades, stormwater runoff was not given considerable attention, and was usually allowed to flow over the surface of urban areas, where it collected pollutants, then discharged untreated pollutants into creeks, rivers, lakes and oceans. Today, stormwater quality regulations are requiring those pollutants to be managed to reduce impacts to our surface waters.

“Cities are going greener as they look to become more sustainable and address multiple objectives such as stormwater pollution reduction, cooling of the urban heat island, solid waste reduction, energy reduction, traffic calming, and other ideas to make our cities more livable,” Drennan said. “There is much more progress to be made, and many cities are getting on board to bring about needed change.”

Cities are looking at a variety of solutions, including green infrastructure, which involves natural stormwater capture techniques such as grassy swales, detention basins, tree wells and other forms of low impact development to manage pollutants. Capturing stormwater runoff using these methods provides myriad benefits, including pollutant reduction, groundwater recharge, water supply, flood control, instream beneficial uses, wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities, economic vitality and improved quality of life.

As one example, WSP is assisting city planners with their urban revitalization plans through the design of green streets, which incorporate surface water components into newly designed streets that promote stormwater capture, water conservation, and improved groundwater supplies through infiltration. The green streets approach also feature more trees and shade that improve air quality and reduce urban temperatures, and drought tolerant and native plantings to further increase conservation.


WSP is part of the team designing Waterfront Seattle, a program that is creating lively public space, while also addressing stormwater management needs in the area.

Climate Impact

These projects have taken on more critical importance with climate change impacting water supply, particularly in arid California.

“California has historically relied on rainfall as its water supply, stored as snowpack during the winter months and then melting to feed its rivers and groundwater basins in summer months,” Drennan said. “As temperatures rise, snowpack is being dramatically reduced, which in turn is forcing West Coast cities to rethink how they manage their water supplies and local runoff.”

While funding can be a hurdle for many of these projects, WSP has been instrumental in helping agencies identify funding mechanisms that help make their vision a reality.

“Most flood control agencies do not have authority to manage stormwater quality objectives in their enabling legislation, and many cities that are responsible for stormwater discharge permits struggle with limited funding,” Drennan said. “Stormwater pollution is hard to see or grasp, unless you are exposed to photos of massive amounts of trash floating in the water. Cities have been successful at combining urban redevelopment projects with green infrastructure where residents can see tangible benefits.”

In an example of this growing awareness, Los Angeles County voters recently approved a ballot measure with a 2/3 vote of the public approving $300 million annual funding for nature-based stormwater capture projects. Support was built through public recognition of the multiple benefits provided for their quality of life, including stormwater management, water supply, and development of green infrastructure such as parks and river restoration.


The Los Angeles River flows alongside the abandoned railroad freight yard that will be the future home of Taylor Yard River Park.

Works in Progress

WSP has been involved in the design of several recent U.S. projects that incorporate surface water improvements.

In 2019, work was completed on Vancouver Waterfront Park in Washington, a park built on the site of a former industrial paper mill that provided public access to the waterfront for the first time in 75 years. The 7.3-acre park features a scenic pier, plazas, extension of a public trail, performance area and an urban beach along nearly 2,500 feet of riverfront. It is the centerpiece of the City of Vancouver’s $1 billion waterfront revitalization program, reconnecting the city to the banks of the Columbia River.

WSP has been assisting the City of Los Angeles with their plan to revitalize the Los Angeles River. Taylor Yard River Park is being designed to convert an abandoned railroad freight yard along the Los Angeles River into a 40-acre public park. It is the first major project of the city’s Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan, which envisions a connected series of green spaces along an 11-mile corridor of the river throughout the city. Drennan described Taylor Yard River Park as the “crown jewel of this revitalization plan.”

As part of the design work on the Alaskan Viaduct Waterfront Replacement program in Seattle,, WSP worked with the Washington State Department of Transportation on a major redevelopment of waterfront areas that had been cut off from the public since the construction of the Alaskan Viaduct in 1953. Now with the viaduct replaced with a downtown tunnel and removed from the waterfront, WSP is part of the team designing Waterfront Seattle, a program that is creating lively public space, while also addressing stormwater management needs in the area.

The San Diego County Green Streets technical guidance document was created in 2018 to assist developers and county staff in understanding what is expected, what may be permitted, and what can be approved for redevelopment or retrofitting of existing paved roads, streets or alleys. By establishing standard designs for over 50 stormwater capture best management practices, it provided San Diego County with an opportunity to manage potentially significant storm water and pollutant sources with innovative treatment systems.

“Restoring urban waterways provides both ecological function and amenities for communities, as does the creation of more resilient coastlines and waterfronts,” Drennan said.

It was an opportunity to work on environmentally impactful projects like these that inspired Drennan to join the firm in 2016.

“I was inspired to join WSP because of their vision and commitment to create the cities of the future,” Drennan said. “I am passionate about making a difference in my community and the world and WSP provides me the resources, tools and support to make that happen.”


San Diego County Green Streets guides developers and county staff in understanding needs for redevelopment or retrofitting of existing paved roads, streets or alleys.

More on this subject