Orion Blog

Concrete Progress: The Rain Barrel People

Backyard rain barrels, with gutter and hose attachments.

Backyard rain barrels, with gutter and hose attachments.

Concrete Progress is an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion’s Reimagining Infrastructure project.


Industrial America was made in Pittsburgh. Coal from the hills of western Pennsylvania was turned into coke that made the steel that built cities across the country and the world. At the same time, of course, this smoke-belching metropolis helped invent what we now call pollution—for decades, Steel City was also known as Hell with the Lid Off. Some of the most horrifying incidents of deadly air and water pollution in American history happened in and around Pittsburgh, and while the workers who went to the steel mills and did their part to build the country and provide for their families, many coughed and wheezed on the way home, and died young.

But recently, Pittsburgh, like most of the Rust Belt, has faced up to the demise of its steel economy and the question of how a postindustrial city should work. It’s done resoundingly well, with a beautiful twenty-first-century downtown and a thriving tech sector. When I visited Pittsburgh a few years ago, I went in expecting to find a grim Bruce Springsteen song, but I found, well, a happy Bruce Springsteen song—more like “The Rising.”

The Pittsburgh story of industrialization and decline and rebirth is reflected in the waters of the Nine Mile Run, a tributary of the Monongahela River that flows through the city. In the past, the stream was culverted and buried, a dumping ground for slag, without a fish to be seen. But in the late nineties, as Pittsburgh was re-creating itself, the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association (NMRWA) formed to restore the stream. In the first years of the twenty-first century, the association worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a variety of other organizations to restore the run’s natural sinuous channel, plant native vegetation, and generally bring back the natural systems that had been throttled for decades. And it worked: by 2006, the Nine Mile Run looked like a natural stream and acted like a natural stream, and if you go there today, there are fish in it, once again.

After its initial resounding success, the NMRWA faced another challenge, common to restoration efforts: how to sustain success and ensure that the stream continues to function robustly and naturally? Today, the NMRWA strives to maintain and improve the stream in many ways, from tree planting to trash pickup, but the most interesting one—and the one I’m going to focus on here—is rain barrels.

One of the subtle and pervasive problems of the urban era is stormwater—the excess precipitation that runs across a world of impervious surfaces. Indeed, Orion’s very first Reimagining Infrastructure feature looked at just this problem. An inch of rain on a thousand-square-foot roof yields six hundred gallons of runoff. Unchecked, this water washes across driveways and parking lots and city streets, picking up oil and trash and pet feces and all sorts of other delights, and then deposits them in area streams. Where people use combined sewer systems, overflows in big storms also include human waste.

StormWorks's 133-gallon rain barrel, The Hydra.

StormWorks’s 133-gallon rain barrel, the Hydra.

Stormwater is the biggest challenge faced by Pittsburgh’s Nine Mile Run. There are a variety of options to absorb or reuse runoff— green roofs, for example—but to make a big difference, you need a lot of people, and to get a lot of people, you need simple, affordable solutions. In an urban area where rain falls on thousands of privately held plots, that means handling these problems one household at a time. Rain barrels, which cost a few hundred dollars, are just the thing.

The basic version of a rain barrel is a fifty-five-gallon bucket placed under a clean gutter. It catches the rain and holds it for future use. Typically, the contents go on lawns and gardens, which consume 30 percent (yes, really!) of household water. The barrels have a spigot at the bottom for a hose attachment.

A few years ago, the NMRWA started promoting rain barrels, selling them on its website, and installing them at houses around the watershed. So far, the group has installed more than sixteen hundred barrels in a six-and-a-half-square-mile watershed and has saved hundreds of thousands of gallons of runoff from entering streams. The staff of the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association have become known around the east end of Pittsburgh as The Rain Barrel People.

The program has worked so well, in fact, that in 2010 the NMRWA decided to create a runoff mitigation arm called StormWorks, which supplies products and expertise to people all around Pittsburgh. StormWorks offers three different rain barrel options: a small, sixty-five-gallon version ($220); a bigger 133-gallon option, manufactured locally from recycled plastic ($295); and the Hydra. The Hydra is pretty much the Tesla Model S of rain barrels—a bit more expensive, at $325, but super high performance. A slender but capacious 116-gallon machine, it fits comfortably in even the subtlest spaces around the house, behind hedges or along walkways, with several spigots and a filter. It is the rain barrel for people who want to save their rivers but don’t want a big black barrel squatting outside their house.

The Nine Mile Run is a fortunate watershed, but every stream has people who love it, and more and more of them are organizing. Watershed councils are the future of American waters, and while we all cherish wild rivers, we are now an urban country, and the degraded streams that flow through our nation’s cities need our care. Pittsburgh is sometimes spoken of as a model for the nation’s postindustrial cities. The Nine Mile Run offers a model for our postindustrial rivers.

Peter Brewitt has wondered about infrastructure ever since a flood kept him away from three days of kindergarten. A professor of environmental studies at Wofford College, he is devoted to understanding how people decide to restore and remake their environments. 

Concrete Progress: Rocky Mountain Bike


Concrete Progress is an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion’s Reimagining Infrastructure project.


Say you’re a movie star. Life is good, but one day you decide that Los Angeles, with its massive traffic jams and gritty air and plastic balls in the water, isn’t for you. At a wrap party, Kevin Costner urges you to check out Aspen, Colorado. You fly in, and Aspen feels exactly the way you’d hoped, its adorable shops and classy bars and dignified old buildings surrounded by splendid Rocky Mountain scenery. It is a John Denver song, Old West, New West, and Wild West in one little town. The slopes and restaurants are full of people, winter and summer, who come to ski and hike and eat elk burgers. But with all these people, you wonder, how is it that the streets and the air of little downtown Aspen aren’t congested like LA’s?

One reason: everyone’s riding a bike.

The popularity of bike culture in Aspen is largely due to the work of a local nonprofit called WE-cycle, a bike-sharing program overseen by community activist and Aspen native Mirte Mallory. Mallory, a friendly, gregarious, frizzy-haired woman who was a competitive skier and cyclist in college, is engaged in an array of initiatives, from environmental education to county planning and zoning, but her main occupation is WE-cycle. When community leaders worried over traffic congestion and air quality in Aspen, she remembered some successful bike shares she’d seen in Europe, and thought she could bring the same idea to the Rockies.

Bike shares are essentially public fleets of bicycles, available to anyone who buys a membership. Riding a bicycle instead of driving a car is, of course, one of the best ways for a regular person to help the world. It’s cleaner, low carbon, more fun, better for you, and, if you live in a city, often much faster than driving a car or taking a bus. But, of course, it can be expensive to buy and maintain a bike, and if you’re visiting, or just looking to do the occasional errand after work, it may not make sense to purchase one. Bike shares allow you to have the environmental and quality-of-life benefits of bikes without the expense and hassle of owning one. As interest in bikes has exploded (and as downtown cores have become more appealing places to ride around), so too have bike shares. There are almost a hundred of them in the U.S., with more starting all the time.

Now, for the most part this is an urban phenomenon—you need a certain amount of density for bike shares to really deliver value. Aspen is believed to be the first mountain town to have a bike share program. But while Aspen’s population is only 6,738, its problem—and that of other ski towns and beach towns and river towns and cathedral towns—is that during tourist seasons, the place holds the same kind of human density and municipal pressures as a much bigger city. It needs to reduce traffic just as much as Manhattan does.

The idea for WE-cycle came to Mallory in 2010, when it seemed like most of the bikes in Aspen were built to rocket down mountain trails rather than to get people around town. She cobbled together money from a wide variety of public and private funders, and, in 2013, WE-cycle’s first bikes were rolling along Aspen’s streets. By 2015, Mallory and her team built a system of one hundred bikes and sixteen docking stations covering the downtown core and surrounding areas.

Here’s how the system works:

You start by buying a pass—for a day, a weekend, a month, or a whole season. The day pass costs nine dollars; the season pass for fifty dollars takes you from May to October. (You have to be pretty rugged to bike in the Colorado winter.) You can get passes online, or, in the case of day and weekend passes, at the bike stations themselves. You swipe your card and, for the next thirty minutes, bike wherever you want in town. This makes it easy for people to commute on the bus and then ride to their daily destinations—the mile between the bus station and the office is often the reason people drive their cars. Most of WE-cycle’s riders are local, season-pass holders who make bikes part of their everyday routine, taking their cars off the road all summer long.

The thirty-minute limit is intentional. WE-cycle is intended for people to make their way around town, not to ride off into the mountains. The idea is to keep the bikes in circulation and available for all. The bikes are heavy and durable—rigid aluminum frames, puncture-resistant tires—and riders would not want to go twenty or thirty miles on one. Even the farthest-flung stations are only a fifteen-minute ride apart, so no one is likely to keep a bike for very long. If you do happen to hang on to your bike for longer, you start to incur overtime fees—a few dollars for an extra thirty minutes, and more thereafter. The layout of the stations, as well as real-time updates on how many bikes and docks are available at each station, can be found on WE-cycle’s website or on the CycleFinder or SpotCycle apps.

As of mid-September 2015, partway through WE-cycle’s third year of existence, it had 17,700 rides. That’s 13 percent growth since last year, and 89 percent since year one. And the growth isn’t just in ridership; WE-cycle is starting to partner with towns throughout the Roaring Fork Valley to connect bike shares to the valley-wide bus system. In the near future, you may be able to travel freely throughout the Valley with no car at all.

It’s important to note that bike shares are not simple to run—they require constant monitoring and responsiveness. Some programs fail, and some riders abuse their bikes. Winter, with its weekly horde of skiers, remains a challenge in Aspen. (If you ask me, WE-cycle should add those awesome but silly Fat Bikes to its fleet for snow riding.) But by virtue of being a small-town program, WE-cycle can respond swiftly to any issues with its bikes or their riders. Since most of WE-cycle’s pass holders live and work in Aspen, they are plugged into the community. As bike shares become more and more common, the people who run them are learning, and making their bike shares, as well as their communities, more sustainable. In the future, movie stars may not have to buy a cabin in Aspen to escape congestion; Los Angeles is starting its own bike share.

Peter Brewitt has wondered about infrastructure ever since a flood kept him away from three days of kindergarten. A professor of environmental studies at Wofford College, he is devoted to understanding how people decide to restore and remake their environments. 

Concrete Progress: Putting the “P” in “Progress”

Rich Earth Institute volunteers in downtown Brattleboro.

Rich Earth Institute volunteers in downtown Brattleboro.

Concrete Progress is an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion’s Reimagining Infrastructure project.


Like any nonprofit, the Rich Earth Institute solicits donations. But while the organization appreciates tax-deductible contributions, it also wants your liquid gold: urine. If you live in southern Vermont, the Institute can use your help to make the fields around Brattleboro verdant and productive.

People urinate (or ought to) about five times a day, producing a total of about one liter of fluid. In case you’re wondering, pee is yellow because of the pigment urobilin, which is produced as old blood cells break down in your liver. When we pee, nutrients escape our bodies and become waste. In a year, according to the Rich Earth website, a person pees out eight pounds of nitrogen and one pound of phosphorus. These nutrients are the very things that we manufacture artificially into fertilizer and spread on our fields, at great financial and environmental cost; excess nutrient pollution from fertilizer is one of the biggest challenges facing American waterways today, resulting in algal blooms and oxygen-starved rivers all over the country.

In 2012, the founders of the Rich Earth Institute looked at this situation, looked at the farms around Brattleboro, and put two and two together: instead of buying artificial nutrients, why not use the ones our bodies secrete every day? And why not, at the same time, keep some bodily waste out of treatment plants? The Institute calls it “closing the food-nutrient cycle.” After only three years, two hundred contributors have provided forty-five-hundred gallons of urine. Their nutrients have helped make hay at Whetstone Valley and Fairwinds Farms, two operations in Brattleboro.

It’s important to note that Rich Earth has worked with Vermont’s regulators since day one to ensure that its work is legally certified. The state recently permitted the organization to use a mobile pasteurizer, probably the first such system in America, so that the nutrients move easily from farm to farm. Word is spreading about the project all over the region as the Institute works with local and state lawmakers. While everyone at the Institute is serious about the mission, they’re not above a little toilet humor. Volunteers wear t-shirts featuring an airport-style male/female toilet symbol, but instead of a divider, there is a pitchfork.

Some readers might be wondering… Isn’t pee unsanitary? Well, not exactly. Urine is sterile. The diseases associated with human waste come from feces (which has much lower nutrient levels than urine). Of course, there is always the possibility of cross-contamination when collecting pee, so, to be sure, the Rich Earth Institute pasteurizes its liquid using solar power as well as the natural cleansing action of urine’s ammonia. If you let urine sit for six months, it will clean itself. The Institute also uses urine-diverting toilets; this is the best way to handle the problem, but not many houses have them (yet).

A tougher issue is artificial pollutants—pharmaceutical waste, for example—which are also in your pee, and which also flow into our waterways, as wastewater treatment plants typically aren’t built to handle them. With the help of scholars from the University of Michigan and the University of Buffalo, Rich Earth is attacking this problem. Research is ongoing, but it seems that artificial pollutants degrade better after being applied to active soil than after being dumped in water, another advantage of using pee for fertilizer. Until the studies finish, Rich Earth is doing the conservative thing and only fertilizing hay instead of food crops—and there’s enough hay acreage in the Northeast to keep them busy for years.

Now, urine is a funny topic—I came up with more potential titles for this entry of Concrete Progress than for any other—and you might be squeamish about it, but I think the case of the Rich Earth Institute shows how creative people can be when they’re confronted with a problem. Almost all water pollution fixes take place at the end of the pipe—cleanup or purification of already-polluted water. But Rich Earth solves the issue of excess nutrients before they get into the system. As a result, less waste flows into municipal wastewater plants, less artificial fertilizer gets dumped on fields, less nitrogen runs into rivers. Win, win, win.

Some of the things I write about in this column are pretty site specific—you can’t have a deepwater cooling system without some deep water. But Rich Earth’s model is the most replicable innovation I’ve ever seen. In the long term, I don’t see why it couldn’t scale up to meet the needs of a city. As people strive to reduce waste and conscientiously use natural resources, more of us may be diverting our pee in the future.

Peter Brewitt has wondered about infrastructure ever since a flood kept him away from three days of kindergarten. A professor of environmental studies at Wofford College, he is devoted to understanding how people decide to restore and remake their environments. 


Chris Cox Is Orion’s New Editor-at-Large

Christopher CoxWe’re delighted to announce that Christopher Cox has been named as Orion’s Editor-at-Large. His work will mainly involve editing feature articles for the magazine. Chris is the former editor of Harper’s Magazine and a former senior editor of The Paris Review. Work he has edited has won the National Magazine Award, the PEN Literary Award for Journalism, and has been included in several Best American collections.

Like the rest of us at Orion, he graduated from Harvard and earned a master’s degree from the University of Cambridge. Just kidding. None of the rest of us went to Harvard or Cambridge. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and daughter but travels to Orion’s home base in the Berkshires whenever he can.

The Rebirth of the Twitter Feed @OrionGrassroots!

OGN Twitter FeedRecognizing the importance of grassroots activism to the betterment of the planet, Orion supported grassroots environmental organizations through the Orion Grassroots Network for many years. The work of OGN included a Twitter feed to share news, tools, and ideas that help activists do their good work. In recognition of this critical activity, Orion has invited OGN’s former coordinator, Erik Hoffner, to revive the Twitter handle @OrionGrassroots so that it can continue inspiring and informing grassroots action.

For more information contact Erik at erik.hoffner@gmail.com.