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An Unlikely Canvas

Across America, storm drain art discourages litter

At first glance, storm drains and their unglamorous job of transporting stormwater runoff do not seem like catalysts for environmental activism. Yet, communities across the nation have embraced storm drains as canvasses to raise awareness about local water quality.

At first glance, storm drains do not seem like catalysts for environmental activism.

Storm drain art takes advantage of the visibility and ubiquity of drains in urban spaces to display succinct and often witty illustrations that remind citizens of the negative impact that street litter has on the quality of their local water source.

Environmental advocacy groups and municipalities across the country have embraced storm drain art as a participatory method to advocate for improving local water quality. The organization of these initiatives have been as diverse as the paintings that they have produced. Across the US, more than 40 cities and towns—from Dayton, Ohio to Lincoln, Nebraska—have seen their civic and community leaders come together to spearhead their own storm drain art initiatives. Some cities, like Richmond, Virginia, and Lafayette, Louisiana, have relied exclusively on their public utilities departments to run their storm drain art projects. Others have seen local community groups step up and operate these initiatives independently, as seen in Tualatin, Oregon.

Blue Water Baltimore (BWB), an environmental advocacy group, teamed up with the Baltimore Department of Public Works to facilitate community storm drain painting activities.

Storm drain art reminds citizens of the negative impact that street litter has on the quality of their local water source.

According to Michel Anderson, the education and outreach manager for BWB, community outreach is an essential part of their storm drain art initiative. BWB acts as an organizer and mentor for local community groups and residents that want to take up storm drain painting; they train residents on the best practices in storm drain painting, and rely on their trainees to then go and train their respective neighborhoods and community organizations on how to lead their own storm drain art initiative in their communities.

“Our prior environmental advocacy work and the relationships we formed from our experiences really helped us out when we started training folks from the communities to lead their own storm drain art initiatives,” said Anderson.

Blue Water Bmore (flickr)

Painting a storm drain in Baltimore.

Since 2010, over 500 storm drains have been painted or stenciled in Baltimore, which have reminded countless Baltimoreans to keep their streets clean and prevent runoff!

In Arkansas, Drain Smart, a state-wide environmental education initiative supported by the Arkansas Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts, has gathered more than 10 local environmental, advocacy and governmental organizations to team up and raise awareness about local water quality.

Dr. Dan Scheiman, Bird Conservation Director for Audubon Arkansas and an organizer with Drain Smart, recounted how the initiative’s collaborative structure helps get things done.

“Our main committee [made up of the partner organizations in the initiative] decides which storm drains to have artists paint. Then we provide a $150 stipend to the local artist and give them two months to finish their mural,” said Scheiman.

Maya Griffin & Audrey Davis. Drain Smart

The main committee includes organizations like the City of Little Rock, Little Rock Water Reclamation Authority, the Department of Arkansas Heritage, Audubon, Friends of the Fourche Creek, and several others.

“Audubon benefits tremendously from the partnership that we have with our partners. We get help funding everything from community outreach to printing to buying paints for this project,” Scheiman added.

The city of Lexington, Kentucky runs their own stenciling program, where they provide volunteers with kits to help stencil drains around the city; the city also provides durable enamel paint and safety gear to artists to paint murals. The Friends of the Mississippi River, another environmental advocacy group based in St. Paul, Minnesota, provides local youth volunteers with creative stenciling kits to help them paint simple yet effective messages across city. Just across the Mississippi River, the Minneapolis Department of Public Works runs a storm drain art initiative that guides corporate group volunteers on a date with environmental awareness.

All initiatives, of course, require governmental approval to paint on public property and on public ways, which highlights the necessity of good working relationships between community groups looking to start similar initiatives and local governments willing to sponsor such efforts.

Successful storm drain art initiatives boast thorough collaborations between community groups and local government. In projects from San Francisco and New Orleans, to Montgomery County, Maryland, and Battle Ground, Washington, local organizations have partnered with their local governments to organize a viable storm drain art initiative.

Storm drain mural at Germantown Library in Montgomery County, MD.

Storm drain stencil in Lexington, KY


With storm drain art initiatives gaining traction in hundreds of municipalities across the country and around the world, thousands of people are better positioned to raise awareness of their local water quality.

While there remain obstacles to establishing such initiatives, such as noncompliant weather and funding, among others, storm drain art remains an accessibly simple and compelling way to raise awareness about local water quality.

“I definitely see storm drain art expanding into more cities over the next five years. It’s a simple way to get involved and make a difference in your community,” said Scheiman.

Using art to inspire and educate can ultimately improve our water quality! Look out for storm drain art initiatives near you.

Interested in participating in a Storm Drain Art Initiative? Look out for our next blog post about how to get started!


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