Updated: Dec 26, 2019
Deborah Deets grew up in the San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles in the 1970s knowing that she wanted to study fine art. Her parents, however, “suggested” a career in science or engineering instead, as art was not considered a lucrative way for a woman to earn a living.
Deets followed her family’s wishes, but she never let go of the desire to bring creative expression to her work. At age 13, as one of just two girls in a horticulture class at Oliver Wendell Holmes Middle School in Northridge, Calif., Deets entered and won a countywide “L.A. Beautiful” landscape design competition with a plan for a new Japanese-themed quadrangle for her school. Her winning entry, which included construction drawings to be implemented by her male classmates, confirmed what Deets had long suspected: that art, science and engineering all contribute to making a city more functional – and more beautiful. The experience also taught her to respect and value the diverse points of view that inevitably arise during the definition and development phases of new infrastructure projects.
Today, as a nationally-recognized stormwater specialist and the lead landscape architect for Los Angeles Sanitation’s (LASAN) Watershed Protection Division, Deets applies these principles daily to her role overseeing and managing green infrastructure projects. She works from an office in downtown Los Angeles at the Los Angeles County Public Works Department building.
“We’re integrating Los Angeles’s man-made flood control #infrastructure – piped drainage, water treatment systems etc. – with more natural ways to capture, filter and re-use stormwater,” said Deets, who graduated from Cal State Long Beach with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. “We’ve been really good at controlling and removing stormwater from the built environment, but we’ve short-circuited opportunities to reuse that water for ecosystem support, irrigation and potable resources.”
Deets and her team of some 30 landscape architects are working with “green” engineers to change the course of this history. Their approach? Redesign LA street systems to recirculate and filter water naturally, increase the use of vegetation, and take advantage of photosynthesis, a process that cools the environment as it converts carbon dioxide and water to oxygen and food energy.
Putting People First
Most consumers think of a landscape architect as someone who helps integrate backyard vegetation, irrigation and hardscape elements yard into a functional and aesthetically pleasing design. Deets’ team, however, performs work that is far more diverse and more specialized.
“LA Sanitation has landscape architects who work as planners, historical restoration specialists, parks specialists, folks who specialize in recreation or street improvements, and people like me, who specialize in storm water,” said Deets. “All of us, however, are concerned with people’s health, safety and well-being. Our goals are to enhance open spaces; create healthy, bio-diverse neighborhoods with clean water and better streets; and provide better integration of water, transportation and the environment.”
A New Framework
As a green infrastructure specialist, Deets thinks about city streets in a nontraditional way: not as impermeable, paved transportation corridors and public spaces, but rather, as arterial “streams;” i.e. corridors that can perform many of the natural functions of streams: water supply, water quality, and flood control.
“We live in a built environment of impermeable streets and engineered flood control channels that disrupt the natural water drainage, filtering and groundwater-recharging functions of our local LA River tributary system,” she explains. “As a result, stormwater becomes contaminated from surface trash, hydrocarbons and other pollutants, flows into storm drains, then travels untreated into the ocean where it can harm marine estuaries and local beaches.”
To help restore stream-like functionality to LA streets, Deets and her colleagues are “creating a hybrid hydrology system that integrates man-made flood control devices with water resources from private property and buildings along greenways that can help capture, filter and reuse stormwater for irrigation.” This new approach will also help the City reach its #sustainability goals by reducing overall water consumption and its reliance on imported water.
Persistence Pays Off
Over the years, Deets has been recognized through awards, publications and public speaking opportunities for her leadership in water management and green infrastructure.
In 2013, she helped drive LA Sanitation’s development of a comprehensive set of stormwater management tools for engineers and urban designers called the Greenways to River Arterials Stormwater System, or GRASS. These guidelines, which married her passion for standards with her view of “arterial streets as urban streams,” became a tool for engineers and designers to manage water supply, water quality and flood control in the Los Angeles metropolitan area.
In 2014, Deets was recognized by the National Association of Clean Water Agencies for her design and implementation of the Edward P. Reyes Greenway project, an effort that diverted and filtered polluted stormwater from a storm drain in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Lincoln Heights before it entered the Los Angeles River. The project cleaned up an illegal dumping site and produced an ecological reserve and green space for the community.
In 2016, Deets was invited to speak about GRASS at the Designing Cities Conference sponsored by the National Association of City Transportation Officials. And in 2017, Deets and her academic teams from Cal Poly Pomona, USC, and UCLA received a Professional Research Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects for their collaboration on GRASS.
Collaboration Drives Success
What Deets values even more than the recognition she’s received, however, are the opportunities she’s had to work with linear and nonlinear thinkers alike – engineers, scientists, developers, administrators – as they define and develop bold, new green infrastructure for Los Angeles.
“The Los Angeles River watershed offers 834 square miles of opportunities to develop new ways to manage water and ensure water reliability for society,” she said. "If we continue to seek clues from nature on how best to define green infrastructure, our projects will become part of a watershed cycle that will return Los Angeles to a healthier, more prosperous place to live.”
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If someone you know is doing innovative work modernizing the nation’s water, energy, transportation, or telecommunications #infrastructure, I’d love to profile that person on this blog. Please send your ideas to brooks @personsofinfrastructure.com. Thank you.