• William F. HuntEmail author
  • Bill Lord
  • Benjamin Loh
  • Angelia Sia
Open Access
Part of the SpringerBriefs in Water Science and Technology book series (BRIEFSWATER)


Bioretention systems, also known as biofiltration systems, biofilter or rain gardens, is a common stormwater mitigation measure. It utilises a low energy consumption treatment technology to increase water quality and reduce peak discharge.


Filter Medium Impervious Surface Commercial Area Drainage Pipe Rain Garden 
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Bioretention systems, also known as biofiltration systems, biofilter or rain gardens, is a common stormwater mitigation measure. It utilises a low energy consumption treatment technology to increase water quality and reduce peak discharge.

A typical bioretention system can be configured as a basin or a longer narrower vegetated swale overlaying a porous filter medium with a drainage pipe at the bottom. Surface runoff is diverted from the kerb or pipe into the biofiltration system, where it physically filtered through dense vegetation and temporarily ponds on the surface of planting media that acts as a filter before being slowly infiltrated vertically downwards through the media. Depending on the design, treated water—the effluents—is either exfiltrated into the underlying or surrounding soils, or collected in the underdrain system—subsoil perforated drain—to downstream waterways or receiving waterbodies. The system varies in size and receives and treats runoff from a variety of drainage areas within a land development site. They can be installed in parks, roadside planting verges, parking lot islands, commercial areas, civic squares and other unused areas.

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Bioretention systems have been found to be viable and sustainable as water treatment devices. In addition to the ability to reduce peak flow generated by impervious surfaces and improving water quality, they have the following benefits:
  • Take up a small footprint in relation to its catchment area

  • Are self-irrigating (and fertilizing)

  • Provide habitat and protection of biodiversity

  • Can be integrated with the local urban design

  • Assume a higher level of amenity than the conventional concrete drainage system

  • Serve as a tool to reconnect communities with the natural water cycle

  • Have positive impacts on the local micro-climate—evapotranspiration results in cooling of the nearby atmosphere

Plants are essential for facilitating the effective removal of pollutants in bioretention systems, particularly nitrogen. The vegetation also maintains the soil structure of the root zone. The root system of the plants continually loosens the soil and creates macropores, which maintain the long-term infiltration capacity of bioretention systems. Some plant species are more effective than others in their ability to adapt to the conditions within a biofilter.

The key parameters to consider for selecting plant types for bioretention systems are:

Growth form

Plant species that have extensive root structure with deep roots that penetrate the entire filter media depth are suitable for bioretention systems. Dense linear foliage with a spreading growth form is desirable, while bulbous or bulbo-tuber plants should generally be avoided as they can promote preferential flows around the clumps, leading to soil erosion.

Water requirement

Plant material selection should be based on the goal of simulating a terrestrial vegetated community which consists of shrubs and groundcovers materials. The intent is to establish a diverse, dense plant cover to treat storm water runoff and withstand urban stresses from insect and disease infestations, as well as the hydrologic dynamics of the system.

There are essentially three zones within a bioretention system. The lowest elevation supports plant species that are adapted to standing and fluctuating water levels. The middle elevation supports a slightly drier group of plants that grows on normal planting media, but with some tolerance to fluctuating water levels. The outer edge is the highest elevation and generally supports plants adapted to dryer conditions as it is above the ponding level.

“Wet footed” plants, that is obligate wetland species, are generally not recommended if the filter media used is sandy.

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The key parameters to consider when designing with plants for biofiltration systems are:

Planting density

The overall planting density should be high. This will increase root density, maintain infiltration capacity and hence surface porosity. As a result, distribution of flows will be more even. Having dense planting will also increase evapotranspiration losses which reduce stormwater volume and frequency, and reduce weed competition. On the other hand, low density planting increases the likelihood of weed invasion and increases the subsequent maintenance costs associated with weed control.

Areas furthest from the inlet may not be ponded during small rain events in a large scale bioretention system. Plants selected for these areas may therefore need to be more drought resistant than those nearer to the inlet. On the contrary, plants near the inlet may be frequently inundated, and potentially buffeted by higher flow velocities. Therefore plants selected should be tolerant of these hydrologic impacts.

Range of species and types

A bioretention system with a range of plant species increases the success of the system as plants are able to “self-select” suitable establishment areas within the vegetated area—drought tolerant plants will gradually replace those plants that prefer wetter conditions (in areas furthest from the inlet).

Furthermore, bioretention systems with higher number of plant species and types have positive impacts on urban biodiversity compared to monoculture lawns. The presence of a bush canopy (mid-stratum) provides quality foraging and sheltering habitat for invertebrates that monoculture lawns cannot provide.

Where the landscape design includes mid-stratum, more shade tolerant species should be chosen for the groundcover layer. Trees and shrubbery should be managed so that the groundcover layer can still perform.

Use of mulch

The use of organic mulch such as hardwood chips is generally not recommended for bioretention systems with overflow pits, due to the risk of clogging. Mulch is susceptible to washout or will move to the perimeter of the system during a storm and high flows. Another reason for not recommending organic mulch, such as woody mulches, is nitrogen depletion from the filter media. Microbial decomposition requires a source of carbon (cellulose) and nutrients to proceed. As microbial breakdown of the woody mulch material takes place, nutrients from the surrounding soils (filter media) is rapidly used, often resulting in the depletion of nitrogen. Microbes will out-compete plants for soil nitrogen, and therefore, the decomposition of woody mulch may have detrimental impacts on plant health.

Stone mulch (10–20 mm diameter, minimum depth 100 mm) is preferred where there is a need to protect the soil from erosion or reduce the gradient of the batter slope (for safety reasons), whilst still maintaining the designed ponding volume.

A minimum depth of 50–100 mm gravel mulch is recommended to effectively prevent weeds from germinating and penetrating through the mulch layer. High planting densities should compensate for the reduced spread of plants caused by the stone or gravel mulch.

Safety consideration

The standard landscape design principles of public surveillance, exclusion of places of concealment and open visible areas apply to the planting design of bioretention basins. Regular clear sightlines and public safety should be provided between the roadway and footpaths or comply to the requirement of local authority.

Traffic sightlines

The standard rules of sightlines geometry apply. Planting designs should allow for visibility at pedestrian crossings, intersections, rest areas, medians and roundabouts.

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2015

Open Access This chapter is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial License, which permits any noncommercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited.

Authors and Affiliations

  • William F. Hunt
    • 1
    Email author
  • Bill Lord
    • 2
  • Benjamin Loh
    • 3
  • Angelia Sia
    • 4
  1. 1.North Carolina State UniversityRaleighUSA
  2. 2.North Carolina State UniversityLouisburgUSA
  3. 3.Baxter Design GroupQueenstownNew Zealand
  4. 4.National Parks BoardSingaporeSingapore

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