Stormwater: it’s an equity issue - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Stormwater: it’s an equity issue

The same rainfall looks very different when it hits the ground in communities facing poverty, disinvestment, population loss and capacity constraints

Pam Broviak, Flickr/CC

A mere drizzle in one area can spell damaging floods for another.

It’s spring! That means showers will soon bring flowers.

But while the stormwater may fall in fairly equal amounts across metro Chicago, the effects of that rain will disrupt people’s lives in very different proportions depending on where you live and how prepared your community is to weather the storm. In households across our region and nation, the level of a family’s vulnerability to urban flooding reflects the social vulnerabilities they may be facing.

Disinvested communities across Illinois are losing residents and businesses. Population loss constrains municipal revenue: once individuals and enterprises depart, they no longer contribute to the local tax base. Maintenance of sewers is then shouldered by fewer residents, stretching municipal budgets thin. As a result, investing in measures that would better prepare a community for the next storm—like cleaning old or installing new pipes and pumps or budgeting for green streetscapes—just doesn’t get prioritized.

Some communities may have the funding, but lack the technical capabilities, have limited access to relevant stormwater data or simply don’t employ a staff member dedicated to responding to problems caused by stormwater. Add to the mix a backlog of maintenance issues and this can even mean severe urban flooding damages for local residents from the smallest of storms.

Low-income areas, often populated with people of color or non-native English speakers, are many times exposed to the greatest environmental hazards. But due to their oft-diminished tax bases, these neighborhoods may also be the most limited in terms of capacity to adapt to acute environmental shocks, like extreme weather events, as well as chronic stresses, like repeated flooding from frequent, smaller storms.

There are families and businesses within the south and west sides of Cook County facing a number of these conditions simultaneously: disinvested and depopulated neighborhoods, municipal capacity constraints, and geographic concentrations of people in poverty. When residents in these communities experience the same storm as someone living in downtown River North, they already have an unequal starting point from which to handle all the rainfall and stay dry.

CMAP's recent Stormwater and Flooding Strategy Paper takes a closer look at the overlay between documented flooding claims and what they refer to as economically disconnected areas. Their analysis points out how flooding does not affect all populations in our region equally. The results? $907 million in flood damage payments by federal programs to the Chicago region disproportionately are concentrated in the south and west areas.

This unequal ability to manage stormwater throughout our region is due in large part to inequities at institutional, political or socioeconomic levels perpetuating the root causes within the built and natural systems in which we live. This exacerbates urban flooding in some areas and not in others.

Simply put: it’s an equity issue.

Which is why stormwater requires an equitable planning approach. This excerpt from NAACP’s report Equity in Climate Adaptation Planning hits the message home:

What about the elderly woman who has a physical disability, has no private vehicle, lives in a flood plain, and has no homeowner’s insurance? What infrastructure and other improvements are we implementing that will effectively strengthen her resilience to the next disaster?

Reading that stopped me in my tracks.

As we the practitioners discuss the merits of various green infrastructure BMPs (jargon for best management practices—like a rain garden or permeable pavers) for different locations, we clearly want to help with urban flooding in our region.

But, if that motivation to make a difference masks first forging a connection with the very people we are setting out to help—being curious about their own lived experience and staying open to what might be most needed before deciding what to offer—are we really doing our job well? In the end, will we really be moving the needle on building our region’s resilience to climate change for all?

One path forward to better planning and policymaking in this space is to use the racial equity tools that some governments have adopted and that define many community-based organizations: disaggregate data by race and income in order to center the conversation around the experiences of the populations most inequitably impacted. If we conduct public engagement designed to be accessible to the woman in the NAACP’s example, we’d be more likely to reach her (and people like her) and thus be better able to design the interventions that she and her community needs.

This is at the core of why working on stormwater management matters. It’s not because we get excited when it rains. It’s a quality of life issue for all Chicago residents. And it requires acknowledging that when it rains, people and communities have inequitable tools to deal with it. This means that some people and some communities will need more planning and investment than others to level the playing field.

I recently came across this quote that sums up why none of us is really handling stormwater well until everyone is:

If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” – Lilla Watson, Aboriginal elder and social-justice activist in Australia.

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