For more than a decade, the Metropolitan Planning Council has been a leader in revitalizing and restoring the Calumet region, from affordable housing solutions to riverfront planning, from building government partnerships to engaging residents in placemaking. In 2016, as attention to one of Chicago’s most underappreciated assets grows, MPC has been more involved than ever.
The Calumet Water Reclamation Plant cleans more than 300 million gallons of the region’s wastewater a day.
The Calumet area encompasses dozens of Chicago neighborhoods and south suburban municipalities, many of which work on tight budgets to serve moderate- and low-income communities. Including areas on both sides of the Illinois-Indiana border, it’s home to more than a million residents, a legacy of industry, the south shore lakefront and the Calumet River, and 6,000 acres of high-quality natural areas.
“When you look at the size of the landscape, it’s about the same size as the San Francisco Bay Area—900 square miles. Given all that, it’s not easy to coordinate growth. It means we need to work together across disciplines and across the region,” says Bill Steers, general manager at ArcelorMittal, which has supported MPC’s work in the Calumet region, including with the Calumet Land Conservation Partnership, which works to ehance the area’s open space and rare ecosystems.
Steers is also the chair of the board of directors at the Calumet Collaborative, a public-private coalition focused on fostering economic, ecological and cultural opportunities in the area. “MPC has been involved in all these fronts,” Steers says. “I can’t say enough about how much MarySue [Barrett, MPC president] and Josh [Ellis, MPC vice president] are respected for their work in this region.”
MPC works directly with local institutions too. In suburban Blue Island, for example, our staff has been a resource to secure outside funding for needed infrastructure improvements, including millions of dollars in state, county and regional grants to mitigate urban flooding by planting new trees and replacing crumbling 80-year-old pipes. We’ve connected the city with volunteer architects to design gathering points along the Cal-Sag Trail and helped write the municipality’s transit-oriented development plan.
“MPC has provided staff time and expertise we couldn’t afford—they take policy work and make it concrete in our community. And the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative has brought people here that wouldn’t be in the Calumet region without it.”
—Jason Berry, former deputy director of community development for the City of Blue Island
The most dramatic example of MPC’s dedication was the dive Ellis took into the Calumet River last year (and again in 2017), to show off a much cleaner river and to raise funds to continue the 26-mile Cal-Sag Trail along the Calumet. “We saw an egret, herons, jumping fish, a turtle. We’ve got a ways to go, but think about what the river offers Blue Island and the Calumet region. You’re going to start to see concerts along the water, boat races, and more, because the water is finally clean enough that people can truly see the Calumet as a river,” he says.
In 2014, MPC formed another regionwide initiative, the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative. With severe storms, topography and aging sewer systems that consistently flood homes and businesses, the region has an ad hoc mix of government, nonprofit organizations, universities, land managers and engineering firms that play some role in resolving the issue. The collaborative meets monthly to coordinate their efforts.
“Because of the connections we make and the information they have learned, we believe people are making better decisions about stormwater,” Ellis says. Early products of the collaborative include free design schematics for green infrastructure and an online mapping viewer that makes a wide array of data for planning stormwater solutions accessible to the public.
Ramont Bell, an outreach coordinator with Faith in Place, a nonprofit that helps houses of worship improve their ecological footprint, says the resources make a big difference. “Every month someone presents a new tool we can use or emergent technology coming down the line. People who work at agencies offering grants tell us how to apply. If you have a question, you can just turn around and tap someone on the shoulder and ask their perspective,” he says about the value of participants in the collaborative.
Rain garden at the Advocate United Church of Christ in Chicago’s East Side community.
Last year, Bell was part of a team that installed five new rain gardens at local churches. With site-specific calculations, gravel filling underground ditches, and particularly thirsty plant species, each garden can hold more than 3,000 gallons of rain water—water that doesn’t then flow to overtaxed stormwater sewers. “They’re beautiful gardens, too. It really enhances the blocks they’re on,” Bell says. “The community just loves it.”
There are 13 sites in the Calumet region with natural ecosystems so rare they’re considered globally significant.
Bell says that the garden grant from the Chi-Cal Rivers Fund, which also gave 500 rain barrels to local residents and helped prevent more than 43,000 gallons of stormwater from entering the sewer system, is an example of what the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative offers. The partnership of nonprofits and consultants that delivered the program—including planning, engineering and community outreach—was formed at the monthly collaborative meetings. “Everything we needed was there,” Bell says.
MPC is also looking to boost the region’s capacity by making local government more effective. MPC has a track record of fostering collaboration between units of government on housing issues and building inspections. That work, along with models of service sharing from clusters of communities around Glenview and Oswego, could lead to broader partnerships to help maintain infrastructure, attract new businesses and manage natural resources.
“These are very sophisticated and battle-tested models to share services and staff to be more efficient,” says Alden Loury, MPC’s director of research and evaluation. “With some technical assistance from us and partners like the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association, joint procurement and shared staff could deliver more with less for Calumet.”
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