By Erin McMillan
On St. Patrick’s Day – always an eventful holiday in the Chicago area, but one made even more celebratory this year by falling on a Saturday during a rare March heat wave – a group of high schoolers from Chicago Public Schools and Noble Street College Prep could have been anywhere, reveling in the city’s festivities. Instead, they spent the day walking up and down Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood as volunteers collecting data on how the community’s property owners currently manage stormwater. The data these 19 students collected is helping to inform the goals and outcomes of the new Milwaukee Avenue Green Development Corridor, a pilot program through which eligible residents and business owners along the corridor can apply to receive a portion of a $200,000 grant from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Infrastructure Grant program. The funding can be used to make property improvements that reduce local flooding, protect Chicago’s waterways – and make Milwaukee Avenue one of the most environmentally-friendly corridors in Chicago. The application process opens up on April 1 making the March 17 data gathering all the more important to understand current conditions.
After drawing tiny symbols on maps all day, as the paper twisted in the wind and threatened to blow away, Chicago Academy student Heidi Bustos said she had a much better understanding of the goals of the Milwaukee Avenue Green Development Corridor. “If people don’t realize how water influences the environment, we won’t be able to stop the change that is happening to our planet,” she said. Bustos acknowledged that she started out the day skeptical that the information they were collecting would be helpful to anyone. But after patrolling the neighborhood and seeing firsthand how stormwater is redirected by downspouts, gutter systems, slanted rooftops and alley ways, Bustos said it became clear to her why it was important to collect this data: If no one knows where their water goes and how it gets there, how can they understand how to resolve community-wide problems like sewer overflows, which lead to personal problems like backyard, alley and basement flooding?
The Milwaukee Avenue Green Development Corridor is trying to address all of these problems, along a stretch of Milwaukee between Kimball and California avenues, in an area of Logan Square that has been pinpointed by the City of Chicago as “high risk” for flooding and sewer overflows. The number and density of residents, lack of open space, and old sewer systems all contribute to the problem. However, as Bustos and her fellow students toured the area, they quickly realized that local property owners often unknowingly use ineffective stormwater management techniques, unintentionally creating conditions that exacerbate local sewer overflows as well as damage to their own homes and neighborhood property.
For example, Bustos and her fellow students made note of many downspouts directly connected to the sewer, yards that have been entirely paved over, and a lack of trees and vegetation. On the other hand, when property owners install green roofs, rain barrels, rain gardens and other green infrastructure, they help reduce the frequency and severity of local flooding. These kinds of green solutions allow rain to sink back into the ground so that it doesn’t accelerate over dirty, paved lots and overwhelm our sewer system.
The Milwaukee Avenue Green Development Corridor grant program will help residents and business owners along the corridor make improvements like these to their property. Eligible property owners can apply for sub-grants to reimburse total project costs up to 75 percent, with a maximum reimbursement of $50,000. The project’s overall mission is to concentrate as much green infrastructure investment in one area as possible, motivate private property owners to take action, and create a replicable model for stormwater management to reduce sewer overflows in communities like Logan Square, where fast population growth has led to greater urbanization and a lot of pavement, putting strain on an aging sewer system.
Already, the project has created “teaching moments:” While collecting data, the students often pointed out connections to their own homes and changes they could encourage their parents to make to decrease local sewer overflows. Bustos noted that community education – a key component of the Milwaukee Avenue Green Development Corridor, which is being led by the City of Chicago and Ald. Rey Colón (35th Ward), with support from the Metropolitan Planning Council and Chicago Community Loan Fund – is critical to change behavior. “It’s good to get people involved in stormwater awareness to create an educational opportunity so people can learn how they can help,” she said. Engaging an entire community also will create more lasting change, with more widespread awareness of why it is so important to maintain the green infrastructure practices. In the coming months, the Milwaukee Avenue Green Development Corridor is hosting multiple public workshops focused on educating people not only about the program, but more broadly about ways they can make small changes at home to reduce neighborhood flooding. Learn more about the next workshop, on June 12.
The Milwaukee Avenue Green Development corridor web site also links to a range of educational and financial resources that can help people in Logan Square, the City of Chicago and across the region do a better job managing stormwater that falls on their own property. To learn more about the program and these resources, visit www.logansquareh2o.org.
To learn more about the Milwaukee Avenue Green Development Corridor and programs in Chicagoland that are available to help with stormwater management, check out these resources:
- Milwaukee Avenue Green Development Corridor web site
- City of Chicago’s Sustainable Backyards Program
- Ill. Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Infrastructure Grants
- Get (dis)connected. Check out the City of Chicago’s Sustainable Backyards Program for more information on the proper ways to connect and disconnect your downspout. Bonus: You can also learn how to apply for reimbursements for rain barrels and native plants.
- Educate yourself – for free! The Chicago Center for Green Technology’s free Green Tech U classes are offered year round and focus on many topic areas, including how to manage stormwater on your property
- Teach your children well. Find family-friendly tips for conserving water at home at the Saving Water Partnership web site.
The WOWW Factor
The amount of funding available through the Milwaukee Avenue Green Development Corridor to reimburse property owners for approved stormwater remediation projects.
The total amount of funding available through the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Infrastructure Grant program.
Open space acres in all of Logan Square, one of Chicago’s most paved-over neighborhoods.