By Abby Crisostomo
Kirsten Bjork and Bill Brown purchased their ﬁrst home in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood in May 2012, and like many ﬁrst-time homeowners, they immediately started dreaming about home improvements. When they received a postcard from the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) and Ald. Rey Colon’s ofﬁce notifying them that their property is part of the Milwaukee Avenue Green Development Corridor—and therefore eligible for funding from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to make stormwater management renovations—they jumped at the opportunity.
Bjork and Brown worked with MPC and Matt Fordham of Environments Studio to design a new yard with rain gardens, native grasses, and permeable paving, which, once it receives final approval from the IL EPA, will allow rain that falls on their property to soak into the earth, rather than run off into Logan Square’s already overwhelmed sewers and contribute to local ﬂooding. “Getting involved in this project prompted me to really notice the ﬂooding in our alleys and at neighboring homes and businesses,” said Bjork. “We were thrilled about getting involved, not only to help our yard, but also to improve our community, both environmentally and aesthetically.”
For Bjork and Brown, making an impact in Logan Square was a big driver, but not everyone has such altruistic motivations. To encourage private property owners to install green infrastructure, countless giveaway programs exist – free rain barrels, rain garden installations, rebates on native plants, grant programs, fee credits, the list goes on. MPC is leading a couple of these initiatives – in Logan Square and in Blue Island – not only to help property owners like Bjork and Brown and their communities, but also to demonstrate what makes these types of programs work – or not. All of this work is informing a new MPC research project on the effectiveness of green infrastructure incentives and credits.
For example, one of the questions MPC is asking as we facilitate the Milwaukee Avenue Green Development Corridor is, what motivates someone to participate in these programs? For Bjork and Brown, it was their interest in making a positive environmental impact on their community and improving their home; for others, it might be their love of gardening or financial concerns over repeated basement backups. Another question MPC is asking is, what kind of support can private property owners expect from these programs once they install green infrastructure?
There’s no question green infrastructure is a cost-effective tool for managing stormwater. In the face of increasingly intense and frequent storm events compounded by aging storm and sewer systems, many experts are looking to the natural world to help create resilient and sustainable infrastructure. When it comes to managing precipitation, stormwater policy advocates have long touted the benefits of green infrastructure as effective tools to complement, and sometimes replace, pipes and tunnels, or other typical “grey” infrastructure. The use of green infrastructure is becoming increasingly mainstream in communities across the country.
Green infrastructure is meant to mimic natural hydrology to capture precipitation where it falls and allow it to infiltrate or release more slowly and naturally. This practice reduces water quality problems due to pollutants and erosion, mitigates flooding, and reduces the amount of stormwater entering our sewer system (and therefore, the financial and material cost of piping that water to be treated at a central location). Common green infrastructure includes rain gardens, rain barrels, permeable pavement, bioswales, and green roofs.
However, for green infrastructure to be truly effective, it needs to be implemented where the rain falls, which for most urban locations means on private property. While many cities are requiring new construction to include stormwater management controls, most do not require green infrastructure retrofits for existing private properties. Absent these requirements, many utilities and communities are trying to encourage the installation of green infrastructure on existing properties through incentives and funding programs.
In facilitating the Milwaukee Avenue Green Development Corridor grant program and neighborhood volunteer efforts driving Blue Island, Blue Water, as well as by observing other green infrastructure efforts – such as a reverse auction in Valparaiso, Ind., the Sustainable Backyards and Conservation@Home homeowner education initiatives in Chicago and suburbs, and stormwater utility fee credit programs in metro Chicago and downstate Illinois – MPC continues to run up against the question of whether these programs are actually working to 1) encourage private property green infrastructure retrofits, and 2) do so in a manner that leads to actual stormwater quality and volume improvements.
As such, MPC is partnering with professors at the University of Chicago and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to assess just that. When it comes to effective, broad-scale green infrastructure implementation, there is a need to understand what would lead utilities and communities to create “carrots” (encouraging people through incentives) versus “sticks” (requirements or punitive measures); whether there are specific, science-based rationales driving how these programs are designed; and how performance is assessed for both individual projects and entire programs.
State, regional and local governments need better planning tools and processes to determine where and when certain infrastructure investments—whether grey or green—make the most sense. For grey and green solutions to work as an integrated infrastructure system, individual infrastructure projects need to be coordinated, data-driven, measurable and purposeful. This is especially true in a climate of extreme fiscal constraints, and applies as much to large-scale investments on the public right-of-way as it does to smaller-scale, scattered retrofits on private property.
The research project seeks to survey the existing tools that communities use to encourage green infrastructure retrofits at the private property scale, and assess their effectiveness in actually inducing green infrastructure implementation, and measurable improvements in stormwater mitigation. By assessing these programs, we can find ways to improve their effectiveness and make the best use of both public and private money and efforts in coordinated stormwater management.
Number of complete applications to date to the Milwaukee Avenue Green Development Corridor grant program.
Number of volunteer hours put in by neighborhood residents and friends over three days to install community native plant rain gardens and rain barrels in Blue Island.
The average monthly single family residential stormwater utility fee across the country.
$40 and $58
The amount refunded for a rain barrel through the City of Chicago’s Sustainable Backyards program and the price for a rain barrel purchased from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District.
Conservation@Home in Lake County
Conservation@Home in DuPage, Kane, Kendall & Will Counties