By Robert White
April’s big storm served as an inconvenient but potent reminder that Chicagoland flood risk is a serious concern. Issues like climate change, development and aging infrastructure regularly underscore our assumptions that in the future, big storms like April’s will only occur more frequently. Coming from London, these worries are familiar to me. Although my hometown has had fewer wet basements, there are similar questions being raised about current levels of combined sewage overflow and future resilience of stormwater systems. A relatively new UK law, requiring driveways to be made of permeable materials, is perhaps an indicator of how seriously the issue is being taken.
In Chicago, opportunities are increasingly being seen for green infrastructure to tackle the challenge of stormwater. This is something MPC has been a forerunner in trying to encourage, both through education and practical projects. Communities are beginning to take up these methods, accepting that they too hold some responsibility for keeping their homes dry. As well as being tools for stormwater resilience, green infrastructure projects have helped communities achieve wider goals, such as creating green community spaces, providing natural habitat, encouraging environmental learning or engaging in issues beyond stormwater management. There are many great examples of such projects in the Chicago region and here is a look at a few in the Village of Glenview, the Chicago neighborhood of Logan Square, the City of Blue Island and the Village of Park Forest and the Chicago neighborhood of Fulton River District.
Following large flooding problems in 2008, the Glenview Village Board set up the Flood Risk Reduction Program in 2010, adding two new subsidy opportunities to the existing rain garden and rain barrel programs already on offer. The first new subsidy covers half the cost of an overhead sanitary sewer conversion , tackling the problem of sewers backing up by pumping sewage to a higher level exit point form the home. With the second subsidy, the village will cover half the cost of drainage inspection, conducted by a local engineering consultancy, helping homeowners understand where improvements could be made.
This program encourages homeowners to engage in the issue, where otherwise they may not bother or consider it their responsibility. By providing an upfront review of drainage on a property, the homeowner is able to make informed cost-effective decisions to address flooding. This enables an efficient response to the problem for maximum return on investment, one that will hopefully avoid a repeat of 2008’s record flooding.
In Logan Square, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) manages the Milwaukee Avenue Green Development Corridor, a project funded by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Infrastructure Grant program that asked residents and businesses to submit projects that reduce flooding and encourage a green neighborhood. As Logan Square is a fairly dense urban setting dominated by impervious surfaces, it is in a practical position to take advantage of green infrastructure concentrated in one neighborhood to reduce surface runoff.
The Green Corridor encourages local property owners to take responsibility for stormwater management, providing the incentive of improved landscaping. The projects demonstrate how aesthetic appeal and practicality can be combined to make an attractive stormwater management package. Links have been forged to other areas of MPCs work , with placemaking activities in partnership with Bike Walk Logan Square and the incorporation of green infrastructure features into the Chicago Department of Transportation’s redesign of Woodard Plaza. Placemanking aims to make neighbourhoods more vibrant, to encourage both economic and social development, a key part of MPCs mission. CDOT has been considering placemaking as part of its “Make Way for the People” initiative, hoping to encouraging programming and market opportunities in the square when complete
Blue Island, Blue Water is a multi-phase project which implements green infrastructure on both public and private sites in a flood-prone neighborhood in Blue Island. Chosen as a Millennium Reserve model project, the first phase of this project included the installation of native plant demonstration gardens at key public sites and distribution of over 100 rain barrels to local homes and businesses, in partnership with organizations including the City of Chicago, Chicago Park District and MPC. The second phase will involve green infrastructure in the public right-of-way, such as green alleys and stormwater bumpouts (vegetated curb extensions that capture runoff).
The projects provide green spaces for the community and habitats for wildlife. The community is engaged in their own stormwater management , with resourcefulness and DIY skills encouraged. All ages have gotten involved, and the work has led to more cooperation between city agencies, bringing the community together to create something positive.
Park Forest’s Central Park demonstrates how a change in land management approach can increase resilience against flooding whilst yielding wider benefits. In 1962 the wetland park was drained, seeded and mown. This led to a direct increase in flooding, causing problems for the community, while the land was underutilized. In the late nineties it was restored to marshland making flooding a natural process for the area, acting as a store for floodwater from elsewhere and improving water quality from the area
The area is now a location for recreation with boardwalks installed for walking and jogging. This also makes the area accessible for use as an outdoor classroom, useful for studying the biodiversity the wetland encourages. In a more abstract sense this project acts as a vehicle to introduce other environmental initiatives to the community, steering people towards other initiatives such as rain gardens, rain barrels, green roofs and alternative energy; fosters an ethic of environmental stewardship among residents; and creates a stronger sense of place in the neighborhood.
Fulton Street Flower & Vegetable Garden
In Chicago’s Fulton neighborhood, Angela Taylor saw a lack of community and sense of ownership. In a bid to tackle that disinterest, she started the Fulton Street Flower & Vegetable Garden, which has been widely hailed as a success story of community initiatives. In partnership with Openlands, a rainwater harvesting system was recently installed on the garden’s greenhouse, with an accompanying irrigation system. This allows stormwater to be captured and used as a resource, benefiting the garden as well as reducing issues of saturation
and runoff around the greenhouse. In a wider sense the garden is a demonstration of green infrastructure, potentially encouraging others to install similar systems in their own vegetable gardens. The vegetable garden is a great example of how different projects can work together and benefit each other.
These varied approaches demonstrate how green infrastructure can be successful. There is no “one size fits all” solution for every community; contextual approaches that take community-specific issues into account work best.
While these are just some of the green infrastructure projects in Chicago, they still highlight the many wider benefits of stormwater infrastructure, including placemaking, community building, habitat restoration and aesthetic improvement. MPC is hopeful that these success stories will encourage other people to realize the wide ranging benefits of green infrastructure and implement projects that can increase resilience to stormwater.
inches of rain fell in the Chicago area during 24 hours on April 18th, 2013
Of 65,000 Illinois flood aid applicants from Chicago
Height of Chicago river in feet, breaking the previous record of 7.86 set in 2008
The capacity, in gallons, of the cisterns used at Fulton Community Garden