Flooding poses a frequent challenge for those around Midlothian Creek. A new cross-agency partnership boosts capacity and promises to make use of all that water.
Metropolitan Water Reclamation District
Flooding in Robbins
While participating in community workshops in the Village of Robbins, located in south Cook County, I met a woman whose front yard floods even after a moderate rainstorm. The house, which was built by her grandfather, can withstand the floods and no water enters her home. When the yard is flooded, though, she has to pull her truck up to the front door to get inside.
Flooding is not a new problem for Robbins, nor for other municipalities in the Calumet region, which is characterized by its flat topography and clay-rich soils.
It’s a common occurrence for her, and therefore just a nuisance. In more extreme storm events, such as when several inches of rain fell over the course of three days in late February 2018, the mayor has to coordinate municipal staff to rescue residents by boat.
The source of flooding, Midlothian Creek, offers protection against a 5-year storm. Anything more than that and the creek overflows its banks and spreads out across the landscape. The technical definition of a 5-year storm is an event which has a 20% probability of occurring in a given year. But when residents of Robbins check their phones and see 100% probability of rain, all they’re thinking is “What is the percent probability of me getting water in my basement… again?!”
Flooding is not a new problem for Robbins nor other municipalities in the Calumet region, an area encompassing the far south side of Chicago and 37 municipalities in south Cook County. The area is characterized by its flat topography and clay-rich soils, resulting in poor drainage. Although there are local and federal programs to fund flood relief projects, and local agencies offer a variety of technical assistance programs, the problem persists. Why?
Robbins, like other resource-strapped municipalities across the nation, struggle to muster the capacity to keep day-to-day operations running, much less plan or implement long-term measures to improve their resilience. Robbins’ problems aren’t for lack of trying: Starting with the nationwide loss of industry in the 1970’s and ‘80s, Robbins has seen a precipitous decline in population and, with it, a loss of property tax income and other vital sources of revenue.
U.S. Census Bureau; Encyclopedia of Chicago
Robbins, IL: Population change
The Municipal Capacity strategy paper, released jointly by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) and the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) in 2017, identifies property tax base as a major indicator of a municipality’s ability to generate sufficient revenue and, in turn, of its economic health. Due to population loss, Robbins officials and staff have seen their tax base shrink, resulting in their team being under-staffed and under-resourced, two factors which severely inhibit their ability to get things done. Mayor Tyrone Ward of Robbins is deeply invested in his community, but he also has a full-time job; the mayor is a middle school teacher by day and comes into Village Hall after finishing grading and preparing the next day’s lessons. Then he works late into the evening on village affairs. His staff, likewise, are mostly employed only part-time. They struggle to achieve long-term objectives for the village because short-term imperatives take precedence.
Even when planners and outside agencies produce plans, and even when those agencies assist with implementation, the plans see limited success in Robbins. Agencies such as the Regional Transportation Authority, The Center for Neighborhood Technology, and MPC have released well-intentioned, well-informed plans over the years, but their adoption has been spotty. Why? Robbins needs staff with time prioritized to tackle issues besides just the immediate pressing needs of running the municipality.
A new approach in Robbins: Multi-agency collaboration is about more than just flooding
Conceptual rendering of Robbins wetland park, TOD and industrial corridor
When the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) selected Robbins for a flood mitigation project, it quickly became clear that business-as-usual flood mitigation solutions would not suffice. Simply digging a hole in the ground and moving on would not address the larger systemic issues facing the community. MWRD chose to approach the problem holistically and engaged SOM, an architecture and urban planning firm, to imagine how the investment in stormwater infrastructure could be leveraged to catalyze other positive change in Robbins. Their plan envisions a wetland park which will offer much-needed open space amenities, connection to a transit-oriented development (TOD) near the Robbins Metra station, and a chance to revitalize the village’s industrial corridor. MWRD’s ability to implement the bold vision, however, was limited by their jurisdiction, which extends to stormwater management and protecting water quality. As a result, they worked to form a broad coalition of partners to bring the vision to reality.
Robbins, like other resource-strapped municipalities across the nation, struggle to muster the capacity to keep day-to-day operations running, much less plan or implement long-term measures to improve their resilience.
To inform the design of the wetlands park, a team from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) was funded by the Searle Funds at The Chicago Community Trust to lend their expertise in community engagement and host community workshops. Simultaneously, CMAP and the Regional Transportation Authority both selected Robbins as part of their technical assistance programs and partnered to develop plans for the TOD and industrial corridor. For construction, MWRD approached the workforce development arm of OAI, Inc., which applied for and received a grant through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Chi-Cal Rivers Fund to work on the first phase of construction. OAI will hire and train Robbins residents to do the work, helping them to develop valuable skills and improve future employment opportunities.
In short, this project is about collaboration. A diverse array of agencies and funders are collaborating to support the village and help them to take a leading role in the plan’s implementation. This collaborative model is necessary to address our region’s most intractable problems and one which MPC also employs across all of our program areas. It can be seen in our involvement with Elevated Chicago and our work on Equitable Transit-Oriented Development, our Cost of Segregation report and the recommendations in Our Equitable Future, partnering with CMAP on a municipal capacity pilot program, the upcoming Drinking Water 1-2-3 municipal academy, engaging stakeholders through monthly Calumet Stormwater Collaborative meetings, and more!
Whether ensuring that one woman does not have to pull her truck up to the front door after a small rainstorm, improving equitable access to opportunities, securing sustainable revenue for transportation infrastructure or an adequate supply of safe and clean drinking water, MPC partners across jurisdictions to form coalitions and unlock necessary funding to meet communities’ most pressing needs head-on. Together, we can overcome our region's most intractable problems.