How Space to Grow Prevents Flooding, Come Rain or Shine

April 20, 2015

One key aspect of the Space to Grow program is to reduce flooding.

On average, Chicago gets nearly four inches of rain each April. That’s a lot for the city’s sewer system to handle, and heavy rains often lead to flooded streets, parking lots, basements and schoolyards.

Our Space to Grow program, which we co-manage with Openlands, has many community benefits, including stormwater management features that help reduce neighborhood flooding. With capital funding and leadership from Chicago Public Schools (CPS), the Chicago Department of Water Management (CDWM), and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD), the  program seeks to transform Chicago’s outdated — and in many cases, crumbling — schoolyards into vibrant outdoor spaces that benefit students, community members and the environment. Each schoolyard is designed to include special gardens, permeable surfaces and other landscape features that absorb large amounts of water, while providing dynamic outdoor space for recess, PE and outdoor learning.

One of the things that makes Space to Grow such a unique program is that two-thirds of the $1.5 million funding for each schoolyard renovation comes from the region’s water management agencies. So why are water agencies helping fund schoolyard projects? Given Chicago’s predominantly flat landscape and aging infrastructure, the city is prone to flooding during intense rainstorms. Our water management agencies are working hard to curb the flooding, using a number of different approaches, from sewer reconstruction to green infrastructure improvements. The latter is where Space to Grow comes in.

CDWM and MWRD are investing in Space to Grow as a way to improve the city’s stormwater management through green infrastructure projects. Green infrastructure is an effective approach to water management that mimics the natural water cycle. By planting trees and deep-rooted plants that suck up water, and installing porous surfaces that absorb water, more water soaks into the ground right where it falls, rather than over taxing the sewers or pooling at ground level.

Schoolyards were identified as ideal candidates for green infrastructure enhancements because so many schools are surrounded by large swaths of non-porous and largely unused concrete and asphalt that actually contribute to neighborhood flooding. Schools are the ultimate win-win for a project like this because at the same time that we’re able to improve water management below ground, thanks to water agency funding, we’re also able to renovate the above ground schoolyard, providing each school with a new place for students and community members come together to play, exercise and learn.

The work doesn’t stop after the schoolyard renovations are complete. As part of the ongoing support, Space to Grow partners will host workshops that will help educate community members about how they can prevent flooding at their own homes by using schoolyard features such as rain barrels and native plants. We are also offering professional development opportunities for teachers and school staff so they can incorporate schoolyard features into their lessons.

The impact of Space to Grow on stormwater management has not gone unnoticed. In March, Space to Grow received the Sustainability award from the Illinois Association for Floodplain and Stormwater Management (IAFSM), which recognizes excellence in stormwater management across the state of Illinois. And last fall, Space to Grow won a Silver Ribbon Award from Friends of the Chicago River for its creative approach to river sensitive design and implementation. Space to Grow has also won awards from Friends of the Chicago River, the National Physical Activity Plan Alliance, the Center for Active Design and the U.S. Green Building Council.