Forging New Partnerships to Support Communities and Resilience

April 17, 2020

many school garden tools in a bucket

Space to Grow is having a big impact on schools and communities. These green schoolyards are helping Chicago’s most vulnerable communities become more resilient to flooding and climate change, and are providing much needed green space and shared open space for children, families and communities to be active and engage with nature.

Space to Grow is led by managing partners Healthy Schools Campaign and Openlands, and brings together capital funds and leadership from Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Department of Water Management and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. This unique collaboration is dedicated to creating a brighter, greener, healthier future for our city.

By using what’s known as green stormwater infrastructure, Space to Grow schoolyards are helping keep millions and millions of gallons of water out of the sewer system when it rains—especially during the heaviest of storms. This helps reduce neighborhood flooding and basement backups. Space to Grow isn’t the only example of green infrastructure in Chicago—this type of infrastructure is central to Chicago’s climate resilience efforts and many city departments value the benefits of this approach and have developed projects and programs across the city. While there are many long term benefits of green infrastructure—which costs a fraction of traditional infrastructure to install—there is a specialized maintenance plan that comes with these projects.

Last fall, the Space to Grow managing partners initiated an important citywide conversation around coordinating green infrastructure maintenance efforts in Chicago. First through surveys and interviews and then through two citywide convenings, the partners brought together nine city agencies and worked together to identify issues, challenges and opportunities around a coordinated approach to green stormwater infrastructure maintenance. The Mayor’s office has offered to help lead this initiative and will co-convene this work with Healthy Schools Campaign and Openlands.

While city agencies find great value in green infrastructure investments, for a variety of reasons none has been able to develop a truly sustainable model for successfully maintaining these important resources for the long term—an issue facing many cities across the country. Agencies will require some support in order to effectively build and maintain these types of projects—from a workforce that is trained and equipped to do this specialized maintenance, to budgets that adequately address the immediate maintenance costs necessary to ensure success for the long term, to a coordinated approach that allows agencies to share equipment and benefit from economies of scale. All agree that green infrastructure must be treated as thoughtfully as would any traditional infrastructure project and that the biggest barriers to this are an adequate, shared funding source and a well-trained labor force that could provide consistent maintenance for all city agencies.

The agency partners agreed on some tangible and important next steps, including a coordinated mapping effort that has already begun to document the existing inventory of green infrastructure throughout the city. This will help determine the labor needs and potential cost to maintaining the current inventory as well as any future projects.

This is just the beginning of what will be an important effort as Chicago makes green stormwater infrastructure a central element of its climate resilience efforts moving forward.