A Green Experiment with SSMMA

Cardno JFNew, one of the founding members of Chicago Wilderness, is an ecological consulting and restoration firm with more than 20 years of experience providing innovative and successful solutions to challenging environmental issues. Senior Water Resources Engineer Scott Dierks writes about the opportunities and challenges of using green infrastructure projects as part of community redevelopment plans. 

By Scott Dierks

The South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association (SSMMA) has just begun a green experiment: scrutinizing the present while imagining a green vision for the future. The SSMMA represents 42 communities south of Chicago and assists them with technical services, such as redevelopment strategies and geographic information services (GIS).  With this project the SSMMA hopes to give its member communities an alternative future that diverges from crumbling infrastructure and dwindling jobs. What this green future looks like exactly and how successful this strategy is for community revitalization remains to be seen, but it is a strategy with a basis in what the planet does best: sustain life.

The SSMMA plan is in its early stages, but the plan has already highlighted an important distinction between green infrastructure to support biodiversity and green infrastructure to support a new notion of service delivery for human communities. This is green infrastructure that replaces the grey infrastructure of stormwater pipes, black roofs, and asphalt parking lots; this is the same green that supports biodiversity, but is employed at the site level. This green infrastructure decreases runoff; reduces the risk of flooding; is more climate resilient; mitigates the urban heat island effect, improves urban soil quality; builds park and recreation spaces; produces urban farms and brings the world that supports each living being back into contact fingertip-to-plant-shoot, one budding steward at a time.

Greening the landscape to deliver these kinds of services, does not have to happen over long, contiguous green spaces, but can happen in some unlikely places –abandoned urban and industrial landscapes. These abandoned spaces are already being reclaimed by natural degradation and re-growth processes. These ideas are not without precedent, in fact, there are some wonderful examples of how they have been realized elsewhere.

The High Line was an abandoned, elevated subway line in New York City that has now been converted into a renowned, linear urban park. This space attracts people and other natural inhabitants.  It is a habitat reclamation project and an urban redevelopment gem. Residents and commercial enterprises alike claim this as an asset that attracts employees, tourists and business.

High Line Park, Brooklyn, New York. Image: Friends of the High Line

Likewise, Erie Street Plaza in Milwaukee, Wisconsin has converted former industrial waterfront property to a unique, naturalized urban space. This space has helped attract re-development interest and marks a new reclamation line between inhospitable, waterfront industry and a new, hybrid landscape. This is the new urban experience, a kind of re-birth into multi-functional green space.

Erie Street Plaza, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Image: Stoss Landscape Urbanism

The last example, the reclamation of an old steel mill in Providence, Rhode Island, has become a jobs creator.  A non-profit artists’ organization, The SteelYard is housed at this former industrial complex. This once abandoned property has become a true community focal point at which artists, artisans and crafts people can create, teach and produce events.

The Steel Yard, Providence, Rhode Island. Image: The Steel Yard.org

How can the SSMMA help their member communities make these projects happen? They do not usually just arise solely out of good will, nor are current codes and ordinances necessarily friendly to this kind of re-purposing. Green infrastructure sits at an intersection of development that relies more on biological principles than, say, the physics of fluid flow in a storm sewer. Rather than creating centralized infrastructure like stormwater ponds, this kind of site design relies on decentralized techniques – catching rainfall or runoff as close to the source as possible. This is an integration of normal development practices with a respect and deeper understanding of natural physical cycles.

This approach will require changes in codes and ordinances and a different set of standards for landscape management. The myriad ecosystem services “delivered” by a natural or naturalized landscape are best optimized by letting the landscape mature. Turf lawn matches function with aesthetic. Roots and shoots are kept shallow and biodiversity is purposely suppressed. If deep-rooted plants are allowed to flourish they sequester carbon and significantly improve soil quality. These naturalized landscapes normally do not need watering, fertilizer or pesticides, and with deeper roots and vastly improved soil quality they store more water; infiltrate it more quickly and at the same time retain more plant-available water far longer than turf grass.

So: not only do codes and ordinances need flexibility for the purposeful creation of these new (formerly ancient) landscapes, but there is an educational component that is required for planners, designers, regulators, developers and the public, in general. As the landscape architect Joan Nassauer  puts it, we need to make true ecological value visible and understandable. Development based on or consistent with real ecological value can be truly sustainable development.

Part of the challenge of the SSMMA project will be to provide a broad set of tools to help this process along. The SSMMA and its member communities will also look opportunistically to implement these kinds of projects. But opportunities abound – vacant lots, crumbling concrete, and on-going capital improvement plans. These are places where green can begin to replace the grey, and foster more re-growth in south suburban Chicago communities.

About Scott Dierks
Scott leads Cardno JFNew’s design and engineering services on watershed management and ecological engineering projects. His green infrastructure design work includes stormwater and wastewater treatment and re-use and aquatic ecosystem restoration. Scott has 20 years of engineering experience, including numerous hydrologic, hydraulic, sediment transport, and water quality monitoring and modeling projects. He also has extensive experience writing and administering numerous grants, including Clean Michigan Initiative, Clean Water Act Section 319, and other public and private foundation grants. Scott will be a guest presenter at the upcoming Bioretention Summit at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL on June 17-18


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