Ed Paesel

South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association Executive Director Ed Paesel

The south suburbs will become a little greener this year thanks to an effort by the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association and its partners to plan, promote, and construct green infrastructure throughout the region.

Green infrastructure is the use of native plants and other techniques to control stormwater where it falls, rather than sending it downstream to adjacent communities or into often undersized aging pipes. In addition to reducing the amount of stormwater that enters our waterways and pipes, the benefits include habitat for flora and fauna, improved aesthetics, and often increased property values.

It was with this in mind that a consortium of partners and projects has been identified and are now moving into actual design and construction phases. By 2015 at least seven new projects will be in the ground, soaking up stormwater that would otherwise have been passed to downstream communities. Blue Island, Midlothian, Robbins, Calumet Park, and South Suburban College in South Holland will all see immediate benefits with projects happening this year.

In some cases, SSMMA worked as part of larger teams assisting with planning and GIS support for its constituents. In other instances SSMMA has been the direct recipient of grant funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, the Illinois Green Infrastructure Grant and the Illinois Coastal Management Program to build rain gardens and bioswales, which are landscape elements designed to remove silt and pollution from surface runoff water. The projects have been selected based on a number of factors, including the productive reuse of vacant land to address stormwater problem areas.

An early proponent of green infrastructure, SSMMA has worked in various capacities to advance the idea that creative solutions to age old problems can work.

“Green infrastructure makes a significant impact on the ground, but also in the way communities approach other infrastructure challenges,” says Eric Neagu, senior project manager with Weaver Boos Consultants. “SSMMA has really illustrated that creative thinking about a problem like stormwater, can lead to new approaches to an array of issues. We see this with their work on brownfields, vacant properties, and energy strategies, as well.”

This work is rapidly turning the south suburban area into a national model for how to develop a green infrastructure program.

Chicago Wilderness, with SSMMA providing GIS mapping support, is identifying and documenting all of the green infrastructure assets and opportunities throughout the entire Millennium Reserve. OAI Inc., a nonprofit that focuses on job training, is partnering with SSMMA to develop a green jobs program. Last, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District is exploring construction of green infrastructure to further mitigate flooding in the area.

Through these efforts, SSMMA and the communities it represents are working to transform the landscape and approach old problems with new ideas. Green infrastructure is only the beginning.

Ed Paesel is executive director of the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association. The opinions are the writer's.

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Porter/LaPorte Editor Doug Ross, an award-winning writer, has been covering Northwest Indiana for more than 35 years, including more than a quarter of a century at The Times.