Heavy rains overwhelm the water systems in many Great Lakes communities. Basements back up, streets flood, and polluted water cascades into the nearest lake or stream.

Water systems are failing in many Great Lakes communities. These aging systems were designed to capture the rainwater that falls on roofs, roads, and parking lots and send it as quickly as possible into the nearest storm drain. All that water is then sent cascading into the nearest Great Lake, river, or stream.

Aging and outdated, the systems are overwhelmed by heavy storms. Neighborhoods flood. Polluted water pours into our waterways. And if we don’t make changes, things will only get worse. Our region is experiencing heavier and more frequent rains. Extreme weather will become even more common in the future due to climate change.

Better Ways to Handle Stormwater

Fortunately, communities across our region are finding creative ways to handle their water. They’re turning to nature-based solutions, also known as “green infrastructure.”

Green infrastructure uses plants and soil to mimic how nature deals with water. It absorbs, slows down, and filters rainwater before the water reaches stormwater pipes or waterways.

Green infrastructure can benefit communities in many ways. It can provide:

  • Cleaner water entering lakes and rivers
  • Greener, more liveable neighborhoods
  • More opportunities for exercise and recreation
  • Communities that bounce back faster from extreme storms
  • Cost savings and long-term business development opportunities for municipalities

How We Work: Communities Lead the Way

We begin by organizing a wide variety of community voices: residents, local businesses, community organizations, elected officials, city staff, technical specialists, and funders. They work together to imagine and build small pilot projects. These projects provide community benefits like neighborhood beautification and the creation of parks and green spaces.

Next, we work with local leaders and community members to create a shared vision and a plan for work at a larger neighborhood scale. 9 communities in 3 states have leveraged the plans to raise more than $16 million for water-related projects and programs.

We connect peer cities to share best practices for green infrastructure planning, implementation, maintenance, and funding. We also work with local governments to create cost-effective policies for building green infrastructure and guiding development.

Solutions Look Different in Every Community

Each community we work with designs its own solutions. Here are some of the exciting projects they have in the works:

Detroit: Residents, community organizations, and city staff are creating a greener future for Detroit. Green infrastructure throughout the city can help reduce flooding, beautify neighborhoods, and provide safer biking and walking pathways. It can also reduce combined sewer overflows into the Detroit River, which flows into Lake Erie. We worked with residents and community organizations to choose sites and design demonstration projects along the Conner Creek Greenway. Now we’re working with city staff to develop cost-effective programs and policies to build and maintain green infrastructure city-wide.

Michigan City, Indiana: The city and its residents rely on Trail Creek — which flows into Lake Michigan — for recreation, ecotourism, and the health and safety of the city’s renowned Washington Park beaches. We helped the city raise more than $1.2 million to restore wetlands along the creek. We also worked with local stakeholders to develop a Green Stormwater Streets policy that is working its way through the political process. If implemented, the policy will become a cost-effective model to reduce flooding, improve Great Lakes water quality, and beautify neighborhoods.

Southeast Chicago: The Southeast Side is home to several Lake Michigan beaches and the Calumet River, which flows into the lake. The river and nearby neighborhoods have suffered from a legacy of industrial pollution. But community members have exciting ideas about how green industry, bike trails, community green spaces and a cleaner river could enhance their quality of life. We partnered with a local coalition — Calumet Connect — to create pop-up events that inspired new thinking about the area. Now we’re working with the coalition to ensure that community voices can help shape the City of Chicago’s plans for industrial zoning, green infrastructure, and stormwater management in the neighborhood.

Want to know more about what’s happening locally? Contact our planning staff: