City funds East Garfield Park orchard only after securing grant to use it to mitigate expensive stormwater damage

alt text By Pascal Sabino, Environmental Health and Wellness Editor, The Real Chi & Industry Pathways 2018 Cohort

For four years, the people of East Garfield Park have pushed the city for solutions to the daunting scarcity of healthy food in the neighborhood. On Feb. 26, the city finally agreed to help fund the development of the East Garfield Park Community Eco Orchard. However, the funding is just as much motivated as an investment for solving flooding issues on the West Side that costs the city millions each year.

Flooding is the main environmental hazard in the region, accounting for 41 percent of disaster losses in Illinois and over $195 million in FEMA payments since 1978. In Chicago, the West Side is by far the most susceptible to water damage and flooding.

According to the 2015 report produced by the city for the Resilient Revitalization project, water damage to sewers, homes and commercial properties cost an average of over $8 million per year in Garfield Park. The same report found that $4.8 million of those damages can be mitigated by various green infrastructure projects that absorb water before it can overflow the sewer system and flood people’s homes and businesses.

The orchard would help prevent flooding by including trees, biofiltration plants, permeable pavements, and native plantings that would absorb water around the site.

Led by the Garfield Park Community Council,  in 2014 the neighborhood initially prompted the city to transform its large areas of open space and abandoned lots along 5th Avenue into an orchard.

Angela Taylor, the organizer with the community council that spearheaded the orchard project, said that the city would not have funded the project without securing the water district funding outside of the city’s planning department money that they had originally applied for four years ago.

“Without the additional funding, they weren't able to make this happen. It's something that they didn't forget about, but they had to take the time to figure out how we can make this into a solution,” she said, adding that water resilience and stormwater flooding was not initially in the scope of the project.

The city approved financing for half of the $1 million development costs using Open Space Impact Fee funds from the Department of Planning and Development revenue. These funds are collected from fees on new developments projects that must be spent on public space projects in the same localities that they are collected from.

According to Taylor, when the project was initially suggested four years ago, the neighborhood’s Alderman Jason Ervin was supportive, but was also advised against seeking Open Space Impact Fee funds without getting external funding.

The rest of the funding comes from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, which contributed $500,000 to the project. The water district funds were granted as a green infrastructure project since the orchard has the potential to help mitigate the vast stormwater flooding issues that plague the West Side.

To organizers, flood mitigation funds are also an opportunity to increase food accessibility

Neighborhoods with no large supermarkets

Report of the Illinois Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights, 2011

Report of the Illinois Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights, 2011

Underinvestment and a lack of access to food have always been issues in Garfield Park, so when presented with a chance to get funding for the orchard while addressing the longstanding flooding issues in the neighborhood, the community council jumped at the opportunity.

When Michael Berkshire learned that the water district was accepting proposals for green projects, he told the community council that this could be a way to finally realize the orchard that they suggested years ago. Berkshire is overseeing the project as an administrator for the planning department’s Sustainable Development Division.

Taylor, who is the coordinator for the Garfield Park Garden Network and its neighborhood market, said, “The community reached out and said, we need some fruits and nuts and vegetables. Our customers are asking for fruit, but we just don't have much local fruit that grows in the region. We don't have those trees in our community garden.”

The neighborhood market sells produce exclusively grown in Garfield Park, and by accepting WIC and SNAP, the garden makes healthy and organic foods a feasible option for residents of the community that typically don’t have access to affordable, nutritious foods. Garfield Park is notoriously a food desert, with many residents lacking easy access to grocery stores and restaurants.

The water district and green infrastructure funds were granted to several projects—including the orchard—that prevent stormwater from entering local sewer systems, and stopping the overflow and flooding that disproportionately occurs on the West Side. The water district decided to fund the orchard because it will provide protection to at least 100 homes nearby the 5th  Avenue site, and will capture upwards of 168,000 gallons of stormwater.

While the orchard alone cannot solve the entirety of Garfield Park’s flooding issue, the investment is a welcome piece of a larger strategy that will save the city millions in water damages. According to Berkshire, the orchard is a continuation of a resilience project to build 10 stormwater landscapes across the West Side.

For a project that can kill two birds with one stone, Taylor is happy that the years of work have paid off.

“Four years is a long time for a community need to be met. But it still happened,” Taylor said. “I know about projects in the community that have taken 20 years to become a reality, so I think we've done a great job here".