At first glance, a passerby might not realize the full value of the small planting adjacent to Haines Elementary School. Located in Chicago’s Chinatown neighborhood, the CPS school was chosen over numerous contestants from across the country to receive a rain garden in order to help alleviate the flooding of its playground. The frequent flooding had meant that many outdoor activities were rendered impossible after periods of heavy rainfall, causing the students to spend their playtime indoors. So to kick off the Water Environment Federation’s (WEF) 2013 Technical Exhibition and Conference, WEF volunteers partnered with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago to convert about 1,000 square feet of impermeable cement located next to the school’s playground into a rain garden1— a shallow, vegetated depression in the soil that aids in runoff collection and water absorption2. Many neighborhoods in Chicago suffer from flooding, a natural phenomenon aggravated by the city’s low elevation and lack of permeable surfaces allowing for runoff drainage. The native plants in the Haines School garden have deeper root systems than many non-native species, allowing them to absorb water more readily. Since the native plants are evolutionarily adapted to the local climate, they also generally require less hands-on care and are less costly to maintain than traditional gardens. Water that isn’t absorbed by the plants permeates through the soil, helping to recharge groundwater aquifers1.
While the construction of the rain garden had immediate benefits to Haines School students by allowing them to reclaim their playground, the goals of this particular project were more extensive; the garden installment was only one feature within the school’s “Waterpalooza” educational celebration. As part of the event, representatives from the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Sustainable Backyard initiative and the Illinois Water Environment Association also taught students about the impact of green infrastructure and Chicago’s storm water management problems3. WEF’s annual community service projects have continued across the country, including at another nearby Chicago school, Pershing Magnet School in Bronzeville, where WEF volunteers installed a rain garden, an expanse of permeable pavement, and an outdoor classroom on the school’s grounds4. While the students at these schools represent only a tiny portion of Chicagoans suffering from the effects of storm water overflow, the success of this project could potentially increase citywide awareness of the economic efficiency and efficacy of rain gardens in mitigating urban flooding. Expanding this project to a larger number of CPS schools would spread greater awareness of green infrastructure possibilities to young Chicagoans, and set the stage for more storm water management solutions to come.
 Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, 2013. Press Release: New rain garden, native plantings to reduce flooding on Haines Elementary School playground. http://www.mwrd.org/pv_obj_cache/pv_obj_id_8703126DE0572FD1B0E94F6422CFDC510A791800/filename/13_1011_rain_garden_photo_release_FINAL.pdf
 Center for Neighborhood Technology, 2016. Raingardens. http://greenvalues.cnt.org/raingardens.php
 Casey Cora, 2013. Haines Elementary School Receives a Playground Rain Garden.
 Water Environment Federation [WEF], 2015. WEFTEC 2015 Service Project Exceeds Size and Scope of Projects Past. http://news.wef.org/weftec-2015-service-project-exceeds-size-and-scope-of-projects-past/