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Design Disrupted

Before the City, there was the Sand

Designing a Resilient Calumet TER/RAIN

This November, a team of University of Illinois students won an American Society of Landscape Architecture (ASLA) award for a research project that addresses urban flooding in Calumet City near Chicago.

The project was part of an Illinois Indiana Sea Grant, led by Landscape Architecture Professor Mary Pat McGuire. McGuire recruited her students to participate as part of their coursework working in collaboration with students from geology and civil and environmental engineering as part of the research team.

The project raises the question: How can understanding a region’s geological past help to reimagine its future? The research team explored the geological past of the southern Chicago region—the coastal sands, ancestral dunes, and beach ridges that have been “erased, altered, or paved over.”  These soils create an ideal rainwater infiltration system, but they have been paved over and replaced by gray infrastructure, leaving the region vulnerable to flooding. Students identified the sandy sediments underneath the city to propose a new pattern of green infrastructure that will ameliorate flooding.

In summer of 2018, students surveyed and characterized soils in the Calumet region, analyzing their hydro-geologic potential.

Next, they created and tested small prototypes, modeling the performance of green infrastructure in the sandy soils. In winter of 2018-19, they visited Calumet City to study the street grids, spatial patterns, and topological conditions for potential design interventions. They created maps that overlaid soils, site systems, and topographies of low and high areas.

Using these maps, the students proposed a series of interventions to disrupt the paved surface at various sites. They developed a matrix of designs based on the rain capacity of different surface types, from wet to mesic to dry. Native plants were primarily used in the interventions, with extensive root systems that nourish the soil and help it become a sponge for rainwater.

Students provided design options for communities to transform streets, public ways, parks, and schools. Their goal was to help people reimagine their relationship with a forgotten landscape, shifting the perception of water “from a problem to an amenity.”

The ASLA awards jury remarked about the project:

Uniting the diverse disciplines of landscape architecture, geology, and civil and environmental engineering, this design and planning project in Calumet City near Chicago addresses the pressing issue of urban flooding by examining the geological legacy of sandy ridges and swales that once characterized the area but have since been obliterated. Taking cues from the vanished landscape, the team developed a multi-faceted approach to stormwater management that uses a variety of designed surfaces, a palette of native plants and inventive models for new green infrastructure in this flood-threatened neighborhood.

Check out the project narrative, maps, and designs here.

Student research team: Yang Xia, Mengdi Chi, Jingyi Li, Lauren Mathias, Bo Pang, Jinyu Shen, Xi Wang, Lixian Zeng and Yi Zho from the Department of Landscape Architecture;  Avery Clark from the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences; Piotr Szocinski from the Department of Geology; and Reshmina William and Gabrielle Bethke from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Faculty advisors: Mary Pat McGuire, Margaret Schneemann, Andrew Phillips, David Grimley, and Ashlynn Stillwell.