by C. Eliana Brown, Extension Water Quality Specialist and RORG Team Leader

Along one of the main pedestrian arteries into campus from Lincoln Avenue just north of McKinley Health Center and south of Allen Hall/LAR is a sidewalk that used to flood. A lot.

Flooded sidewalk south of Allen Hall/LAR (Spring 2006)

In 2005, I had just started working for the University of Illinois and was tasked with suggesting ideas for grant projects that would benefit campus infrastructure and the environment. Fresh off a trip to a Madison, Wisconsin Wild Ones native plant conference, I had just learned about rain gardens and was inspired to include them in the grant’s request for proposals.

Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one thinking about rain gardens. Professor Tony Endress put in a proposal and was awarded a grant. His spring 2006 NRES 420 class analyzed the site and designed a rain garden that would direct water off the sidewalk and also away from a red oak that suffered from pooled rainfall. A summer class sourced plants and rock to prepare for Dr. Endress’ fall class. Students worked diligently and installed native plants, shrubs, and sixty tons of rock. Yes, sixty. In the spring of 2007, an official sign and a ribbon-cutting ceremony heralded a new era of sustainable stormwater management on our campus.

Or so we thought. Campus was not prepared for a rain garden.

While I type this in the spring of 2019, the space is unrecognizable as a garden. The sign is gone. Less than 10 percent of the original plants survived, the rocks are saturated with sediment, and bare patches expose tattered landscape fabric. The rain garden still soaks up excess rainfall, but when larger storms hit, the sidewalk has started to flood again as if to say notice me, heal me, take care of me.

And so we are. Thanks to a grant from the Student Sustainability Committee and a partnership between Illinois Extension and Facilities and Services, the heartbreaking condition is about to change for the better. Renovation of this rain garden is imminent.

Red Oak Rain garden renovation design sketch

The intent of this blog is threefold—to talk about the Red Oak Rain Garden’s history, to keep readers updated on current actions and future plans, and to discuss university sustainable stormwater management in a broader sense. Several authors will be contributing, including my team of designers and communicators. Sometimes, we’ll have guest bloggers, which may include Dr. Endress.

We are building on initial efforts with respect for the past and an eye towards the future. But be warned, this garden may break your heart. It may break it wide open to the possibilities of healed landscapes.

“Nature is tough, tenacious, and buoyant and it is never too late.” – Claudia West