What do you see here?

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

“As we read what is written on the land, finding accounts of the past, predictions for the future, and comments on the present, we discover that there are many interwoven strands to each story…” May Theilgaard Watts, Reading the Landscape of America

Imagine walking along one of the main sidewalks into campus from Lincoln Avenue between McKinley Health Center and Allen and Lincoln Avenue Residence Halls. What do you see and what are you experiencing?

Irritation about a flooded sidewalk? Peace from a lush garden? Or a big nothing?

Your answer depends on WHEN you did your walk.

If it was in early in 2006 after a rainfall, you might have faced an unpleasant puddle blocking the sidewalk. 

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

This was the condition here when I started working for the University of Illinois and was tasked with suggesting ideas for grant projects to benefit campus infrastructure and the environment. Fresh off a native plant conference in Madison, Wisconsin, I had just learned about rain gardens and was inspired to include one in the request for proposals.

Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one thinking about rain gardens. Professor Tony Endress put in a proposal and was awarded the 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 rainwater. A summer class sourced plants and materials to prepare for a fall class garden build.

If you took your walk that autumn, the scene was Dr. Endress and his NRES students working diligently to install native plants, shrubs, and sixty tons of rock. Excitement was in the air as visitors saw the activity and stopped by to ask questions. One person walked by and applauded, which rarely happens at construction sites. People were optimistic – a new era of sustainable stormwater management was happening on our campus.

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

Walking by 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. Neglect and time have all but erased the efforts of the previous decade. Most people don’t recognize it as a rain garden, making it unlikely that they would be interested in knowing more about it or caring for it.

Fortunately, this is about to change.

Thanks to a grant from the  Student Sustainability Committee  and a partnership between  Illinois Extension  and Facilities and Services, you’re about to see a revitalized garden. Renovation begins Summer 2019. You can follow our activities on this blog.

The intent of the blog is threefold—to provide the Red Oak Rain Garden’s history, to keep readers updated on current actions and partnerships and reveal 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 who continues to advise the project.

The Red Oak Rain Garden team is building on initial efforts with respect for the past and eyes to the future. We want you see and experience what a thoughtful, functional design can do for our campus. Further, we want you to be inspired to “do this at home” and soon you’ll be proud to have your own flourishing rain garden story to tell.

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