Daily Herald opinion: Mundelein project shows how nature can be used in redevelopment

This editorial is the consensus opinon of the Daily Herald Editorial Board

If you read Russell Lissau's page 1 story on Monday, you already know that Mundelein has done something really good for itself, something that other communities might want to emulate, if they can.

Almost any community that buys the site of an abandoned factory in town, does so with an eye toward redevelopment. Indeed, demolishing an old facility to make way for a new residential, commercial, industrial or retail venture (or all of the above) is often how communities reinvent themselves over time - especially when the new thing revitalizes a street or neighborhood and brings additional sales and property taxes that benefit the city and other local taxing bodies like schools, libraries and park districts.

There's a lot to like about that approach. But more than a year ago, Mundelein did something different. With the help of an environmental engineering firm out of McHenry, Mundelein turned the abandoned U.S. Music Corp. headquarters into a flood-control project that has successfully dried up a nearby neighborhood that had been beset by flooding and backups, and gave the village an outstanding outdoor recreation area.

They started by adding bigger pipes under Division Street to collect more water from heavy rainfall than the former inadequate system.

But all that water needed somewhere to go. The U.S. Music Corp. building came down. In its place a water detention basin was devised that doesn't look like a basin, sitting on an eight-acre footprint that can contain 40 acre-feet of stormwater. When full, the water slowly is absorbed into the ground, doing damage to nobody.

When it's not full of water, it is a diverse prairie. Initially it was seeded with plants native to the region. But since it would take time for seeds to grow, they installed more than 6,000 native plants that have since grown and multiplied - tall prairie grass, wildflowers and lots of diverse vegetation. The plants have been carefully chosen to thrive in this place - plants that do well in marshy conditions are in places where water lingers, for example.

All of them have one commonality - deep, sturdy root systems, with roots that continuously break up the soil as they push up to 12 feet into the earth. This allows water to soak in better.

Essentially, what we have here is an urban problem - flooded homes, streets, yards and backed up sewage - being solved by a combination of engineering and carefully nurtured nature. A walking path takes hikers through the vibrant ecosystem, not even two years old. But yet, here are herons, ducks and geese, insects, frogs and all manner of birds, each declaring through their presence the project to be an unqualified success.

Urban flooding exists in most suburbs, particularly older, more established ones. The Mundelein project is an outsized example of how nature can be brought to bear, but as project engineer Logan Gilbertsen tells us, nature solutions are also scalable. Fixes as small as installing rain gardens at individual homes or turning a parkway on a suburban street into a small version of Mundelein's nature preserve are available.

And as Mundelein teaches us, sometimes nature is the best redeveloper of all.

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