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Samantha Mattone, a Chicago resident who runs environmental programs for Chicago Public Schools, has native plants and two rain barrels in her backyard. She recently bought a compost bin, eligible for a city rebate as part of a program promoting sustainable backyards.   

Chicago pays residents to fight floods

by Alan Yu
Oct 09, 2012


City of Chicago

Excess rainwater can lead to sewage backing up.

The program gives residents up to 50 percent of their money back if they buy a rain barrel, compost bin, native plants or trees for their backyard, because these structures help prevent flooded basements. Chicago recently asked the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT), a local nonprofit that promotes sustainable lifestyles, to manage a Sustainable Backyards Program. 

The former Chicago Department of the Environment kicked off the program in 2011. But last October, incoming Mayor Rahm Emanuel eliminated the department as part of his budget plan. After a call for proposals, Chicago chose the center in late September as program manager.

The city established Sustainable Backyards as an extension of existing campaigns encouraging the use of rain barrels and compost bins, said Samantha Mattone, a Chicago resident who runs environmental programs for Chicago Public Schools and has participated since last year.

“It’s pretty simple stuff,” Mattone said. “I have this house and I can use all of those things that the sustainable backyards program has to offer and it’s helpful to get money back from the city to do that.”

Apart from getting money back from the city, residents can also help reduce stormwater runoff by installing green solutions in their backyards. Concrete sidewalks and buildings mean less rainwater drains into the soil, thus pollutants are swept into drains and eventually rivers.

Rainwater can overload Chicago’s combined stormwater and sanitary sewers and lead to sewers backing up into homes.

Seattle had a similar sustainability program to promote rain gardens, small depressions with plants that can take up excess water. The city has reduced an estimated 2.4 million gallons of stormwater a year through the rain gardens program, said Bob Spencer, the program manager at Seattle Public Utilities.

“We’re fooling an urban landscape into behaving more like a forested or meadow-like condition,” Spencer said. “It’s a great opportunity for our ratepayers to be part of the solution while adding an amenity to their home.”

The Center for Neighborhood Technology is also working with insurance agencies and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to estimate the annual damage caused by urban flooding, said Ryan Wilson, CNT’s stormwater manager. Chicago is requiring the center to report on the results of Sustainable Backyards this December.