By Ed Beaulieu
Oddly enough, this story takes place in a down economy and shows how, despite perceived financial limitations, something surprising and wonderful can happen when people put their minds to it.
For years now, my work at Aquascape (St. Charles, Ill.) has largely focused on developing, designing and installing systems that in one or more ways are environmentally sound and beneficial. In early 2009, I began working on a plan for a prototype community designed around optimal use of its resources, especially water.
I imagined a town filled with rainwater-capturing systems, permeable surfaces and efficient irrigation. It included nothing but indigenous plants, was organized with minimal turf areas and set aside space for composting and cooperative organic farming. As for the homes, all of them boasted various resource- and energy-efficient features.
The overall concept was so bold and appealing that my wife and I had serious conversations about moving there if this place were ever to be built or if we ever found a community like it anywhere else. But here’s where the economy stepped in: Housing development was (and still is) so flat that the concept never moved off the drawing boards.
We didn’t let that stop us: Before long, we started talking about bringing elements of our ideal community right into our hometown of Sugar Grove, Ill. Just maybe, we thought, we could inspire our neighbors and civic leaders to undergo a sort of mass-scale green makeover? We had no idea where this kernel of an idea might lead us, but recent experience indicates that this might be the start of something big.
OPENING IN BLISS
We began by inviting neighbors in our subdivision over to our house for a meeting. It was a Sunday afternoon in June 2009, and we were pleased that, of the 130 homes in our Lakes of Bliss Woods development, 40 were represented at the meeting.
I briefly presented our ideas, explained that making them happen would involve area homeowners, businesses and community departments in installing a variety of rainwater-collection systems, permeable hardscapes and other water- and resource-management strategies – and declared our goal as being to take us a long way toward becoming a so-called “sustainable community.”
We’ve lived in Sugar Grove for years and have always been active in the community through kids’ sports and other programs. Lots of people around here know I’m with Aquascape, and we’ve been so public about what we’ve been thinking that many of our neighbors came to the meeting with some idea of what I’d be proposing.
|Some of the projects we executed were modest in scale, as with the insertion of a rain-collecting barrel in one instance (left) and the installation of a bowl fountain next to a new, permeable deck (left middle) in another. In all cases, however, the impact was significant – as in the yard in which we replaced a large, solid-concrete deck (right middle) with a new one made with permeable pavers (right).|
Using systems and products we’ve been developing and using at Aquascape as a framework for what could be done immediately, we covered a number of possible scenarios:
[ ] If you’re interested in wildlife, we could install an ecosystem-style pond or a rain garden.
[ ] If you’re interested in the sights and sounds of moving water and like the idea of offsetting water usage, we could put in any of a number of variations on basic rainwater-capturing systems, from elaborate pond/stream systems that include rainwater storage cells to small waterfeatures or simple barrels that collect, store and allow for efficient use of rainwater.
[ ] If your primary concern is managing rainwater runoff, we could install permeable hardscape areas and use them to feed rainwater reservoirs.
The list went on, and my basic thought was that by presenting a number of options that required degrees of involvement that ranged from slight to intensive, we had a chance of appealing to the widest possible range of participants while respecting their budgets and priorities. My desire was to demonstrate how we could collectively put a stake in the ground for the cause of resource management – and show how a small residential/farm community of no more than 9,000 people could make a real difference.
HANDS UP, HANDS ON
It might seem surprising that all of this took place in the Chicago area – a place where we’re on the receiving end of a robust average rainfall of 40 inches each year. Given that abundance, it wouldn’t seem that capturing water would be as crucial as it might be in a more arid place. Indeed, we went into the meeting thinking that we’d have a hard time persuading people that wise water use was important everywhere, even where it is plentiful.
What we quickly learned is that ample water can be too much of a good thing: What we ran into was an amazingly strong desire on the part of our neighbors to manage the runoff from all of that rain, with some people expressing concerns about their yards’ tendencies to flood and others rallying to make points about overflowing storm drains and the perils of flooded streets.
We even discussed the runoff issue on the macro scale, getting into a discussion of the value of reducing our runoff because it eventually flowed into the Mississippi River system. True, water from our area travels through multiple streams and rivers on its way to the mighty Mississippi, with 1,200 miles to go before it reaches the Gulf of Mexico. But all runoff eventually does flow to the sea and does have an impact on the health of our coastal ecosystems.
|In a couple of cases, we turned open surfaces of lawn into decorative features that do a much better job of dealing with runoff (left and left middle). In one special case, however, we became involved in something of a renovation project by taking an existing pond (right middle) and sprucing it up with a more naturalistic appearance (right). Here and elsewhere, these photographs were taken immediately after installation – well before the plants had an opportunity to become established.|
As first meetings go, this one was almost too good to be true. Once my presentation was done, I was thrilled by the flow of thoughtful questions focused on what we could do and how we might do it. I saw none of the cynicism that commonly attends discussions of environmental issues; instead, it was clear that a large number of these people had already gone past curiosity and were seriously contemplating ways to get involved in a community-wide program.
Of course, discussion is one thing, action another – and I had no idea how many people would actually sign up. Those were (and still are) economically challenging times, and we were not offering any of our systems pro bono or even at a discount.
My thought coming out of the meeting was that we’d be fortunate if a dozen or so homeowners participated – about 10 percent of the neighborhood. Within just a few days, however, a total of 30 homeowners came forward with a go-ahead. To say I was proud and happy would be a gross understatement.
ORGANIZING A STAMPEDE
As might be expected, there was quite a range of projects within that clutch of 30, from elaborate pond/stream compositions with planted wetlands consuming large portions of given properties to simple pondless waterfeatures or rain barrels. There were also a few who focused entirely on managing runoff and had no greater interest than in trying out the permeable-deck concept.
As things started coming together, we contacted the mayor and city council to let them know what was happening and immediately received an unqualified endorsement. In fact, the city stepped up to the plate and authorized an elaborate system for the grounds of the public library and requested a rain-barrel system for police headquarters.
(Longer term, we’re also working with the city’s fire department – a particularly exciting endeavor because fire fighters consume tremendous volumes of potable water in testing and cleaning equipment and in running training exercises. With so much rainfall coupled with a substantial rainwater-collection program, they’ll soon be able to use stormwater for incidental purposes and dramatically reduce their use of potable water.)
|Our decision to link the Sugar Grove project to our company’s annual Pondemonium event meant we had a substantial workforce on had to get all sorts of tasks done in a hurry. It was a great opportunity for new installers to participate and learn the ropes from experienced professionals.|
Yes, it’s true: We meant to install all of the systems in a single day in August 2009. With that implausible goal in mind, we set to work right away, designing each installation and doing site-preparation work in anticipation of the big day.
Of course, this left us to convince our 30 clients to go along with our ambitious plan – and once again I was amazed at the level of cooperation and enthusiasm: Almost to a person, these clients viewed their participation as being part of something no one else had ever done, anywhere (so far as we know).
And for anyone who might think this had devolved into nothing more than a commercial stunt, please be advised that, straight up, we worked with every client on an individual basis in planning systems in painstaking detail. We knew that installing everything in such a whirlwind was just one of the challenges we faced: We also had to be very certain that these systems were all designed appropriately and could be installed correctly while yielding attractive results.
One thing that helped us tremendously was the fact that the rainwater-capturing systems all had the same basic infrastructure, with the only differences being matters of scale. In fact, individual systems were unique only by way of the decorative elements we placed on top of each reservoir – a detail we discussed thoroughly and planned carefully with each homeowner.
We also covered the full range of practical issues, defining property access, for example, and deciding where materials would be placed before installation began. Uppermost in mind, we knew we wanted to avoid any unpleasant surprises for our clients (who are, after all, my neighbors).
PRIDE AND JOY
Suffice it to say, from the beginning I felt that there was a lot riding on the success of the program.
In the weeks leading up to installation day, we went to work all over the neighborhood, excavating sites, laying down liners, assembling reservoirs and moving in uncounted tons of equipment and materials. Essentially, we wanted to have everything staged so that, once the installers arrived, we could immediately set them loose to place aesthetic elements, rocks and plants and turn on the water.
|Not all of these projects were done on grand scales, but most were done with significant focus on stormwater and runoff control. As shown here in before-and-after images, for example, a couple of the participating homeowners wanted modest waterfeatures for their homes’ entry spaces – beneath which we installed large rainwater-collection and recycling basins.|
Frankly, the whole thing had me worrying. After all, while we had 30 participating residences, there were another 80 homeowners who weren’t part of the program but were nonetheless going to be inconvenienced. And again, as a resident myself, I was more than a little concerned that large doses of anxiety and frustration would be directed at me – perhaps rightfully so!
Yet again, however, the reaction from the community knocked me off my feet. At every turn, we experienced good-natured cooperation, accommodation and patience. Even those not participating in the program came out of their homes and expressed support and offered to help however they could. They, too, came to be part of something special.
When installation day finally arrived, it was something to behold: A massive, organized stampede of enthusiastic and capable pond/stream specialists frenetically crawling over the neighborhood, spreading gravel, installing plants and placing rocks – everyone helping each other, interacting warmly with residents and treating the event like a massive and exhausting celebration of aquatic potential.
As the dust settled late that day, we noted with pride that every single system was installed, filled and operating: The whole, manic affair had come off with nary a hitch.
To nobody’s surprise, of course, in the days and weeks following the installation we revisited a number of the installations to make mostly minor adjustment that mainly had to do with enhancing appearances. That follow-up effort, however, was far less involved or extensive than I thought it might be.
Mostly what I encountered following the event was unqualified praise. And as deeply as I know that all of the professionals involved did an amazing job from start to finish and deserve tremendous credit, I also know that the main reason the program came off so well is largely attributable to the support we received from the community.
From the outset, the community’s energy and acceptance defined the process. By force of will, it seems, homeowners and city officials made this project a success – so much so that some of the 30 homes have since been included in garden tours, other homeowners have signed up for systems of their own and the mayor has asked me to prepare a follow-up presentation on the project for the city council.
The big lesson here is this: When you present interested people with tangible solutions to resource-management issues and are able to define attainable, understandable ways they can be part of a grand set of solutions to environmental challenges, many have the desire and capacity to join in without reservation.
|A few of the program’s participants gave us clean slates and large spaces to cover with more ambitions installations. As these before-and-after images show, we were able to turn relatively flat, featureless expanses of lawn into pond and stream systems that will run off rainwater and will only look better and better as the plantings take hold.|
My sense is that much of the immediate resistance to these programs is rooted in the economy and a general reluctance people have to spend on anything other than basic necessities these days. But the dreamer and the scientist in me both like to imagine a day when this type of community effort will be commonplace.
What keeps me going is the rough calculations I’ve done on water use and runoff involved in the Sugar Grove program: The numbers get significant in a hurry.
It’s evident to me that, with this type of grassroots approach, the watershaping industry (and our clients) can become part of a movement that will – in measurable, verifiable ways – have positive effects on individuals, communities, priceless natural resources and the environment.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that in the year since we installed all of the Sugar Grove systems, our neighborhood has seen a notable increase in its populations of birds, insects and terrestrial creatures. It seems the human residents around here aren’t the only ones who know a good thing when they see it!
Ed Beaulieu is chief sustainability officer at Aquascape of St. Charles, Ill. – a role that has seen him install custom waterfeatures from small ponds to large lakes and commercial waterfeatures. He holds a bachelor’s degree in zoology/limnology as well as a master’s degree in marine biology. Now focusing on sustainability, Beaulieu incorporates water quality, storage and habitat considerations into custom landscape designs that have been featured in such publications as Architectural Digest, Better Homes & Gardens, Nature’s Garden and Irrigation & Green Industry News, among others. He has been project manager for the company’s waterfeature installations at the Flower & Garden Festival at Disney’s Epcot Center in Orlando, Fla., and has also appeared on various shows on the HGTV and D.I.Y channels.