A Multidisciplinary Approach to Creating Stormwater Infrastructure Equity



By Tom Linder
Stormwater Justice Team

A team of professors at Illinois Institute of Technology is bringing together social science, landscape architecture, and engineering—along with a dose of citizen science—to find ways to address a growing concern about stormwater infrastructure inequities in Chicago.

Led by principal investigator Matthew Shapiro, professor of political science, a team consisting of Associate Professor of Social Science Hao Huang, Associate Professor and Director of the Landscape Architecture and Urbanism Program Maria Villalobos Hernandez, Professor of Landscape Architecture and Urbanism Ron Henderson, Assistant Professor of Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering David Lampert and Arthur W. Hill Endowed Chair in Sustainability Brent Stephens has been awarded a $750,000 Strengthening American Infrastructure grant by the National Science Foundation with a focus on improving public understanding, assessing stormwater infrastructure disparities, and identifying viable policy options to address the issue.

The effects of climate change have elevated the concern—this issue was most recently demonstrated in July 2023 when Chicago received nine inches of rain in one day, overwhelming the city’s current stormwater infrastructure.

“We have old stormwater infrastructure, and it badly needs updates,” says Shapiro. “In the Chicago case, we also have access-related disparities between areas: the North versus the South Side.”

Shapiro continues, “South Side stormwater infrastructure is a little more out of date than other places, so we’re interested in trying to understand the nature of those disparities and whether or not they’re significant, whether or not there are potential solutions, including green infrastructure and funding for fixing it, and whether or not the local residents would embrace those kinds of changes.”

Finding a solution requires involving those who are most affected by flooding. In part, this means informing the public about the nature of water infrastructure and gauging their willingness to accept the various changes and the costs associated with those changes, since any solutions would likely be funded by taxpayers.

Another aspect includes getting citizens to gather the necessary data to determine which areas are in most need of help. Some early ideas include developing an app—the team has already hired an Illinois Tech computer science student to design it—allowing residents to report flooding events and using sensors with models to simulate rainfall and runoff events. This app could also be used to direct Chicago residents to a 311 line that would facilitate the reporting of flood events.

The idea is to gather as many data points as possible to find out which areas need the most help, and how flooding events in certain areas of the city affect other parts of the city.

“Part of the NSF mandate is bringing science to the general public,” Shapiro says. “When we proposed this, we were very excited about the possibility of having local community members come to Illinois Tech, not only to learn about the science, but to actually learn about how Illinois Tech brings key opportunities to the local community. We are now searching for willing high school teachers—science teachers, whether it’s at De La Salle or somewhere else close or far within the city—to include a module into their curricula focusing on water and bringing their students to Illinois Tech.”

What could potential solutions look like?

Ideally, Shapiro would like to see an informed and engaged public identify and address the most-needed areas of the city that, up until now, have been on the short end of equity in wastewater infrastructure, as well as green options to upgrade infrastructure.

“At the end of this project, if we were to bring greater awareness to the general public about the nature of the problem while mitigating the differences between certain communities in Chicago in terms of water infrastructure problems, that would be a home run,” Shapiro says.