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A Paved New World: How Residential Development is Creating an Impervious Planet

Residential Development Rain Gardens NeededAny experienced landscaper can tell you what kind of soils you have without even getting out of their truck.

How can we do this?

We use clues such as the maturity of the surrounding trees or the presence of any sudden topographic changes, but mostly we use the time period the house was built as our best indicator.

Why would this tell us about the soils?

Because generally speaking, soils become higher in clay content, greater in compaction, and closer to impervious as you go from a lot developed in the 1960’s to a lot developed today.

These changes in soil conditions over time can be explained by one thing: suburban sprawl.

Residential development changed from subdivisions of 10-20 homes in the 1960’s to mini-suburbs of 100-200+ homes by the late 2000’s.

1960's subdivision2000's mini-suburb

As highways expanded and suburban sprawl accelerated, developers purchased larger and larger parcels of land.

By the housing boom of the 2000’s residential developers were converting acres upon acres of undeveloped land to residential development all at one time.

This brings us to today.

Current Residential Development Practices

Current State of Development

Developers are now very efficient at what they do, often at the expense of our soils.

At one time homes were built to the land, now the land is built to the homes.

Current practices involve the development of large tracts of land which are first scraped clean of their valuable topsoil.

This natural resource is sold off with only a small portion stockpiled on-site for later use.

Top Soil Stockpile

The now exposed heavy clay subsoils are used to contour the land in such a way as to allow for the most homes possible with the least amount of clay soils having to be hauled out.

This recontouring involves heavy earth moving machinery including the use of drum compactors to compact the clay soils. The same piece of equipment is used in compacting the base for our roads.

This process results in a nearly impervious heavy clay, highly compacted layer of soil over the entire development, save the required detention basins.

Compacted New Development Soil

After a house is completed, 2-3″ of the original top soil is spread back out across the property.

Re-Applied Top Soil

This is then covered with farm grown sod.

New Development Sodding

These homes have been removed from nature to their left and right with their clear-cut construction and boxwood/daylily landscapes, and they have been separated from our groundwater and soil life below with their compacted clay soils.

All we have left to do is build a glass dome over these homes and we will literally be living completely disconnected from our natural world.

Why Does This Matter?

Two Reasons:
Runoff and Recharge.

These nearly impermeable new residential developments put a clay cap, or aquiclude, over the soil surface and groundwater supply.

This produces high volumes of runoff that are laden with any chemicals and fertilizers that the homeowners put on their lawns which flow directly into the on-site detention basins and into our waterways.

These required detention basins are designed to handle a calculated volume of rainfall runoff, but when these basins are full in the Spring the nearly impervious development becomes a fire hose of stormwater that quickly overloads nearby stormwater systems often resulting in flooding.

Recharge: We are on the brink of a water crisis. We are removing subsurface water faster than it can be replenished.

This disruption to the water cycle can already be seen in the drying up of our wells and local surface water tributaries.

According to one of the more moderate estimates in a recent study produced by the Illinois State Water Survey, we will see an over 40% reduction in groundwater contribution to the Fox River by the year 2050.

The Mill Creek will be completely dried up and gone by 2050 because of the lack of baseflow.

New Development Sodding

Thanks Janet!

We are not getting water into the soil resulting in decreasing baseflow, or water slowly moving through the soil and into our brooks, streams, and rivers.

Groundwater is a finite resource that does not get replenished quickly. There is no “short-cut” with groundwater recharge.

We Are the Bad Guys

So let’s go picket these developers and tell them to stop ruining our Earth, right?

Not so fast.

These practices would change if we as consumers demanded homes that were built in a manner that conserves our soils and is hydrologically responsible.

Instead we want low-cost homes with expansive green lawns.

So that’s what developers produce.

They simply give us what we ask for; it all starts with the consumer.

Rain Gardens to the Rescue

Voltaire said, “The best is the enemy of good.”

We can’t and shouldn’t wait for the industry to change.

Rain gardens are something that we can do right now on an individual level, that makes a measurable impact.

Rain gardens can be used nearly anywhere, especially in new residential developments, to help “heal” the land.

If you live in a new residential development, don’t feel bad, put in a rain garden!

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