Community-driven Revitalization: Tying it Together in Freeport, Illinois

by Melissa Friedland

The East Side of Freeport, Illinois, is a remarkable place. This African-American neighborhood has been home to families for generations. Residents have a strong sense of community and deep affection for the area. However, frequent flooding from the Pecatonica River has not just damaged homes but impacted the community’s economic vitality. The community also has vacant former industrial areas, petroleum contamination, and has been subject to illegal dumping at the CMC Heartland Superfund site. These have exacerbated the legacy of racial segregation, strained relationships with civic leadership, and diminished access to community amenities.

In 2013, community members began to tackle these challenges. Their goal: to make it possible for Freeport’s East Side to again support quality housing, thriving businesses, and public amenities. At the outset, stakeholders identified two key outcomes for the project – reducing flooding impacts and addressing floodway regulations. Properties in the neighborhood’s floodplain are subject to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and state floodway regulations as activities such as rebuilding and improving housing and commercial space after flood events are considered. Residents have indicated that addressing these challenges could lay the foundation for pursuing additional neighborhood revitalization goals.

To help make this happen, EPA’s Superfund Redevelopment Initiative (SRI) and Region 5 office sponsored a reuse planning process for the CMC Heartland site and other contaminated properties in the neighborhood. The year-long effort brought local residents and business owners together with city officials and federal agency staff.

Building trust and relationships was the first priority, as a legacy of poor communication and strained relations between the community and the local government threatened to derail progress. A pro-bono Cultural Competence training brought city staff and neighborhood residents together. Breakthroughs followed, as participants shared their experiences and people realized that everyone at the table was interested in addressing past challenges and ensuring a brighter, more sustainable future for the East Side. The training was an early turning point that enabled participants to understand each other’s perspectives and plan for the future.

Reducing Flood Impacts

011080410 FEMA assists IEMA with flood assessments

With good working relationships in place, the work shifted to understanding where and how flooding was affecting the neighborhood. During several working sessions, residents and city staff developed a detailed map that incorporated community feedback about areas of concern as well as technical floodplain information. In a follow-up session, participants explored ways to manage stormwater differently. Where traditional gray infrastructure approaches rely on pipes, sewers, and other physical structures, green infrastructure uses vegetation, soils, and natural processes to manage stormwater runoff at its source, protecting water quality, and benefiting communities through improved air quality, enhanced recreational opportunities, revitalized neighborhoods, and even enhanced climate resiliency.

Participants then prioritized a set of goals for reducing flood impacts, including addressing areas where floodwaters enter homes and block street access, ensuring safe access to a neighborhood school, tackling areas of standing water, and designing green infrastructure features to beautify the East Side neighborhood and the Stephenson Street entrance corridor.

Addressing Floodway Regulations

East Side residents, city staff, and elected officials knew that engaging with FEMA was essential to reducing flooding impacts and supporting community revitalization. Parties developed a joint statement describing how the neighborhood’s economic vitality and housing quality have been impacted over time by its location in the floodway where residents contend with recurring major and minor flood events. East Side residents would like to work with FEMA on the best possible ways to maintain and improve their homes.

In a presentation to FEMA in 2014, the group invited agency staff to join a dialogue to focus on finding solutions. In addition, a plan that focused on flood impact reduction and neighborhood revitalization was developed with the support of the EPA Superfund Redevelopment Initiative and Region 5. More information can be found in the final report.

Through its work with communities, EPA’s goal is make a visible and lasting difference. The East Side project shows how these efforts can lead to new partnerships, vital innovations, and long-term revitalization.

About the author: Melissa Friedland manages EPA’s Superfund Redevelopment Initiative, an EPA initiative that helps communities reclaim cleaned-up Superfund program sites.

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