Wednesday, May 8, 2013

On the Screen - May: A Neighborhood of Raingardens

By Sage Passi

A tour of raingardens in Powderhorn neighborhood in Minneapolis.
Photo clip from A Neighborhood of Raingardens by Mark Pedelty.

In A Neighborhood of Raingardens, Mark Pedelty, journalism and mass communications professor at the University of Minnesota and Resident Fellow at the Institute of the Environment documents the story of a neighborhood in South Minneapolis around Powderhorn Lake that organizes itself to tackle water quality issues that are impacting their local lake. The film uses animation and other techniques to introduce the stormwater and pollution issues impairing the lake, then follows Metro Blooms program as neighborhood organizers and volunteers team up with 100 homeowners to plan and build raingardens in their yards to help address run-off issues. Add to the mix, the original background music of Pedelty’s band, the Hypoxic Punks and you’ve got a homegrown story that has lots of layers and messages of inspiration as well as a certain depth of realism about the hurdles and challenges underlying such a mission. You can link to this film at

Powderhorn Lake in South Minneapolis.
Photo clip from A Neighborhood of Raingardens by Mark Pedelty.

The story unfolds as we get acquainted with “Super Heroes” like Metro Blooms Board member, Bob Wolk, who is one of the big “inspirers” behind the project. According to Pedelty, who narrates the film, “Bob is the kind of guy who builds an “eco wall”, uses discarded fruit cartons from grocery stores to make raised beds and sweeps up sand from the street gutters, bags it and reuses it on his driveway during the following winter. Bob even managed to convince his entire block to install rain gardens.”

Bob Wolk, board member of Metro Blooms who organized his neighbors to put in rain gardens on his block in Minneapolis near Minnehaha Creek.  Photo clip from A Neighborhood of Raingardens by Mark Pedelty.

As Bob reveals, “It started when my wife and I were celebrating our 50th wedding anniversary and we were looking for something we could do that could have more of a lasting effect. Metro Blooms suggested that we donate a raingarden to the city on some public land. We thought that was a good idea – the concept of a raingarden but who is going to take care of it? It perhaps would be better if it was on private property. So my wife came up with the idea of offering each of our eleven neighbors a raingarden. We served a lot of wine and got them really, really sympathetic to any idea I would propose and then said, 'How would you like to have a raingarden?' And they said, 'Wow that’s a great idea'…at least most of them did. A couple of them were hesitant but after we met with them all eleven of them got on board." 

Bob concludes, “We had a big party with our nearest and dearest friends and we put in eleven raingardens in two and a half hours. It really bonded us together. It’s a safer community now. It’s a more integrated community. And I think only because of the gardens because people don’t just walk by the house, they stop and they talk to us. It’s also great for the ego.”

Here’s a link to the story of their project

Clockwise from top left: Bob at his rain garden. Raingardens on Bob Wolk's block. Bob's (to the left) celebrates with his neighbors after they install 11 rain gardens on their block. Maturing rain garden in bloom.
Photo clips from A Neighborhood of Raingardens by Mark Pedelty.
So Metro Blooms tried to do for a large urban neighborhood what Bob did for his block – transform it into a neighborhood of raingardens. It would take hundreds of people working together to bring that vision to a neighborhood sized watershed. The work began with a group of dedicated high school students – the Mississippi Green team, who are connected to the Minneapolis Park Board. They conducted an audit of the test and control neighborhoods, walking the neighborhoods looking at people’s yards, assessing the pervious and impervious surfaces, looking at where people’s downspouts were directed and working off a checklist of items. They also helped plant the gardens.

Top left: Two members of the Mississippi Green team who did the yard audits in the Powderhorn project.
Top right: Youth from the Mississippi River Green team who helped plant the rain gardens.
Bottom: Sharon Calloway, a rain garden homeowner in the project.

Photo clips from A Neighborhood of Raingardens by Mark Pedelty.

In the film, one of the Powderhorn homeowners who had a raingarden installed in her yard, Sharon Calloway provides testimony about her decision to get involved in the rain garden project. 

“My mother came to this neighborhood in 1963. She loved the outdoors. For her it was about healing. She felt greenery and flowers brought healing to your soul, healing to your body. She loved for us to be in the yard. I can tell you that my mother always thought it was important to give back to the environment to make it beautiful. She loved planting. She could make something that was dead come alive.”

Sharon continues to share her reasons for installing a raingarden, “I heard about the raingarden project through my neighbor, Carol. She said, “Because your mother spent so much time outside, let’s do this in her memory.”

With Minnesota Conservation crew hard at work in the background Calloway concludes, "I know that my mother is very happy. She is smiling because we are remembering her in a special way in the environment, giving back to this neighborhood that she loved so well.”

Left: A Minnesota Conservation Corps (MCC) team working in Sharon Calloway's yard to construct a rain garden.
Right: Slogan on the back of an MCC crew member.
Photo clips from A Neighborhood of Raingardens by Mark Pedelty.

After being inspired by the film, I did some follow up research to learn about the outcomes of this project and what else has been done to improve the water in Powderhorn Lake to make it more enjoyable and healthy for the residents in the neighborhood and the animals who reside there. I live not too far from there, and take walks there occasionally. I love observing the bird life especially the resident egret, heron and night crown herons on the island. I attend the annual Heart of the Beast May Day Celebration in the park along its shores each spring and have been observing some of these improvements over the years. I was glad to learn of some of the outcomes resulting from the combined efforts of the City of Minneapolis, the Park Department and Metro Blooms Neighborhood of Raingardens project.

Here’s what I discovered:

After rain water coming from 56,000 square feet of impervious surface was re-directed into raingardens, the Neighborhood of Raingardens project saw a 21% decrease in run-off in its first year. This project tops off a series of other steps implemented by the city and park department over the last decade including: the installation of a treatment program that uses centrifugal force to separate trash, sediment and other pollutants in the stormwater going into this lake, the use of barley straw bales along the shoreline to cut down algae and the stocking of channel catfish that eat the sunfish that stir up sediment on the bottom of the lake. Water clarity and aquatic vegetation have improved over time.

The positive results: Powderhorn Lake was taken off Minnesota’s impaired waters list in 2012. That’s quite an accomplishment for a neighborhood and its partners. Here’s a model that other communities can learn from and consider trying out. For more information you can go to

Left: Black-crowned night-heron at Powderhorn Lake.
Middle: Mark Pedelty (left), film producer with his band, the Hypoxic Punks.
Right: A great blue heron at Powderhorn Lake (Photo from A Neighborhood of Raingardens by Mark Pedelty).

1 comment:

  1. I got married at Powderhorn Park 32 years ago. Many wonderful images of the May Day Parade, and love, love to you all for all you are doing. Save Lake Powderhorn! Hugs.