Growing up in Wisconsin as a child of immigrants—her father’s from France, her mother from Manila— gave Nicole Chavas a unique perspective on the world.
“There’s something about feeling ‘other’ that forces you to question the status quo and empathize with people different from yourself,” she said.
It led Chavas toward social entrepreneurship — as she put it, “a stubborn belief that no matter how big a challenge seems, we can find a solution.”
The problem Chavas is determined to fix? Stormwater management.
After a decade in investment management, Chavas was inspired the work of her husband, an urban planner who specializes in sustainable solutions. When she started her company, Greenprint Partners, in 2014, its mission was to use nature-based solutions like urban forestry and agriculture to revitalize communities. But as she piloted projects, Chavas repeatedly heard clients complain about storm runoff.
“We realized how urgent the issue was,” she said.
As populations in U.S. cities have increased, buildings and pavement have replaced natural spaces, leaving rain nowhere to go. Municipalities have attempted to manage the runoff by building expansive (and expensive) underground storage systems, but “they’re outdated and failing,” Chavas said. “Today, hundreds of U.S. cities have sewer systems that routinely overflow, pouring polluted water — and even raw sewage — into our rivers, lakes and oceans.”
And it’s not just hurricane-prone areas that are impacted.
“Across the country, families are likely to encounter flooding walking through their neighborhoods, commuting to work — even in their basements,” noted Chavas. “Everyone loses in this situation: low-income communities that bear the brunt of urban flooding, families that want safe places to swim and wildlife that’s losing precious habitat because of pollution.”
And outdated infrastructure now faces the additional threat of climate change, which spurs on storms that are both more frequent and more intense.
Greenprint Partners offers “literally the world’s oldest stormwater technology: using nature to absorb rain right where it falls,” explained Chavas. Think rain gardens, waterfalls and permeable pavement.
Chavas and her team see every project through from beginning to end. That includes partnering with landowners, including churches, schools, social service centers or public housing agencies; designing the project; securing funding; overseeing construction; and most importantly, engaging the community.
“Our projects don’t just manage stormwater, but maximize the benefits that can have the most lasting impacts on the lives of the local community,” said Chavas.
Take Peoria, Illinois, a city of 116,000 and one of the poorest ZIP codes in the country.
“Its combined sewer system regularly overflows, sending polluted stormwater and untreated sewage into the Illinois River,” said Chavas.
Greenprint Partners’ team met with residents of Peoria’s south side, many of whom are struggling to earn a living wage. “They came to us with stories about how they didn’t have enough access to fresh, healthy produce; safe outdoor spaces for community to gather and get exercise; and that they needed more access to jobs,” Chavas said.
Those community-identified desires directly informed the design of the Well Farm site, one of the nation’s first “stormwater farms.” Today, 100 raised beds not only help reduce rain runoff, but also support an urban farming apprenticeship program that cultivates, harvests and sells crops at local farmers markets. Together with a flowering bioswale (a landscape element that removes pollution from the water), the Well Farm project manages 1.3 million gallons of Peoria’s stormwater each year.
Greenprint continues to cultivate projects in low-to-moderate-income communities across the country. Said Chavas, “We’re committed to showing up wherever we’ll have the greatest impact.”
Meet more environmental innovators here.