Rain gardens help Minneapolis’ first ‘eco-mosque’ control flooding

Masjid An-Nur uses public grants for landscaping projects that redirect stormwater into native plantings—instead of sewers.

A man stands near a sidewalk and street setting.
Imam Makram El-Amin stands on the grounds of Masjid An-Nur in north Minneapolis. The mosque mitigated historic flooding problems with a system of rain gardens.
Sahan Journal

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By Andrew Hazzard, Sahan Journal

The heavy rains and melting snow of early spring used to cause major issues at Masjid An-Nur. 

The north Minneapolis mosque battled flooding issues for years, according to its longtime leader, Imam Makram El-Amin. The building sits downhill from its parking lot on the corner of 18th Street and Lyndale Avenue, which causes water to flow directly into the mosque. 

“Over the years we spent thousands of dollars, literally, and many sleepless nights dealing with this issue,” Imam El-Amin said. “It was really becoming a disaster for us.”

But on a recent Friday, El-Amin smiled as he walked through the freshly landscaped grounds. The week had brought heavy rain and significant snow melt. But the building hadn’t flooded because the excess water was absorbed by a new network of rain gardens, installed with  $60,000 in public grant money. The landscaping project is the latest effort the congregation has made to support environmental justice and establish itself as the region’s first “eco-mosque.” 

Embracing the eco-mosque 

In 2019, one of the congregation’s members, Kenya McKnight, suggested Masjid An-Nur apply for a planning grant from the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization. This government agency, headquartered in northeast Minneapolis, works to protect and improve water quality in urban areas that drain into the Mississippi River. The initial quest to mitigate flooding led the mosque to explore solutions for stormwater management, and ultimately to a decision to embrace an added mission as an eco-mosque. 

Historically a small, African American congregation, Masjid An-Nur has grown immensely in the 25 years El-Amin has served as imam. Its membership has been bolstered by immigrant families and people coming from across the metro to worship. 

Masjid An-Nur had been working to decrease its carbon footprint for years. The congregation manages a robust recycling program and composts scraps and leftovers from its large community food-bank program, Al Maa’uun

It draws much of its electricity from the Shiloh Temple community solar garden, a local 630-panel solar array that also powers its host church and about 30 homes in north Minneapolis. Recently, the mosque converted the building’s lighting to more efficient and environmentally friendly LED bulbs. 

Mosque members and leadership embraced these efforts, but the group didn’t tie it all together until the stormwater project, El-Amin said. Being a good steward of the earth is valued in the  faith. 

“All of these things find a home in Islam,” he said. 

McKnight, a former Bush Foundation Fellow and the CEO and founder of the Black Women’s Wealth Alliance, helped the mosque connect those initiatives to the fight for environmental justice in north Minneapolis.  

The surrounding community has experienced disproportionately high levels of pollution and frequent flooding. 

The mosque’s zip code, 55411, has the highest rate of asthma hospitalizations in the state, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, which in 2013 began a special project monitoring air quality in north Minneapolis. Years of heavy industrialization, including the former Northern Metals Recycling plant, have led to poor air quality. 

El-Amin grew up on the Northside and says flooding in the area has always been common. The mosque’s Near North neighborhood is particularly prone to flood risk according to the Metropolitan Council’s localized flood map tool, which identifies areas where water builds up across the region. 

“We’ve caught the brunt of a lot of these issues over the course of time,” El-Amin said. “It was time for us to step up and do something.”  

Stopping stormwater

Stormwater is rain or melting snow that runs over hard surfaces like streets, sidewalks, and roofs. 

All that water has to go somewhere. In the Twin Cities, it usually flows down the block to storm drains that carry the water, unfiltered, into the Mississippi River. The water picks up pollutants such as road salt, pet waste, and litter along the way. That leads to water quality issues, according to Michaela Neu, youth and community outreach specialist with the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization. 

That’s where stormwater mitigation tools like rain gardens can make a difference. Rain gardens are created by digging holes in the ground. Native vegetation plantings help catch and absorb stormwater.  

At Masjid An-Nur, landscape architects from local nonprofit Metro Blooms designed 10 rain gardens, linked together in what’s called  “a treatment train.” The rain gardens vary in depth from 4 to 9 inches deep. The largest and deepest garden snakes between the parking lot and building like a green moat, protecting the area where water used to enter through the back door. Native plants like prairie blazing star and Joe Pye weed have deep root systems and can withstand heavy soakings. 

A view of a drain surrounded by dirt and rocks.
A new drainage system helps direct water running downhill into a system of rain gardens on the mosque’s property.
Image courtesy of the Basset Creek Watershed Management Commission.

Iman El-Amin pointed out the regraded parking lot, which contractors shifted to funnel water into a drain—still buried under a lingering snow pile. The drain leads directly to three consecutive rain gardens broken up by newly planted trees that line a walkway made of permeable brick. This surface allows water to seep into the ground and run between the flower beds. 

The effect creates an enjoyable backyard plaza. As the weather improves, the mosque hopes to take advantage of during youth services and casual gatherings. 

‘Many in the community don’t know what’s possible’

The completed project can capture 85 percent of an above-average 1.1 inch rainfall on the property, Neu said. 

“This helps us reduce the amount of water that goes into the river and ultimately pollution,” Neu said.  

The Mississippi Watershed Management Organization helps community groups implement stormwater solutions. The group issues stewardship grants ranging from $5,000 to $50,000 to create greenspace and natural habitat while reducing pollution. 

Masid An-Nur received two grants totalling $60,000 to hire landscape architects and implement the vision. 

The watershed district helped fund a similar project at the Islamic Cultural Community Center in northeast Minneapolis in 2019. 

With the help of partner agencies Hennepin County and the Metropolitan Council, the organization awards multiple grants each year. 

The mosque intends to install an informational plaque this year to let neighbors know about the project.

“Many in the community don’t know what’s possible,” El-Amin said. 

Climate change means wetter, warmer springs

Efforts to bolster flood readiness and mitigation will become increasingly important in Minnesota because of climate change, according to meteorologist Sean Sublette, of the nonprofit research and reporting organization Climate Central. 

The earth continues to warm at a rapid rate due to the burning fossil fuels. The warmer it is, the more moisture evaporates into the atmosphere, resulting in more precipitation, Sublette said. The combination of faster snow melts and heavier spring rains creates ripe conditions for excess water. 

“You’re increasing your risk of flooding in the future,” he said. 

Minnesota’s springs have been warming since the late 1970s, research shows. Today the Twin Cities area has 10 more spring days with temperatures above average than it did in 1970, Climate Central found. The effects are wide-ranging: Over time, the warming climate is  changing when plants bloom.

A graph showing a trend of warming spring temperatures since 1970.
Minnesota springs are getting warmer, leading to more moisture in the air, causing more precipitation.
Image courtesy of Climate Central

Creating community space

Plants will start blooming in the Masjid An-Nur this spring, and El-Amin is hopeful the community will be able to see it firsthand soon. 

The last year has been hard on the mosque and its congregation. The COVID-19 pandemic has kept worship services remote and increased demand for its community programming. 

“This has been somewhat of a silver lining for us,” El-Amin said. 

The rain gardens serve a practical purpose, but also create a lovely gathering place for members. The congregation is eager to take advantage of it as the weather improves and vaccination levels rise. 

“We’re kind of champing at the bit,” El-Amin said. 

Correction (March 18, 2021): A previous version of this article misstated the depth of the rain gardens.