60 Environmental Success Stories Across the Chicago Region in 2023


a field of tall green grass with pink flowers
In a world often saturated with disheartening environmental news, it becomes increasingly vital to shed light on the positive efforts, resilient wildlife, and dedicated people. This blog highlights 60 uplifting success stories of hope and progress for a greener and more sustainable future. The number 60 holds special significance, aligning with Openlands’ 60th anniversary year—a testament to the enduring commitment of our organization to the people and nature of our region. These stories of triumph showcase the collaborative endeavors of Openlands, our partners, fellow environmental organizations, and the inspiring individuals who are actively making a positive change across the Chicago region.

Protecting land, water, and wildlife

Openlands and Farm Foundation staff at the groundbreaking ceremony of the Innovation and Education Center.
Farm Foundation staff and Openlands’ Sarah Surroz, Jerry Adelmann, and Emily Reusswig, pictured at the groundbreaking ceremony of the Innovation and Education Center.

#1 Big win for grasslands as Openlands, Wetlands Initiative celebrate $1.5M federal grant to restore 1,000 acres at Midewin (WTTW) This America the Beautiful Challenge grant will help restore 1,321 acres of grassland habitat and is the first ATBC-awarded project focused solely on Illinois.

#2 The Center’s five-acre home has grown (Center for Humans and Nature) Thanks to a partnership and land transfer of 43.55 acres to the Center from Openlands, the Center will now be able to build a future home for Humans & Nature Press and Humans & Nature Farm.

#3 Openlands Lakeshore Preserve reopens in time for Labor Day weekend (Daily Herald) Openlands gifted 72-acres of land to the Lake County Forest Preserves as an addition to the Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve.

#4 The Little Calumet River Is A Hub For Black History. Advocates Want To Include It In A National Heritage Area (Block Club Chicago) Neighbors and environmentalists, including Openlands staff and organizers Laura Barghusen and Lillian Holden, gathered for the ribbon cutting of the Prairie Boat gathering space at Beaubien Woods.

#5 The Great Lakes: the first freshwater Hope Spot (Shedd Aquarium) The Great Lakes joins 151 other Hope Spots recognized across the globe. The designation of the Great Lakes as the first representative freshwater body emphasizes the importance of the connectedness of our global water sources – fresh or salt, inland or ocean.

#6 Chicago birders rejoice as Arctic gull makes rare visit to local beaches: ‘This is about as good as it gets.’ (Chicago Tribune) The bird is a very rare visitor from the high Arctic that last stopped for an extended visit at Chicago-area beaches in 1978.

#7 Piping Plover spotted at 57th Street Beach, marking a 2nd year of south side plover sightings (Block Club Chicago) “Bringing a little more awareness to some of the underbirded [South Side] birding places is really good,” Fuller said. “… When migration is on, the South Side parks can really knock it out of the park.”

#8 Chonk The Thicc Snapping Turtle is a superstar — and great news for the Chicago River (Block Club Chicago) Experts are attributing the return of local wildlife to improvements in the water quality of the Chicago River over time.

#9 Family of foxes make Chicago’s Millennium Park home (Chicago Tribune) Wildlife experts say the furry family is yet another example of wildlife thriving in Chicago and offers a lesson in city ecology.

#10 Baby boom in Will County, with 5 blad eagle hatchings: ‘It’s really a population explosion in our area’ (WTTW) Once on the brink of extinction, the recovery of the bald eagle population in the U.S. is one of the nation’s great conservation success stories. In northeast Illinois, there’s an increasing number of resident eagles, along with a significant migratory population that winters in the state. 

#11 Natural areas in Hoffman Estates now bird, butterfly sanctuaries (Daily Herald) Whispering Lake in Hoffman Estates is one of the Hoffman Estates Park District sites awarded the Certified Bird & Butterfly Sanctuary Award. Naturalized areas provide safe and healthy habitats for local animals while protecting water quality.

#12 NASA teaming with farmers in Illinois to preserve land (CBS) NASA is known for its space explorations, but they also have an eye on something in Illinois – farmland. They’re teaming up with Illinois Farm Families to use satellite technology to help expand sustainable farming techniques.

#13 Pritzker announces $60 million park grants (Capitol News Illinois) Gov. JB Pritzker on Wednesday announced the release of nearly $60 million in grant funding to help local governments develop public parks and open spaces, over 20 percent of which will go to “distressed” communities.

#14 Proposed Midwest Interstate Trail would link Illinois, Wisconsin nature preserves (NBC5) Officials have launched an effort to construct the Midwest Interstate Trail, which would link natural areas in Illinois’ McHenry County and Wisconsin’s Kenosha County.

#15 State announces Illinois Beach State Park shoreline erosion projects; ‘It’s essential that we preserve these spaces for future generations’ (Chicago Tribune) Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and officials from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Illinois Capital Development Board have announced plans for two projects to protect roughly 2.2 miles of shoreline from further erosion at Illinois Beach State Park in Zion for an estimated price tag of $74.5 million.

#16 With $21M Gift, Chicago Botanic Garden will accelerate research to help save plants at risk of extinction (WTTW) Chicago Botanic is leading a pilot to create a process that will mimic zoos’ careful mating practices, and it’s drawing on the expertise of its sister institution, Brookfield Zoo, to adapt tools and techniques for rare and endangered plant species.

#17 With legal battle over, Horizon Farm fully reopens to public (Daily Herald) Encompassing nearly 400 acres, Horizon Farm in Barrington Hills has reopened to the public. It’s owned by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County.

Growing the tree canopy

Openlands staff Victor Short
Openlands staff Victor Short led tree planting events throughout the season across Chicago’s South and West Sides.

#18 Chicago’s Urban Forestry Advisory Board officially takes root with city council approval of members (WTTW) The role of the advisory board will be to promote policies and investments that ensure the survival of those new trees, along with the continued health of the existing canopy. Openlands’ Daniella Pereira serves on this inaugural board

#19 Openlands expands tree planting efforts in La Villita (Univision) Openlands’ Forestry Program Coordinator Tonatiu Rodríguez spoke about the importance of trees in keeping neighborhoods cool and reducing the impact of heatwaves.

#20 3,000 trees and counting: Middle schoolers hit milestone in Morton Arboretum’s planting project (Daily Herald) On April 12, students at John R. Lewis Middle School in Waukegan planted the 3,000th tree that met the goal for the Arboretum’s Centennial Tree Planting Initiative.

#21 Bilingual ‘tree walk’ in McKinley Park celebrates 60 years of supporting trees, clean air (Chicago Tribune) Neighbors in the McKinley Park neighborhood on the Southwest Side and environmental advocates used a sunny Saturday morning to participate in an Openlands-led neighborhood walk showcasing the importance of tree-lined communities in combating air pollution. Openlands TreeKeeper Program Specialist Al De Reu was quoted in this article.

#22 Earth Week kicks off with tree planting and trash cleanup; ‘We hope others follow our example’ (Chicago Tribune) Earth Week in Waukegan started Saturday with the assurance the carbon emissions from two of Waukegan High School’s campuses will be neutralized with the planting of 384 trees in the city and beyond.

#23 Environmental activists plant trees to help underserved neighborhoods (ABC7) There is an on-going effort to bring more trees to underserved Chicago communities. Volunteers and conservationists from environmental advocacy organization Openlands, along with partners UPS and Arbor Day Foundation, are digging deep and getting dirty.

#24 Evanston aims to maintain health of its more than 30,000 trees (CBS) Trees in Evanston are getting some extra attention. The city is updating its tree inventory, so it can keep tabs on the health of the urban forest.

#25 Google’s free tree canopy tool now covers hundreds more cities. Here’s how early adopters are using it. (Smart Cities Dive) Google’s Tree Canopy tool is built with the same underlying information it uses for Google Maps, using machine learning and aerial imagery to estimate how dense a neighborhood’s tree cover is. Chicago is an early adopter of this tool.

#26 Arbor, Earth and service days get students outdoors to plant trees, including one named ‘Michael Jordan’ (Chicago Tribune) Groups of high school students have been deployed throughout the south suburbs, spending some time outside the classroom and getting a bit dirty through some hands on learning while helping the environment a bit in the process.

#27 Let’s identify — and save — Chicago’s healthy, mature trees (Chicago Sun Times) A tree audit by the Edgewater Glen Association sparked other neighborhood block clubs to do their own surveys to identify healthy trees that should be saved.

#28 The Morton Arboretum awarded historic $15 million in federal IRA funds to improve urban forests in underserved Illinois communities (The Morton Arboretum) The Arboretum’s Chicago Region Trees Initiative (CRTI) will award sub-grants exclusively to communities and organizations supporting underserved populations to provide more equitable access to trees and bolster resilience to climate change, including urban, rural and tribal areas of the state.

Empowering people and communities

Openlands Staff members Kelly Escarcega and Danielle Russell
Openlands staff Kelly Escarcega and Danielle Russell have hosted monthly garden and nature-based educational programming, including assisting with the inaugural Green & Growing Summit.

#29 Openlands and partners celebrated the attendance of hundreds at the Inaugural Green & Growing Summit (Openlands Press Release) Educators from around the city gathered to develop their skills in nature and garden-based education through workshops and networking opportunities. Over 20 organizations throughout the region participated in this event.

#30 20 groups in 10 years: ‘Go Green Illinois’ expands environmental work in the suburbs (Daily Herald) Students from Half Day Elementary School help launch the school’s zero-waste program, one of the first initiatives of the environmental group Go Green Vernon Hills-Lincolnshire.

#31 Bucktown 14-Year-Old turns school project into native plant garden in public park (Block Club Chicago) Peter Tolzmann has planted 100 native plants in the corner of Senior Citizens Memorial Park in Bucktown. He hopes the project will inspire Chicagoans to do their part for nature.

#32 Chicago high schooler among 6 area activists who will give young people a voice at global climate summit in Dubai (Chicago Tribune) Danica Sun, 17 and Natasha Bhatia, 17, high school students at Hinsdale Central High School, reestablished the local chapter of Fridays For Future, the global climate movement that began with activist Greta Thunberg.

#33 Climate justice in LA, Chicago, New York: introducing the Green Equity Collective (Ecosia) The Green Equity Collective is a network of U.S. community-based organizations that are centered on climate justice, and which will receive annual, unrestricted funding support from Ecosia. Openlands is a new member of the Collective.

#34 How South Side kids are using art to fight for climate justice (Block Club Chicago) Through dance, play, song and storytelling, youth learn community healing, climate and racial justice in the Young Cultural Stewards and ArtSeed program.

#35 In Englewood, thousands of tulips are blooming — during the winter (Block Club Chicago) Southside Blooms, the flower shop of Englewood-based nonprofit Chicago Eco House, is growing 18,000 tulips indoors to create jobs for at-risk youth and converting vacant lots into community assets.

#36 In Woodlawn, Naomi Davis planted a seed that now will help find green solutions to help Black communities (Chicago Sun Times) Her Blacks in Green organization is getting $10 million from the Biden administration to help build on her efforts to rebuild Black communities while responding to the climate crisis.

#37 Learning from past and looking to future, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum opens new Sustainability Center (Chicago Tribune) The goal of the Sustainability Center is to show visitors that while humans have been part of the problem, they can also be part of the solution.

#38 Nature play space planned for Edgewater’s Senn Park (Block Club Chicago) A playground featuring scalable logs and stones is planned for the area next to Senn Park’s existing playground, down the street from Senn High School.

#39 Nearly $700K in public art installations on climate change and environmental justice to be revealed across Chicago (Chicago Tribune) The work ranges from theater for toddlers inspired by the ecology of Chicago’s Southeast Side wetlands and pollinator columns in the Back of the Yards that function as a habitat for insects and animals, to a dance ritual in Grant Park that pays homage to the cultural traditions of the urban farm.

#40 ‘Definitely a sense of excitement’: Libertyville High students’ Butler Lake plans take shape (Daily Herald) The school’s ECOS Club is leading an initiative to restore the shoreline with native plants to stop erosion and attract wildlife.

#41 Chicago’s Native American youth reclaim, cleanse vacant land through First Nations Garden (ABC7) A garden in Albany Park is teaching the community about the importance of native plants and Chicago’s first settlers. Founded by the Chi-Nations Youth Council, members are passing down their knowledge of age-old farming practices that are helping combat climate change while cleansing a once toxic plot of land.

Combating climate change

Openlands staff Huan Song and TreeKeeper Marjorie Isaacson participated in Heat Watch Chicago 2023.

#42 ComEd, Openlands award 25 Illinois communities with environmental grants worth up to $10,000 each (Openlands Press Release) Grantees will use their funding to support nature preservation, mitigate climate change, and provide safe habitats for pollinators and other wildlife.

#43 At 1st Midwest Beaver Summit, role of the hefty rodents praised in wetland restoration, climate change fight (Chicago Tribune) As the nation faces a future of increasing flooding, drought and wildfires, millions of 60-pound rodents stand by, ready to assist. Beavers can transform parched fields into verdant wetlands and widen rivers and streams in ways that not only slow surging floodwater, but store it for times of drought.

#44 Cook County to allocate $16 million to support local climate plans (Daily Herald) Cook County will dole out $16 million from federal funding to help five suburban communities target climate resilience.

#45 Field Museum joins effort to combat climate change by studying the millions of objects in history museums around the world (Chicago Tribune) A global study authored by natural history museum leaders surveyed 73 natural history museum collections across Europe and North America, including Chicago’s Field Museum. The study, published in the journal Science, concluded these collections, totaling 1.1 billion objects, can be sources of information for climate change, pandemic preparedness, food security, invasive species, rare minerals and biodiversity.

#46 Lincoln Park man running 7 marathons In 7 days for charity — and to fight climate change (Block Club Chicago) Kenny Moll, 22, plans to donate the money he raises from his run to the Sunrise Movement which is aimed at ending climate change through political organizing.

#47 Chicago heat data will help address urban heat islands (ABC7) This summer, hundreds of volunteers mobilized around Chicago to uncover Chicago’s hottest spots as part of the City’s Heat Watch 2023 initiative, led by Openlands’ board member, Raed Mansour. Data collected by citizen scientists can help to inform planning decisions to mitigate heat risks.

#48 Chicago launches programme to electrify municipal fleet (Electrive) Chicago has launched a new electrification initiative called ‘Chicago Electric’ to transition the city’s municipal fleet to electric vehicles by 2035, which will cost an investment of over $42M over a period of five years.

#49 Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson & World Business Chicago announce inaugural Chicago Venture Summit Future-of-Climate-Tech (World Business Chicago) The Midwest region’s premier startup and growth capital summit advances to include climate tech innovation.

#50 Chicago State University to serve as  ‘scientific supersite’ to study climate change impact (Argonne National Laboratory) An Argonne-led five-year, $25 million program from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Urban Integrated Field Laboratory will help neighborhoods understand climate change in Chicago

Advocating for policy solutions

A herd of bisons at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Photo by Preston Keres, USDA Forest Service.
A herd of bison at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Photo by Preston Keres, USDA Forest Service.

#51 ‘Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’: Lake board supports greenway for Route 53 corridor (Daily Herald) The Lake County Board overwhelmingly endorsed a plan to preserve land set aside for the defunct extension of Route 53 as an open space corridor, a move some described as the opportunity of a lifetime. Openlands has been a perennial advocate for the creation of this climate corridor. Openlands Director of Policy, Chris Kessler, was interviewed.

#52 Referendum seeds begin to bloom (Forest Preserves of Cook County) The Forest Preserves of Cook County has started investing the increased revenue available from the approval of the referendum on the ballot last fall, thanks to the advocacy of partners including Openlands. Initial projects include ecological restoration, community engagement, and amenities to improve public access.

#52 New federal designation called ‘very significant’ for Fox River (Chicago Tribune) The Fabulous Fox Water Trail! has been designated by the National Park Service as a National Recreational Trail, one of just nine across the country selected in 2023. Check out Openlands’ paddling resources to plan your trip.

#53 Biden-Harris administration invests more than $12 Million in support of the Tribal Forest Protection Act (USDA) In Illinois, the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and affiliated Tribes will work to restore grasslands with bison by co-producing knowledge on carbon storage in grasslands, and subsistence programs while integrating indigenous traditional knowledge into present-day management.

#54 City Council passes Mayor Brandon Johnson’s first budget, reestablishing the Department of Environment (Block Club Chicago) The budget re-establishes a standalone Department of Environment, long advocated by environmental policymakers and partners across the City. See Openlands’ op-ed about the department here.

#55 Illinois legislature passes stronger pesticide protections (ELPC) the Illinois House passed Senate Bill 203, sponsored by Rep. Dagmara “Dee” Avelar (D – Bolingbrook) to help protect farmworkers from pesticide exposure. This legislation increases fines for human pesticide exposure incidences.

#56 Chicago receives $336M federal loan to replace portion of lead water lines (NBC 5) The City’s goal for 2023 is to replace 4,500 lead pipes and with a goal of 8,000 in 2024.

#57 Honk if you love monarchs. Illinois finally set to issue license plate to benefit endangered insect (WTTW) Proceeds from sales of the plate will go to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ Roadside Monarch Habitat Fund. To support monarchs as they make their twice-yearly migration between Mexico and Chicago, the department has a goal of adding 150 million new milkweed stems and other nectar sources to Illinois’ landscape in the next 15 years.

#58 Pritzker signs bill to ban single-use Styrofoam in state agencies, universities (Fox 32) The law also requires state agencies to track their purchases of single-use plastic foodware for one year. They have to submit a report of their findings to the governor and the General Assembly. This goes into effect in 2025.

#59 Governor Pritzker announces $25.5 million for CEJA Equitable Energy Future Grants (Effingham Radio) The program supports renewable energy and energy efficiency projects in low-income and historically disadvantaged communities to grow and diversify the clean energy ecosystem across Illinois.

#60 Southeast Side activists celebrate city’s environmental justice agreement (Chicago Tribune) The city of Chicago reached the historic agreement with HUD after Southeast Side activists initiated a yearslong federal civil rights investigation into local laws that allowed polluters to be concentrated in certain communities, many of which are on the Southeast Side.

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