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Announcing the Winners of the Route 53 Fields of Vision Photo Contest

The Green Corridor Coalition is proud to announce the winners of the ‘Fields of Vision’ photography contest, and we were absolutely blown away by all of the beautiful photos that were submitted!

The Green Corridor Coalition is a group of friends, residents, environmentalists, politicians, and visionaries fighting to protect the land that comprises the old Route 53 Corridor, one of Lake County’s most scenic natural landscapes. The group is pushing to turn a formerly proposed tollway corridor into a greenway — a trail through a long narrow nature preserve with a climate corridor that connects communities with parks and natural landscapes, making Lake County and our region more resilient, livable, and economically competitive. Illinois lawmakers recently approved a resolution calling for a task force to study alternate uses for the proposed extension of Illinois Route 53 in the northwest suburbs.

We received 55 submissions for the contest, but nine stood out as winners across our three categories. Please welcome us in congratulating the following individuals who placed in the contest:

Advanced Amateur:

First Place: David Jacobson – “Kestral Flyover”

Second Place: Michael Schmitt – “Killdeer Kildeer Killdeer”

Third Place: Mike Trahan – “Lone Chickory at the Wood Edge”

Amateur Over 18:

First Place: Jen Miller – “Broccoli Sunrise”


Second Place: Cheryl Keegan “Majestic Sandhill Crane”

Third Place: Gina Sheade – “Heron Creek Trail”

Amateur Under 18:

First Place: Kaavya Vassa “Heron Creek”

Second Place: Carter Conrad “A Vibrant Sunset”

Third Place: Anika Bhargava – “Berries in the Sun”

Key Takeaways from the COP26 Climate Conference

Last week, COP26, the largest climate change conference in the world, concluded in the United Kingdom after 12 days of meetings between global leaders. COP26, or the Conference of Parties, is an annual U.N. meeting of 197 countries that have agreed to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. This decision-making body assesses how countries are dealing with the climate crisis and establishes legal obligations on these countries to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The overall goal of the conference is to reduce GHG emissions enough to keep the global temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, keeping the world from some of the most disastrous effects of climate change. Experts saw this year’s conference as holding a unique urgency, as many believed it to be the world’s best last chance to get runaway climate change under control. 

This year marked 26 years of the annual summit, though many people consider the COP21 Conference in Paris to have been the most significant, due to the birth of the Paris Climate Agreement. There, every country agreed to work together to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees and aim for 1.5 degrees, to adapt to the impacts of a changing climate and to make money available to deliver on these aims. However, the commitments laid out in Paris did not come close to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees, which is why this year’s summit in Glasgow was seen as critical to bringing nations together to commit to radically reduce their emissions. However, COP26 concluded with mixed reviews from the environmental community, and experts say the goals made this year fail to reach the Paris Agreement’s goal on limiting warming. So, was COP26 a success? 

Takeaways

  • The biggest takeaway of the conference was the creation of the Glasgow Climate Pact, which for the first time made a commitment to phase down coal and fossil-fuel subsidies. Acknowledging the need to phase out coal to drastically reduce warming was one of the biggest breakthroughs of the conference. However, it does not require that countries phase them out, which is a major point of contention for environmental advocates. 
  • More than 130 countries committed to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030. The 130 countries, which include Brazil, home to the Amazon Rainforest, possess 90% of the world’s forests. Deforestation has devastating effects on the climate, as forests are climate sinks that track carbon in the ground. 
  • The United States and United Kingdom led the creation of the Global Methane pledge, which signed on over 100 countries to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030. Methane has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere, and cutting methane emissions is critical to radically reducing warming. 
  • The United States and China issued a joint pledge to work together to slow global warming. The United States and China are the two highest emitters of greenhouse gasses, and they said they would boost clean energy, combat deforestation and curb emissions of methane.
  • India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged to cut India’s emissions to net zero by 2070, which was the first time the country of 1.3 billion people made a net-zero pledge. However, the pledge is 20 years later than the 2050 net-zero pledge made by most other countries at COP26. 
  • Countries at Glasgow pledged to set up climate finance mechanisms to help countries already suffering loss and damage due to the climate crisis. Talks urged developed countries to scale up climate finance, technology transfer and capacity-building, and to follow through on their pledge to help developing countries transition to greener economies and adapt to the climate crisis.
  • While the commitments made at the conference will move us forward in a more positive direction, the graph below shows how the commitments made are basically a drop in the bucket.
Small island countries are some of the most vulnerable areas to the effects of the climate crisis, and their entreaties took center stage at this year’s conference. The Alliance of Small Island States, which is a coalition of 39 countries, largely from the Caribbean and South Pacific, including Jamaica, Cuba, Fiji and Antigua and Barbuda, commanded discussions about the need for wealthy countries to provide more funding for developing countries to adapt, and to pay some form of “climate reparations.” They ultimately described being unheard by larger countries and said that COP26 failed to create an actionable plan to protect the islands.

As the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, the United States has a gigantic role to play in the radical reduction of emissions necessary to control disastrous global warming. COP26 will only be a success if we all can work together to address climate change. Nature based solutions to climate change can and should be part of the proposed actions, as it provides upwards of 30% of the solution to tackling climate change.  Commitments to stop deforestation, restore land and water, and protect it from degradation are all commitments that have a direct impact on the Midwest and the Chicagoland region in addition to cutting methane and fossil fuel emissions.  Openlands is advocating for proposals like a new Civilian Conservation Corps included in the Build Back Better bill, America the Beautiful, and the REPLANT Act. You can help by reaching out to your senators and representatives to ensure these bills pass, and the US leads the way in tackling climate change.

Openlands and Partners Win $400,000 Walder Foundation Grant to Restore Beaubien Woods

Beaubien Woods is part of the Forest Preserves of Cook County’s robust 70,000 acres of natural area in Cook County. A treasured ecosystem on Chicago’s South Side, it is home to a mix of prairie, woodland, and wetland habitats, including Flatfoot Lake. Beaubien Woods runs along the Little Calumet River, an environmentally significant waterway that connects Chicago to the Mississippi River for various wildlife, including birds, fish, and mussels. Along with its ecological value, the Calumet Region has a rich cultural heritage, including being home to historical stops along the Underground Railroad and the birthplace of environmental justice in Chicago. The preserve sits next to community and industry, and access to the river has historically been limited. 

Beaubien’s proximity to the Little Calumet makes it the perfect place to bring nature and people together. To make Beaubien Woods and the Little Calumet River more accessible to the public, Openlands recently received a grant from the Walder Foundation for $400,000 to restore open spaces along the Little Calumet River. The grant project is shared in partnership with the Forest Preserves of Cook County, the Field Museum, and local community organizations, including People for Community Recovery, We Keep You Rollin’ Bike and Wellness Group, the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project, Chicago’s Finest Marina, and the Golden Gate Homeowners Association. Along with prairie restoration and the removal of invasive plant species, the project will build a community gathering space near the Beaubien boat launch, similar to the five gathering spaces at the Burnham Wildlife Corridor. A curatorial committee of community groups led by the Field Museum will decide the winning designs. By creating a community-driven, artistically designed gathering space alongside the restored prairie and trails, the project aims to reconnect nearby neighborhoods with the abundant environmental and cultural assets on and along the river to develop stewardship for the sites.

The Beaubien Woods project restoration will span two years, beginning this fall with a controlled burn to promote native species. Throughout the winter, Openlands’ Arborist Apprentices will clear invasive brush and trees. Beginning in the spring of 2022, contractors and volunteers will plant seeds and plug plants, emphasizing pollinator-friendly native plants. At the end of the project, 20 acres of native prairie will be restored along the access road to Beaubien Woods boat launch and invasive species will be removed at the northern end of the trail from Carver Military Academy to Flatfoot Lake, making the trail more inviting and encouraging the growth of native oaks. The Field Museum is currently the restoration steward at Beaubien Woods and will continue holding volunteer restoration days. 

The second year of the grant will also include some restoration of native plants and thinning of invasive trees at the riverfront of Beaubien Woods near the historic Ton Farm, the site of an Underground Railroad safe house that is nearby Beaubien Woods to the west. This restoration will provide a riverfront open space that the community can enjoy. According to Laura Barghusen, Openlands Blueways Director, Beaubien was chosen as the site for the Walder Grant for several reasons, the foremost being its potential to connect people to nature. “There were opportunities and interest to do restoration, and we saw it as an anchor and an example of what could be done along the Little Calumet to improve biodiversity and water quality and to try to connect people more with the river,” Barghusen explained.

Restoring the prairie at Beaubien will have a domino effect on ecosystem recovery that will benefit the land and the water. Prairie restoration will increase the number of species in the preserve and improve water quality because the restoration will enhance the ability of the soil to absorb and filter stormwater before it goes into the river. Improving the ecosystem, especially along trails, will make it a more attractive destination for people to enjoy nature while cleaning air and water and protecting wildlife.

Save Chicago’s Healthy Ash Trees

The City of Chicago should inoculate all healthy ash trees as a management tool to sustain the canopy as long as possible and spread-out removal costs of trees over the next few decades.

Tree conservation is economically and environmentally superior to tree removal. Chicago’s Bureau of Forestry (BOF) had successfully treated and preserved ash trees throughout the city since 2010 but hasn’t treated the ash trees since 2018. Since treatments last for three years, inoculations are now past due. In a 2013 paper, BOF shared that healthy ash trees do not present any inordinate risk to the public and make a substantial environmental contribution to Chicago’s tree canopy. Healthy trees should be maintained as long as possible to retain environmental benefits yet be removed and replaced as tree health degrades.

Urban ash conservation is less costly than removal, especially when the significant environmental and economic benefits of established trees are considered. The cost of inoculating an average size, healthy ash tree in Chicago is one-tenth of the cost of removing it.  Ash tree conservation can circumvent the substantial environmental impacts caused by deforestation of the urban landscape, as well as the documented public safety risks associated with standing dead ash trees and their removal. Many landowners continue to rationalize tree removal as the only viable management strategy for Emerald Ash Borer (EAB). This is based on erroneous beliefs that tree removal slows the spread of EAB, or that treatment is not effective, economical, or environmentally sound.

Losing healthy ash trees in Chicago will increase heat islands and its associated health risks, especially in older people. Tree loss from the spread of EAB is associated with increased human mortality according to the American Journal of Preventative Medicine. Results suggest that loss of trees to the emerald ash borer increased human mortality related to cardiovascular and lower-respiratory-tract illness. This finding adds to the growing evidence that the natural environment provides major public health benefits.

With the net loss of 10,000 street trees every year for the last ten years, it is imperative that Chicago maintains the dwindling 16% tree canopy that currently exists for our health and the City’s bottom line. Current science supports conservation via treatment as a sensible and effective tool for managing healthy ash trees in urban settings. Openlands supports the request to restore funding for ash tree inoculations in the 2022 City of Chicago budget and applauds the efforts of the community groups, Save Your Ash, and Alderpersons for their strong advocacy to drive this forward.

Openlands’ Statement on the Obama Presidential Center and Tree Loss

Many people felt strongly that there should not be winners or losers as the Obamas decided to build the Presidential Center in Jackson or Washington Park. At Openlands, we shared that sentiment, and still believe that today. For Openlands, winning embraced 5 principles: Minimize building in the parks, replace parkland taken with equal acreage in the nearby community, provide convenient public access to transportation, maximize synergies with the community and cultural institutions, and restore and revitalize the entire South Park. Collectively, these principles empower a bold vision for the south parks that drives restoration and realizes the needs of our diverse population.

Since the Obama Presidential Center announcement, Openlands has advocated for a thoughtful, comprehensive, and inclusive approach to planning – how development will affect the surrounding neighborhood, transportation solutions with CTA and Metra improvements, and the comprehensive restoration of the 1000+ acres of trees, lagoons, and recreational facilities that make up the south park system of Jackson, Washington, the Midway Plaisance, and South Shore Cultural Center.

The proposed project, along with the significant reconfiguration of roads within Jackson Park, triggered a federal review process under the National Environmental Policy Act, National Historic Preservation Act, and other legal requirements. Importantly, the review process required public engagement and comment and seeks to surface alternative ideas that will avoid, minimize, and as a last resort, mitigate for impacts caused by the project. Openlands participated in every meeting and provided extensive comments, striving to get the agencies to see that reasonable alternatives to the proposed plans are viable. In the end, none of it mattered to the agencies and the projects were authorized essentially as originally proposed.

With development already beginning, many trees will be removed in the coming weeks. Openlands staff and leadership share the disappointment of tree advocates and TreeKeepers in the loss of this tree canopy. Currently, we are requesting that the Obama Foundation and Chicago Park District share their tree mitigation plan publicly if they have one. If they do not have a plan in place, Openlands is advocating they:

  1. Mitigate for tree loss by replacing removed trees with an inch-to-inch diameter replacement plan. For example, a 20-inch diameter tree removed would be replaced with 10 two-inch trees. These trees should be planted either on the site and/or to extend into the surrounding parkland and neighborhoods.
  2. Pay the dollar value per square inch cross section of trunk per tree removed (based on the International Society of Arboriculture’s Guide for Plant Appraisal, 8th or 10th Edition Model) to fund additional Chicago Park District tree planting and tree maintenance. This is a similar approach to that of the Forest Preserves of Cook County and the City of Chicago’s Bureau of Forestry.

We will continue to urge the Obama Foundation to value the ecological importance of trees and to avoid or minimize the impact of the Presidential Center’s development on existing trees.  We will further advocate that the Foundation mitigate for trees removed with the most up to date tools to evaluate and value those trees.

Photo Credit: Marc Monaghan, Hyde Park Herald

An Urgent Opportunity with America the Beautiful

With the release of the newest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which states that a 1.5 C increase in global temperature is guaranteed to arrive within two decades, humans can no longer delay taking every step necessary to curb the worst effects of the climate crisis.

While the report offers a stark future, it comes on the heels of an urgent and opportunistic plan of action that the US must implement to avoid massive biodiversity loss and the grim future the IPCC report portrays.

In July 2021, the United Nations, through its Convention on Biological Diversity, announced its Global Framework for Managing Nature Through 2030; an evolving plan which provides the first international agreement on biodiversity loss, to guide actions worldwide to “preserve and protect nature and its essential services to people.”  Through this plan, the U.N. aims to stem and reverse ecological destruction across the globe, officially calling for the protection of at least 30 percent of the globe’s land and waters.

This call to action may sound familiar, as the United States is already acting on this directive through the America the Beautiful initiative. In it, the Biden Administration called everyone – local communities through to states and federal agencies – to meet the moment and conserve 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.  Since that directive, an expansive process has begun to engage people, from agricultural and forest landowners, fishermen, tribes, local officials – emphasizing the need to listen and respond to those living in our most divested communities to identify where the greatest needs and opportunities are for conservation. 

This comes not a moment too soon. As the only conservation organization looking expansively at the tri-state metropolitan region, Openlands is committed to acting boldly to ensure our region not only participates in this initiative but leads.  As we move forward collaboratively, four priorities drive our work:

  1. Communities that experience divestment bear the brunt of this risk, living with more contamination, flooding and heat, more volatile working conditions, and a diminished quality of life, with less access to healthy open lands and waters. America the Beautiful must center these communities to ensure equity and a more just future. As Openlands works to restore areas along the Little Calumet River Area, we are working in lockstep with communities to amplify the nationally important cultural heritage and history through the African American Heritage Water Trail and imagine a future with more access and opportunity for recreation and enjoyment of the river, and its natural and economic benefits with the Little Calumet Conservation Action Plan.
  2. Lost biodiversity means more than the disappearance of iconic wildlife and beautiful places – it means putting our future food and water supplies at risk. Through the American the Beautiful initiative, conservation must partner with agricultural and farming communities to promote regenerative and organic farming practices (Cover crops, no till, etc.), nutrient reduction practices, and agricultural easements that will protect soil, animals and insects, and our food and water. Openlands’ work in partnership with the Farm Foundation is laying the foundation for the future of both agriculture and conservation.
  3. Protecting more land and water does not mean we sacrifice economic growth, in our region or any other part of the US. Instituting the adoption of compatible land use plans, bringing in conservation strategies to zoning and agency approvals and revamping regulations around resource protections can help fight climate change and build a more viable economic future for us all. Openlands is proud to be a stakeholder in Moving Will County, an initiative advocating to cluster freight in order to encourage business and at the same time preserve Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, centennial farms, and other natural resources in what is known as the Prairie Parklands.
  4. Finally, we must accelerate the speed and scale of conservation in our region, supporting work on the ground to protect and restore land and waterways. Restored prairies and woodlands sequester more carbon, soak up more rainwater, and clean our air and soil more effectively than degraded or unprotected areas. Ensuring our government agencies, non-profits, business, and residents have the tools and resources needed to properly care for the land is simple, effective, and essential. Our restoration work across the region demonstrates that bringing the land back to health increases biodiversity, reduces flood waters, and makes us more resilient to climate change.

With the American the Beautiful initiative, we can prevent a catastrophic chain reaction and create a healthier, more just, and prosperous world for future generations. For change to be meaningful, it starts with all of us. To join the effort, there are a few things you can do:

  1. Tell Congress how important the America the Beautiful initiative is to Northeastern Illinois and the surrounding region.
  2. Advocate that Congress pass the RENEW Conservation Corps Act and create a new Civilian Conservation Corps, which would provide over a million good-paying jobs to restore and maintain our open space, from urban parks and rivers to our prairies and wildlands. 
  3. Get involved with Openlands or numerous other conservation organizations, agencies, and groups that are actively advocating for and moving the America the Beautiful Initiative forward through land protection, restoration, forestry, and more.

For all of us to withstand adversity and spring back from devastating weather events that we’ve seen from California to Connecticut, we must immediately invest in conservation initiatives and infrastructure that are collaborative and inclusive, restore biodiversity, and empower a green economy with good-paying jobs in communities that need it most.

The time to act is now.

Space to Grow Celebrates Opening of New Schoolyard with Community Partners and Elected Officials Including Mayor Lori Lightfoot

On Saturday, June 5, dignitaries including Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Alderman Jason Irvin, Dr. Andrea Cheng, Chicago’s Acting Commissioner of Water, and MWRD Commissioner Kimberly du Blucet, joined members of the Garfield Park Rite to Wellness Collaborative, architects from Studio Gang and Space to Grow partners to celebrate an amazing set of community resources that included the new Space to Grow schoolyard at Melody STEM elementary school in West Garfield Park.

So far, Space to Grow has opened 25 schoolyards across the city, with a focus on underinvested neighborhoods. Five more are under construction and will be completed this fall. “We look forward to working with our Space to Grow partners to bring more green schoolyards to communities across Chicago, “ said Gerald Adelmann, president and CEO of Openlands. 

Urban Forestry Advisory Board Key to Mitigating City Flood Damages, Promoting Environmental Equity Passes in City Council

By Openlands’ embedded journalist, Carlyn Kranking

In an intense Chicago storm, rain can pour down at the rate of 2 inches or more per hour. One inch of rain alone, on an acre of land, amounts to over 27,100 gallons. Much of the city is covered in impermeable surfaces that don’t absorb water, such as concrete, asphalt, and metals. Since stormwater can’t be retained by these materials, it quickly flows into the sewers and overwhelms them. When the sewers are full and the water has nowhere else to go, it creates backups that push water into homes through pipes or basement sewers.

Luckily, there’s a defense against this damage: trees. Trees help absorb water in the soil through their roots, and their leaves hold water, slowing its fall to the ground. Planting and caring for trees is a proactive defense against urban flooding.

To protect trees, the Chicago City Council unanimously voted on Friday, June 25 to establish an Urban Forestry Advisory Board, which Openlands supported. The Urban Forestry Advisory Board ordinance passed almost a year after it was first proposed by Alderperson Scott Waguespack, along with Alderpersons Samantha Nugent and George A. Cardenasto. The win would not have been possible without the TreeKeepers and advocates who championed the ordinance, along with the 27 alderpersons who co-sponsored the bill.

Currently, according to Daniella Pereira, Vice President of Community Conservation at Openlands, trees are “usually a last thought.” But now, the Urban Forestry Advisory Board will work to put trees at the front of mind in discussions of infrastructure. 

Alderperson Scott Waguespack led the development of the ordinance, saying “I’m proud to work with Openlands and our governmental agencies to create the UFAB. Passage of our ordinance ushers in a new level of cooperation to save and build our tree canopy and tackle the climate change problem.”

What is an Urban Forestry Advisory Board?

In Chicago, the Urban Forestry Advisory Board will consist of city commissioners and industry professionals from across the city who will consult on issues related to the urban forest. The board will be made up of 13 volunteer members, seven of which will be commissioners and officials from government departments. The mayor will appoint the remaining six members, including representatives from the Chicago Region Trees Initiative, tree service businesses, and a non-government community organization, as well as one academic arborist.

The board will create an urban forestry management plan, assess policies and expenditures related to forestry, recommend legislation, make a list of protected “heritage” trees, and lead a public education program about the benefits of trees.

To help envision what an Urban Forestry Advisory Board would look like in Chicago, Openlands staff examined other U.S. cities that have established similar boards. The Atlanta Tree Commission aims to get trees recognized as infrastructure. They lead public education efforts and hear appeals about forestry-related administrative decisions. The San Diego Community Forest Advisory Board holds public meetings where residents can voice challenges relating to trees. Similar boards exist in cities countrywide, including Austin, Charlotte, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle.

Benefits of Urban Trees

Trees in Chicago and its surrounding counties provide countless benefits to residents. In one year, the region’s trees intercept 1.5 billion cubic feet of water and save $100 million in stormwater damages and treatment, according to the 2020 Chicago Tree Census. They store millions of tons of carbon and filter pollutants out of the air. Trees provide shade for buildings, saving residents $32 million per year on cooling costs. Animals use trees for habitat, and being around trees can improve people’s mental health and overall mood.

But Chicago’s tree canopy is under duress. In the last decade, the city’s canopy cover has dropped from 19% to 16%, even as six of the seven surrounding counties saw canopy growth. Largely due to the Emerald Ash Borer’s decimation of ash trees, the city is at risk of losing some of the benefits brought by its urban forest. When the city loses bigger, older trees, it’s more difficult to get those benefits back.

“A larger tree has exponentially more benefits,” said Michael Dugan, Director of Forestry with Openlands. “A very large tree — let’s say it’s 40 inches in diameter — if we replace that with 40 smaller, one-inch diameter trees, we’re not going to get the same benefit.”

The Urban Forestry Advisory Board will establish a heritage tree program that protects some of the trees with special value to Chicago because of their size, age or historical significance. This would help ensure the longevity of trees that provide the most services and those that have special value to a community.

“There’s no protection for any of our public or private trees at this point,” Pereira said. “But some of these have significant history or significant meaning to a neighborhood or a family, and it would be really great to acknowledge that.”

Protecting Chicago’s Tree Canopy

Openlands is also caring for Chicago’s trees by mobilizing residents to be tree caretakers themselves. Through the TreeKeepers course, Openlands trains volunteers to protect and advocate for the region’s trees. In the class, much of the coursework is voluntarily taught by tree professionals, such as city foresters, arborists, or professionals from tree-care companies or the U.S. Forest Service. Once they complete the course, volunteers become certified to plant, protect, and care for trees with Openlands. They can lead their own tree-planting or pruning events, and they have the knowledge to educate others and advocate on behalf of the urban forest.

Additionally, residents can apply for a TreePlanters grant, to have 10 to 40 trees planted at predetermined locations in their neighborhood. On the planting day, Openlands supervises while volunteers plant the trees and learn to care for them together. For the next few years, the resident volunteers are committed to caring for the new trees, though Openlands staff is available to provide assistance and answer questions.

This spring, the Openlands Arborist Registered Apprentices planted trees for Chicago residents, to comply with social distancing. These four trainees will spend a year learning and working with Openlands, followed by two years with a tree-care company in this region. After these three years of work, the apprentices will be eligible to sit for the International Society of Arboriculture Certified Arborist Exam. The apprenticeship program helps combat the shortage of labor in the arborist industry and gives these early-career arborists the skills to be successful.

Equity in the Urban Forest

Flooding in Chicago is a greater burden on communities of color and economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, Pereira said. And with it, these communities have more health impacts.

“From the basement flooding, mold is a huge, huge issue that affects people’s lungs and respiratory system,” Pereira said. “[In] neighborhoods where there’s more flooding, there tends to also be a lot more health issues, sometimes with asthma, from dirty air.”

Openlands’s TreePlanters program tries to prioritize planting trees in areas with low canopy cover, specifically on the southwest side and near south suburbs. Prioritizing these areas can help create a more equitable distribution of trees and their positive effects, including relief from some effects of flooding. The Urban Forestry Advisory Board would be a way for city departments to ensure equitable tree canopy and care of trees throughout all Chicago neighborhoods.

Further, trees can encourage social cohesion, and taking care of large trees in an area can promote a sense of community. For example, Pereira said, without trees to provide shade, there might not be as many comfortable areas to gather on hot days.

“You can have less gathering and less socialization with neighbors, and that is gonna impact how people feel in terms of safety, within their neighborhood or connecting with their neighbors,” she said. “Unfortunately, [it] leads to a lot of isolation by just not having comfortable and safe green spaces in your neighborhood.”

Pereira said investing in planting and maintaining an urban forest will save money in the long run in other areas.

“[The urban forest] will pay for itself in terms of keeping the city cooler, keeping water from entering sewers, keeping our air cleaner and hopefully preventing more hazards,” she said. Without investment in urban trees, “We end up paying for it through all this disaster mitigation that has to happen at the end.”

How President Biden’s Infrastructure Plan Would Create Green Jobs and Support Our Tree Canopy

By Openlands’ embedded journalist, Carlyn Kranking

In his first few months in office, President Joe Biden has set goals to protect the nation’s public lands and fortify the country against climate change.

With his January Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, Biden directed the nation to prioritize climate in domestic and foreign policy agendas. On March 31, he unveiled the American Jobs Plan to raise employment following the pandemic and improve the country’s infrastructure. The plan is a $2 trillion investment that Biden intends to pay for by increasing corporate taxes.

Amid the goals of improving public transit, fixing highways and bridges, and extending access to broadband, these policies also aim to improve the country’s public lands. Notably, the plans fund a Civilian Climate Corps program to create jobs that help promote resilience against climate change, and they set a goal to conserve 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.

These goals closely align with Openlands’ work in the greater Chicago area. Openlands helped to shape a bill that imagines how a Civilian Conservation Corps might look today. Additionally, the Openlands Forestry Crew and certified TreeKeepers help plant and care for trees, which are an important form of infrastructure that limits flooding and improves air quality. 

Creating green jobs

The New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps put about 3 million young men to work over its nine years of operation. The Corps members from nearly 90 years ago planted billions of trees and built infrastructure for parks and natural lands. Today, nonprofit or government-run corps are descended from the first CCC. And now, the president is making a push for a modern incarnation of this initiative.

Biden’s American Jobs Plan sets aside $10 billion to fund a new Civilian Climate Corps, which would “put a new, diverse generation of Americans to work conserving our public lands and waters, bolstering community resilience, and advancing environmental justice.”

While the details of this plan aren’t fully ironed out, there are a few bills in Congress that attempt to imagine how a modern CCC would look. Last fall, Sen. Dick Durbin of Ill. and Rep. Bobby Rush of Chicago introduced identical bills called the RENEW Conservation Corps Act. Openlands has worked closely with Durbin’s office on this plan, which was reintroduced in both the house and senate recently with amendments.

Durbin’s plan would employ one million people over the course of five years. While the original CCC enlisted mostly white men, the corps groups envisioned by the RENEW Act would mirror the demographics of the city or state they work in.

Funding for a Civilian Climate Corps would build on the work that groups are already doing today. Some corps members currently work on environmental projects such as removing wildfire fuel, putting energy- and water-saving retrofits on homes, thinning forests, and installing solar panels, among other things. The RENEW Act, or a similar corps initiative, would fund more projects, including tree planting, wetland restoration, and invasive species control.

“We just want to make sure that the key elements of the Durbin bill […] are maintained, whatever program emerges,” said Jerry Adelmann, president and CEO of Openlands. Already, he said, there is “growing support from all over the country for some program like this.”

Trees as infrastructure

Sen. Durbin’s bill, as originally introduced, aims to mobilize American workers to address the backlog of infrastructure projects at the federal, state, and local levels.

There are “many ‘shovel-ready’ projects and green infrastructure maintenance backlog projects that would improve […] quality of life, outdoor experiences, and access to outdoor recreation,” reads the text of the original bill.

Green infrastructure can improve the quality of American cities. In addition to bridges, highways, and buildings, green space is part of the built environment of an urban area. Incorporating trees, parks, and gardens into a cityscape can help control flooding and improve air quality.

Green schoolyards provide spaces for students to learn and exercise. They’re built in a way that helps reduce urban flooding by replacing impervious surfaces like concrete or asphalt with greenery or special materials that catch water. Openlands is a partner with Healthy Schools Campaign in the Space to Grow program, which has transformed 30 schoolyards in Chicago. Trees also help capture stormwater before it flows into the sewers, which helps limit flooding and may decrease the cost of stormwater treatment.

Trees are an important part of green infrastructure. They improve air quality by filtering out pollutants. A large, healthy urban forest could reduce short-term levels of local air pollution by at least 5%, according to a 2010 report from the Morton Arboretum. Trees can also decrease energy needs in homes by providing shade in summer and respite from wind in winter. Plus, they can reduce residents’ stress.

Openlands and volunteers plant trees in Chicago and its near south suburbs through the TreePlanters Grants program. Community volunteers self-organize, choose where to place new trees, and gather the community for a planting event. The Openlands Forestry Crew provides the trees, supplies, and on-site training.

This year, Openlands welcomed the inaugural class of its Arborist Registered Apprenticeship trainees, who are working to become arborists in the Chicago area. These apprentices and Openlands’ forestry team are planting trees across the city, with a focus on Chicago’s Southwest Side. There, the tree canopy cover is lower than that of Chicago as a whole, said Tom Ebeling, community arborist with Openlands.

“There’s a lot of people that live there, and there’s also a lot of polluters that are active in the area,” Ebeling said. “So it’s got a lower tree canopy [cover] and a high burden of pollution.”

If the proposed federal legislation moves forward, it might open opportunities for more projects like these to be done across the country.