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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.

How A New Civilian Conservation Corps Will Benefit Illinois’ Infrastructure In The Chicago Tribune

Did you know that Openlands helped shape the Renew Conservation Corps legislation with Senator Dick Durbin, which would create green jobs for young people and result in revamped infrastructure, reforestation, and ecosystem restoration? Openlands’ President and CEO Jerry Adelmann was interviewed for this article in the Chicago Tribune about how a new Conservation Corps, included in President Biden’s infrastructure plan, would mimic President Roosevelt’s New Deal program, which employed 3 million men and left a legacy across the country in parks, preserves, and national parks.

How to Get Trees Planted In Your Chicago Neighborhood

Planting trees is one of the simplest nature-based solutions to climate change and is a tangible way for individuals to make a positive impact on the environment. However, planting a tree is easier said than done, and effectively planting in a way that ensures the long-term health of the tree requires more knowledge and skill than simply digging a hole. Trees provide so many benefits to people and the environment, from increasing property values and beautifying neighborhoods, to absorbing rainwater and decreasing the urban heat island effect. Programs in Chicago provide new trees and replace trees lost on city blocks to residents with the condition that residents put in the time and work to maintain the tree once it’s planted. We want to help you become an active steward of Chicago’s urban forest, which is why we’ve created this guide to help you find trees in Chicago through one of the programs offered to residents.

Chicago 311

Chicago residents looking to plant a tree in their neighborhood can contact Chicago’s 3-1-1 service. The process is simple, and residents can simply call 3-1-1 or submit a request online with their address. Once the request is approved, the Bureau of Forestry will plant a tree along the public right-of-way in your neighborhood. There may be significant time between an inspected and approved request and actual tree planting. Make sure you keep the tree watered, as it is critical for the survival of the tree. 

We recommend that you water a newly planted tree once you see leaves in the spring and until the leaves fall off in the fall, and give the tree 10-15 gallons of water per week. After three years, once the tree is established, you can discontinue watering unless there is a drought. Watch a full video tutorial on how to water a new tree with Openlands Forestry Program Manager Katie Fleming.

Learn more about how to contact 3-1-1.

Openlands TreePlanters Grants

Openlands TreePlanters Grants provide new trees to communities in the City of Chicago and the near south suburbs. The grants encourage resilience through planting trees and creating a network of neighbors to care for the trees. The TreePlanters Grant program was designed  to facilitate conversations about trees between neighbors and to create a community of tree advocacy in Chicago’s neighborhoods. 

Communities are asked to organize themselves, find sufficient places to plant 10 – 40 trees, meet their neighbors, reach out and invite their elected officials, and create a successful event all in the name of learning more about the benefits of trees and the proper way to plant and maintain new trees.

Openlands provides the education, organization, supplies, expertise, and quality control. On planting day, the Openlands Forestry Crew and certified TreeKeepers provide tools, trees, mulch and training for volunteers. In return, we ask that you help gather your neighbors, commit to work the full event (four hours), and keep caring for the trees for the next few years while they get established.

Learn more about the Openlands TreePlanters Grants.

Chicago Region Trees Initiative Program

As part of the Plant Trees for Communities Initiative with the Chicago Region Trees Initiative (CRTI), of which Openlands is a founding member, individuals are invited to plant at least one tree in every local community in the seven-county Chicago region and in each of the 50 Chicago wards (approx. 340 trees) in 2021. The Openlands Forestry team has partnered with CRTI’s program through the TreePlanters Grant. 

Each tree kit from CRTI comes with instructions on how to plant, mulch, and water your tree, along with a tree tag and tree owner’s manual. This program is a great option for anyone with tree planting experience who feels confident about their ability to manage the entire tree planting process, from planting to watering and mulching over a span of three years. Contact Lydia Scott at lscott@mortonarb.org with the Morton Arboretum to find out how to get your free tree.

Learn more about the Plant Trees for Communities program.

Purchase a Tree at the Openlands Native Tree and Plant Sale

The Openlands Native Tree and Plant Sale offers a wide variety of native trees for purchase that are not available at most big-box stores and nurseries. The Native Tree and Plant Sale is an excellent place to find more specific varieties of native trees that might not be available through one of the public tree planting programs.

Shop the sale.

Public vs. Private Planting Rules

If you are planting a tree on your own, it is essential that you only plant on your private property. In order to plant a tree in a City parkway such as through the 3-1-1 and TreePlanters Grant program, organizations must possess the necessary credentials to dig in the public right of way. 

Individuals can plant anywhere in their yard, as long as the tree is at least one foot away from the sidewalk. To understand the best way to plant a tree, watch this video of Tom Ebeling, Openlands Community Arborist, who takes you through the step-by-step process and speaks to best practices. 

At Openlands, we emphasize the importance of taking care of our urban forest and planting trees for the health of communities and the planet, and our Forestry team has planted more than 6,500 trees across the Chicago region since 2013. Thank you for taking action as a steward of our urban forest to increase the tree canopy in your neighborhood!

Openlands Talks About A New Civilian Conservation Corps on Wisconsin Public Radio

Openlands’ President and CEO Jerry Adelmann and Vice President of Community Conservation Daniella Pereira were interviewed on Wisconsin Public Radio, where they discussed how new Civilian Conservation Corps legislation can put people back to work, fight climate change, and connect people to nature.

How To Choose The Right Plants For Your Landscape At the Openlands Native Tree and Plant Sale

The annual Openlands Native Tree and Plant Sale is back this year in a year-long online format! Each year, Openlands hosts a sale to bring you a wide array of native shrubs, trees, grasses, ferns, and flowers to beautify your yard and support ecological health. Due to the pandemic, this year’s event will again be held online in partnership with Possibility Place, with purchases delivered to your door. The 2021 Native Tree and Plant Sale is now open, and you can start shopping here.

The Openlands’ Native Tree and Plant Sale is an excellent opportunity for the public to access a wide variety of native plants, which are often difficult to find at most nurseries and big-box stores. Through the sale, you can choose from some of the many ferns, flowers, shrubs, and woody plants native to landscapes in northeastern Illinois. Native plants serve a wide variety of both aesthetic and ecological functions. Many are beautiful, hardy, and beneficial to wildlife, and can help reduce the impact of climate change. Native plants play a fundamental role in our food webs, and they support wildlife, from butterflies to songbirds. Establishing a well-chosen array of natives can help make your property more climate resilient, as trees and many other native plants create shade, cool the air, act as a sponge to absorb rainwater, and store large amounts of carbon for many years.

Openlands has put together this beginner’s guide to help you start to figure out which plants are best suited for your unique landscape, budget, needs, and aesthetic desires. Along with this handy plant-selection filter, you’ll be on your way: https://www.possibilityplace.com/plant-finder. Just make sure to head back to Openlands sale from there, so your dollars support Openlands mission to conserve nature for life.

Where to Start:

If you are new to native planting, the first step is to assess your property and identify your goals.

Who is Doing the Work?

If you’re not a gardener and do not intend to hire one who is skilled with natives, but still want your property to look great and function well, skip the gardens and select trees or shrubs. If you can afford it, consider hiring a designer who specializes in natives or a company that can help install new plantings.

Light and Soil Conditions

When choosing which natives to plant, it is essential to first determine how much light your planting area receives. If it does not receive a lot of sun, you still have many options, as an array of natives grow in partially shaded conditions.

Along with light, your property’s soil conditions are a major determining factor in the type of plants appropriate for your space, as dry and wet soil is suited for different plants. Also give special consideration when soils are heavily compacted, contain a lot of clay or sand, or are beneath walnuts or pines.  

Trees and Shrubs

If you’re looking to get some privacy and block the view of your neighbor’s patio, then you might want to opt for shrubs and trees. For total newbies, introducing trees and shrubs to your landscape is a great way to start, as they are the most sustainable plantings. They are also less likely to get ripped out when a subsequent homeowner arrives, as people are more reluctant to cut out a tree or shrub.

Shrubs can serve as a natural fence and provide privacy while still looking beautiful. There are dozens of native shrubs to northeastern Illinois. When well designed, shrubs can increase a property’s value.

Trees are shown to have a positive impact on mental health and they also increase property values, cool your home in the summer, create oxygen, and clean the air of pollutants. Besides providing privacy and shade on sunny days, trees in some locations of the landscape can reduce stormwater runoff, which can reduce the effects of heavy rains and erosion. Some trees do best in spacious yards with plenty of sun.

Native Garden & Tree Care

Natives are a great investment. As most are perennial plants, they will return year after year, unlike annuals like pansies or begonias. While the investment upfront may be more than annuals, they reap immense benefits year after year that you will get to enjoy.

When you first buy your plants, they will be small. Once they fully mature, they can grow up to several feet, while trees and shrubs can grow even larger. Because of this massive growth, it is a good idea to space out your plants based on their mature size.

Unlike vegetable gardens, many native plant gardens that have become established only require watering once per week if at all. However, it is essential that you regularly water your garden in the first year or two while your plants take root. Water one inch per week throughout the first year until the ground freezes, unless we get a good soaking rain that week.  A slow, deep watering directly over the roots when needed is best; avoid frequent, shallow watering. Placing an empty tuna can or similar container in the watering area is a useful way to track how much water an area receives.

Native trees require more attention during their first few years, as they need regular watering. From the time the leaves begin to appear in spring through the first frost, water trees once per week with up to 15 gallons of water. When in doubt, check the soil at the base of the tree, and if it is dry, please water.

Many trees and other plants, native or not, spend the first year or two recovering from transplant shock and establishing a strong root system. Depending on what size plant you buy and the conditions where it grows, you might not see immediate growth or you might be treated to quite a show. Be patient, as it may take a few seasons for the plants to flourish. However, once their roots are established, they generally come back on their own each spring, and some may even need to be thinned out.

Ecological Service

While planting trees, shrubs, or a native garden may seem like a small act, know that your actions will have a big impact. Native plants have a direct relationship with the butterflies and birds in our area and growing your natives will encourage the continuation of the web of life. Mary Fortmann, Openlands’ Sustainable Landscapes Coordinator, explains the benefits of integrating natives into your landscape:

“You can make your yard a haven for weary travelers. While there’s nothing wrong with most nonnative plants, they don’t support wildlife in the same way as natives.”

To learn more about bringing conservation-friendly practices to your property, including details on how to implement our top four recommended projects, visit Openlands’ Lands in Harmony page.

Celebrating 25 Years of Restoration, Advocacy, and Community Conservation at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

This month marks the 25th anniversary of one of our region’s most exciting conservation achievements: the establishment of Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. On February 10, 1996,  President Bill Clinton signed legislation that established Midewin as the first nationally designated tallgrass prairie and the largest protected landscape in Northeastern Illinois. The Joliet Arsenal was on the Openlands watch list almost since the organization’s inception, as Openlands’ Board saw it as a prime conservation opportunity. Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is now the largest landholding in the four-state Chicago Wilderness region. 

When the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant was declared excess federal land in 1993, Openlands, led by staff member Joyce O’Keefe, was already working with state and local groups to preserve the land as open space. Openlands and The Conservation Fund helped organize public support for the future creation of Midewin and helped provide initial private support for the project through the MacArthur Foundation. Led by Congressman Sangmeister with critical support from Governor Jim Edgar, this culminated in the unanimous decision by Openlands and twenty-six other municipal governments, state agencies, and nonprofits to divide the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant into Midewin, the Abraham Lincoln Veteran’s Cemetery, industrial parks, and other uses. Throughout the process, the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies provided strong leadership during the restoration and development of the park site. 

A bunker at Midewin, one of the few remnants of the Joliet Arsenal

Restoring The Prairie

Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie presents a unique opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to the preservation and maintenance of our natural ecosystems. Understanding the long-term commitment ahead, in the early 2000s Openlands and other partners developed the Prairie Plan, which focused on stream, wetland and prairie restoration, trail implementation, and removal of old infrastructure. Major elements of tallgrass prairie were still present at the site, but non-native elements were widespread. Openlands continues restoration efforts today that focus on the prairie and wetland ecosystems. Currently, Openlands’ team works on restoring Drummond Dolomite Prairie at Midewin, a rare type of both wet and dry prairie that sits in magnesium-rich soil and attracts rare birds and insects, and is home to federally threatened and endangered plant species.  

Drummond Prairie in the summertime

Drummond is part of a wider series of public and private partnerships that are working to restore native plant communities on the west side of Midewin. In addition to the floodplain restoration, Openlands continues to work with Midewin and the Forest Preserve District of Will County on potential land preservation, stream restoration, and trail initiatives connected to Midewin, including the larger macrosite of the Prairie Parklands, an area of 40,000 acres.

Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is a boon to our region and its value as a climate asset will become even more apparent in the coming years as we need to mitigate increased flooding, sequester more carbon, and reach our goal of preserving 30% of our natural lands by 2030. Prairie plants are one of the most effective natural carbon sinks, as they have deep roots that sequester carbon into the ground and never release them unless pulled out. Unlike trees, which eventually die and release their stored carbon back into the atmosphere, undisturbed prairie plants can store carbon for millennia, even when their tops are burned. Prairies also absorb rain thanks to their deep root systems, which helps reduce erosion, runoff, and flooding. 

In 2015, bison were reintroduced by the U.S. Forest Service as part of an effort to restore the natural prairie ecosystem, and the herds can now be seen grazing all year round. This feat of ecological stewardship is part of an experiment to see how beneficial bison grazing patterns are to prairie grasslands. The native components of the prairie require nurturing so that the prairie may once again return to its pre-European grandeur. The site name, Midewin, used with the consent of the tribe, is a Potowatomi word referring to the tribe’s healers, who kept the tribal society in balance. The recent restoration work done on this land makes the name Midewin an appropriate expression of these indigenous sentiments and ideas. According to Linda Master’s, Openlands Restoration Specialist, “Our goal now is to make the land as self-sustaining, healthy, and diverse as possible.”

Midewin’s bison herd, which was reintroduced in 2015, grazes the grasslands all year round

Protecting What We Protect

For decades, Openlands has focused on diffusing threats to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie by slowing down or blocking horrendous proposed projects, and uniting people in the area behind better solutions. Proposals like the Illiana Tollway, which Openlands defeated with a coalition of 30 partners in 2019, are an example of the type of short-sighted and potentially disastrous projects. This $1.5 billion project would have paved over thousands of acres of prime farmland, polluted pristine rivers, and ruined habitat for state and federally protected wildlife at Midewin. 

Since 2017, Openlands has voiced strong opposition citing the NorthPoint intermodal facility along Midewin’s northern border as a highly destructive project. On February 10, 2021, Openlands filed a complaint in Illinois Circuit Court against the City of Joliet, challenging the annexation and zoning of land for the intermodal facility.  NorthPoint would span 3,000 acres (nearly 5 square miles), adding up to 53,000 cars and trucks per day to the roads. The constant intrusion of light, noise, pollution, and vibration from the intermodal and the inundation of traffic would intrude into Midewin’s globally imperiled landscapes and would make it impossible for rapidly declining species of migratory birds, bats, and other wildlife to continue to live in areas created to provide a safe harbor.   

Midewin spans 19,000 picturesque acres and contains a diverse ecosystem of streams, wetlands, and prairies

Openlands understands that the health of an entire community is important, and that for Midewin to survive and reach its potential, the surrounding uses must complement rather than sacrifice its globally important landscapes. Openlands has been an influential stakeholder in a planning initiative by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning to complement burgeoning freight, warehousing and truck traffic with the health of Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and surrounding agricultural communities. The draft land use plan clusters industry close to interstates and away from Midewin, preserving historic farms in the area, and protecting local watersheds. You can get involved with the work being done to create a sustainable land use strategy at the upcoming Moving Will County Virtual Public Workshop on Wednesday, February 24 at 6 pm.

The transformation of Midewin from an arsenal to a thriving ecosystem is truly extraordinary and never finished. The anniversary will be celebrated virtually this year with five events highlighting various aspects of restoration at Midewin. You can learn more about the events and sign up here

The Monarch Will Not Be Protected as a Threatened Species Under the Endangered Species Act

By Openlands’ Staff Attorney, Molly Kordas and Senior Counsel, Stacy Meyers

After six long years of consideration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced in December that it would not protect the Monarch under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), despite evidence that the North American butterfly has suffered dramatic population decreases over the last half-century. 

The Service acknowledged that the species is in decline and warrants listing, but ultimately concluded that it simply does not have the resources needed to list the species. Citing 161 other species under consideration for the list with higher priority needs, the Service will publish any further findings in one year, but ultimately delayed the decision for another four years, promising to revisit the issue in 2024.

Monarch butterflies cannot sustain this length of delay.  Threats, such as habitat loss and fragmentation, pesticides and herbicides, fires, droughts, early freezes, extreme storms, illegal logging, and other impacts of the climate crisis are growing worse, wreaking havoc on the North American population, which makes up roughly 90 percent of the global population.

North America has two main populations of Monarchs – the western population, which has been nearly eradicated, and the eastern population, which has declined by more than 80 percent over the last 40 years. However, the Service does not list subpopulations of insects based on the areas where they live or migrate, like the western and eastern populations of Monarchs, so the species must require listing as a whole. Due to the Monarch’s complex life cycle and migration patterns, the species is incredibly difficult to track and monitor. 

The threat of delay is compounded by protections lost to wildlife in multiple federal regulatory rollbacks. The Trump administration crippled vital provisions of the ESA and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), regulations, which were finalized last week despite a federal court’s determination that the actions taken by the Department of Interior were contrary to the purpose of the MBTA.

As a result, if the Monarch were listed today, it still would not be afforded the protections intended and legally required by the ESA. Blanket protections that historically protected threatened species were eliminated or weakened. For instance, agencies can now consider the economic impacts of protecting additional species and their critical habitat, and more easily gloss over extinction threats that result from the growing climate crisis.

To achieve adequate protection and conservation of the species, the incoming Biden Administration must reverse these harmful rollbacks, revisit consideration of the Monarch as a federally-threatened species, and restore power and capacity to both the USFWS and the laws and regulations it enforces. 

What Can You Do to Protect the Monarch?

Individuals can have a huge impact on ensuring the future of the Monarch, as well as many species of insects currently in decline. The National Academy of Sciences recently published a list of eight steps everyone can take to help conserve and protect insects from global declines.

These steps include converting lawns into diverse natural habitats and growing native plants, as well as reducing the use of pesticides and exterior lighting. Openlands has not only preserved and restored landscapes in Northeastern Illinois for decades, but also assists individual landowners in creating Lands in Harmony through conservation-friendly practices on their own properties.

Finally, you can tell your federal elected officials that the Monarch cannot wait and ask Congress to fully fund the USFWS. We must also insist that the Biden Administration reverse the damaging environmental policies of the last four years and take real action as soon as possible to fully protect the quality of our land, water, air and wildlife that are all vital to a clean, beautiful, and healthy environment.

Alan Bell Appointed Chair of Conservation and Policy Council of the Cook County Forest Preserves

Openlands and the Forest Preserves of Cook County are connected by a long and deep history, spanning back to Openlands’ founding when Charles “Cap” Sauers , who served as General Superintendent of the Cook County Forest Preserve District, joined Openlands as a Board Member. The relationship continues today as Openlands Board Member Alan Bell becomes Chair of the Conservation and Policy Council. The Council is tasked with guiding the efforts to implement the Next Century Conservation Plan – an inspired pathway to ensure that people’s love and enthusiasm for nature is realized.   

Alan has served on the Council for several years and on Openlands Board for 12. He is an active attorney engaged in public finance and public-private partnerships. He is a board member of the Land Trust Alliance and founder and CEO of the Elements Group, which is committed to inspiring projects that have a lasting impact on people, the natural environment, and the world. He is passionate about nature and committed to community conservation and engagement, especially when it comes to diverse populations. His values and experience make Alan a perfect complement to the goals of the Next Century Conservation Plan and the work of the Council as it advances its civic commitment to secure the resources needed to care for the first forest preserve system in the nation.  

Alan takes over the Council Chair from Wendy Paulson who led the 11-member organization through its inaugural years. Wendy is an avid birder, conservationist, and Openlands board member for the past eight years. Wendy transitioned to the Chair of Council after serving as one of the four co-chairs of the Next Century Conservation Plan Commission that oversaw the development of the Plan. Bob Megquier, Openlands Executive Vice President of Programs, has also served as an invaluable member of the Plan’s leadership team, serving as a senior advisor to Forest Preserve staff and the Council.

In 2012 the Cook County Forest Preserves was approaching its centennial anniversary, which was a cause for celebration, reflection, and looking to the future. Openlands’ long-time relationship led to an invitation from the Forest Preserves to help lead a planning effort, alongside Metropolis Strategies, to create a visionary plan looking into the next century of the Forest Preserves’ work. The vision needed to acknowledge and plan for issues not imagined in 1915 such as climate change and its effect on our region, the changing demographics of Cook County, and the contribution of healthy nature in helping to ensure healthy people. As a public agency with such a rich history that currently owns more than 10% of Cook County, the Forest Preserves wanted to take an integrated approach to planning for the future of the county’s open lands by including the important role of civic leadership in developing and driving implementation of the Plan.

The Conservation and Policy Council is the leadership team tasked with implementing the Plan and helping to bring resources to the Forest Preserves. One of the most important responsibilities of the Council is to bridge the public and private sector and drive funding to the Forest Preserves so that the goals of the plan can become a reality.

During the first five years of work of the Council it became glaringly obvious that the Cook County Forest Preserves are structurally underfunded. This is tragic because it guarantees that the preserves will never be fully cared for. The invasive plants that destroy the forests, prairies, and wetlands will win out over the oaks and hickory trees and the wildlife that depend on them. New trails and facilities will not be built, and existing ones will deteriorate. Over time, the health of the preserves will decline, and we will all lose something valuable.

That’s where the Conservation and Policy Council comes in. One of the most impactful ways to drive revenue to the Forest Preserves is through a property tax referendum that would adjust its revenue to be more in line with its need to ensure a healthy and inviting system of preserves. The Council will play a central role in building the community of support needed for a referendum to pass.

One good reason Cook County taxpayers should feel good about giving more money to the Forest Preserves is that December 2020 marks Arnold Randall’s 10th anniversary as General Superintendent of the Cook County Forest Preserves. Appointed by President Toni Preckwinkle, Arnold has transformed what was described by many as a political dumping ground costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars annually into a high-functioning and transparent government agency where employees not only do their job but take pride in their work. Arnold’s commitment is exemplified by sound conservation planning, award-winning work, and a dedication to engaging the conservation community and Cook County residents. Arnold has demonstrated his leadership over the last 10 years and has earned our trust that he will spend taxpayer dollars wisely and efficiently.

Our local preserves offer us free access to the healing power of nature. Keeping these critical ecosystems healthy should be a high priority for all of us who have treasured our moments outdoors and in nature. To get alerts when the referendum and other advocacy opportunities arise, sign up for our Cook County Action Alerts.

The Vacant Lot Phenomenon: How Vacant Lots Affect A Community’s People, Places, and Ecosystems

By Openlands’ Education and Community Outreach Coordinator, Lillian Holden

It was one of those warm summer nights where my cousins and I dashed from the living room of my grandmother’s house towards the corridors of her gangway. Within her gangway sat three charcoal-colored tire pots filled with creeping thistle, crabgrass, and dandelion. The tire pots rested cozily within a demarcation line that met the earth. Our journey would guide us past my older cousin’s residence next door and we would eventually cease our running once our feet mingled within the dirt and debris that occupied the vacant lot located three houses down from my grandmother’s. Energetic from eating Vitner’s Cheese-Flavored Crunchy Curls, Now & Laters, and Boston Baked Beans purchased at the neighboring corner store, it was common for us to traverse from my grandmother’s living room to the adjacent vacant lot. Our boisterous spirits would always lead us to the heart of the lot where an oak tree stood. During those times, the oak tree, my grandmother’s concrete front steps, and the pavement in front of my cousin’s porch made up the essence of my childhood. Although we had fun running around the block playing games like cops and robbers, tag, rock teacher, bottle top, double dutch, and hide-and-seek, roaming the vacant lot and climbing the branches of the oak tree for a sunbath felt like the ultimate escape. 

As age and experience snuck up on me, I began to develop ambivalent emotions toward vacant lots.  I noticed that the communities that raised me looked vastly different from the ones I traveled through to get to institutions of knowledge, employment, and social gatherings. My place of play within North Lawndale juxtaposed places of play in communities like Edison Park. Oddly enough, my neighborhood vacant lot felt like a complicated oasis. Vacant lots have a negative association and reputation, yet I have so many positive childhood experiences in them. It was a place where we could foster our imagination, play with worms, and get dirty, all the while running the risk of suffering from an occasional gash from a piece of broken glass. Figuratively speaking, it felt as though my nostalgia sat in a corner grazing violin strings, sweet and sensuously, while the truth grimaced directly in my face, making dark, sonorous bow strokes on a cello. I’ve struggled (and still do) against the history of vacant lots, which is rooted in divestment, predatory lending practices, redlining, and contract selling. Moreover, I struggle with how these practices negatively affect inner city youths’ connection to nature.

Historical Snapshot

Why are pockets of the West Side still decimated? Journalists Tony Briscoe and Ese Olumhense asked this question while flicking through archived stories and historic photos gathered from the North Lawndale and East Garfield Park communities after the 1968 riots. According to a 2013 land-use inventory from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, five percent of Chicago is classified as vacant and undeveloped, and approximately 14 percent of that land sits idle in the community areas of East Garfield Park and North Lawndale. These numbers show a troubling statistic that did not materialize mysteriously. 

Prior to the 1968 riots and African American Migration, East Garfield Park and North Lawndale served as prime areas for employment, real estate, and sustainable livelihood for the Jewish immigrant population. It was a place for working-class families to thrive and invest in bettering their futures. Chicago’s infrastructure, similar to Detroit, Baltimore, St. Louis, and Cleveland, suffered from divestment and neglect once blacks migrated from the south to northern cities in search of job opportunities and the “American Dream.” In the 1930’s, North Lawndale had a population of 115,000 white Americans while East Garfield Park had 65,000. Blacks who moved north instilled fear in whites, who moved to the suburbs where they could find subsidized housing. By the 1970’s, 885 white residents lived in East Garfield Park and less than 1,000 occupied North Lawndale. After the riots, city services diminished considerably, leaving blacks struggling and neighborhoods deteriorating. Recovery was never expected to be a streamlined process, as the riots resulted in $10 million worth of damage. Of that damage, uninsured homes and brick and mortar businesses were included. More specifically, “260 stores and businesses were destroyed, including 116 along a 20-block stretch of Madison between Damen Avenue and Pulaski Road. Another 72 were razed within 12 blocks of Roosevelt.” Abandonment worsened after the 1968 riots as Chicago municipalities transformed into blighted areas.

Redlining and Segregation

Chicago’s mapping system has been influenced by the city’s history of redlining, segregation, and divestment. This history is apparent by simply crossing into different neighborhoods, where cultural difference and resources often vary depending on race and economic status. It is a matter of crossing underneath a viaduct, or main street and intersection. These resource discrepencies are the main reason that when it came time to choose a career, I entered the nonprofit sector.

My nonprofit professional journey began as a Public Ally with Openlands in 2018. As a Ally you’re expected to complete a 10-month apprenticeship with one of the organization’s partners. The objective is that through the partnership, a young person is able to approach employment using their organic assets (and the program’s core values) to help build the participating nonprofit’s capacity. Each ally goes through a series of interviews leading to a match that is forged between the ally and the nonprofit that interviewed with them. After researching and learning about the organization’s connection to low-income communities, specifically their involvement in establishing community gardens to occupy vacant lots in North Lawndale and East Garfield Park, Openlands sounded like the place for me. 

Openlands has a deep history focused on vacant land and the the first city-wide inventory of vacant land in Chicago was made by the group. This effort led to the Community Land Use Network (CLUN), a coalition of open space, community development, and economic development organizations. CLUN was successful in getting an ordinance passed that addressed the disposition of vacant land.

The majority of my job description involves assisting with the functionalities of one of Openlands’ most prized programs, Birds in my Neighborhood (BIMN). Birds in my Neighborhood is a program that introduces students to common birds in the Chicago region through in-class lessons and field trips. When pitching BIMN, I often find the phrase “to inspire advocates for nature” confidently rolling off the tip of my tongue. It is without a doubt that the program has a unique way of doing just that. This is evident through our yearly end-of-the-program evaluation given to participating teachers. A Drummond Elementary teacher observed their students stopping a group of younger children from chasing away pigeons and explaining how important it is to leave wildlife alone.

During my time as an Ally, I had the privilege of taking two different schools through a BIMN experience from start to finish. The two schools are on opposite ends of the city; William Penn Elementary is a grammar school located in North Lawndale, one of the most architecturally eccentric and socially complex neighborhoods in Chicago, and Edison Park is located in Norwood Park, a quaint, picturesque community that lives up to the dreams of those early settlers who considered it an “ideal suburb.”

While students at the two schools saw the same birds, the surrounding environments and ecologies were starkly different. At Penn Elementary, we started the bird walk just outside the school’s primary entrance. Next to the school entrance sat five vacant lots. We were able to see a flock of European Starlings congregating on the ground, specks of American Robins grazing the short grassed vacant lots, Ringed-billed Gulls in the sky defying gravity, House Sparrows jumping and dashing from ground to tree, and a nest resting idle in a nearby tree. The students excitedly tallied what they saw on their bird checklist. 

The schoolyard walk at Edison Park had a much different feel. We passed a row of houses that lined the school building and a large, well-maintained baseball field. The field and neighboring trees attracted bird species such as, American Robins, Northern Cardinals, House Sparrows, and Crows. Similar to Penn Elementary students, the students excitedly tallied the birds they saw on their checklist. 

The areas in red surrounding Penn Elementary mark the neighborhood’s vacant lots

The Birds in my Neighborhood field trip component is where students truly become elated. This is where students either walk or are bused out to a local park or preserve. The locations vary from school to school and teachers are able to pick a location of their choosing. Students from Penn Elementary explored Douglass Park whereas students from Edison Park Elementary scouted North Park Village Nature Center.

A robust bird watching experience is dependent on biodiversity and habitat health, and the experiences at Penn and Edison made me wonder how the differences in environment between a child who bird watches in North Lawndale and a child who bird watches Edison Park affect the student. When considering the difference in residential landscape (with a lens on vacant lots) and viable habitat for birds, how do these experiences compare and contrast?

Research on childhood development and access to nature explores the impact of outdoor play spaces on children. A study in Norway examined the effect of different outdoor play settings on childrens’ motor coordination in three kindergarten outdoor play settings and showed that children who used a forest as a play setting performed better in motor skills tests than children who used an artificial playground. Research also suggests that even views of nature can affect children’s cognitive capacities, in particular their ability to concentrate. One study involving low-income African American children from public housing projects in Chicago showed that children living in apartment buildings with views of trees and green space exhibited superior attention capacities and impulse control than similar children living in apartments with fewer views of nature.  

Prior to my apprenticeship with Openlands, vacant lots that consumed North Lawndale’s scenery seemed like graceless fragments of land created by collective self-learned helplessness. However, each vacant lot has a story. Within some vacant lots, you’ll find concrete rubble on ground surrounded by lime and olive green grass and clusters of dandelion sprouting from its resilient roots. In others, you’ll find patches of long-grassed land, twisted milkweed plants, twigs, trees, branches, broken gates, broken bottles, broken glass, leftover construction material, and other hazardous substances. The few activated vacant lots sprinkled in the vicinity are used to uplift the community, its rich soil planted to harvest collard greens, cabbage, basil, radish, cilantro, and other fruits and vegetables.

Experiences like mine are not unique, but I share my story in the life affirming hope that it will provide powerful support for unstructured play outdoors. While vacant lots may not be the best place to provide this, open spaces that are well-managed are critical for child development.

When it comes to long-term advocacy for community improvement, early education for young people on environmental issues is crucial. Before introducing society’s common value for capital transactions, environmental education influences youth to understand the inherent value of nature and that if the earth’s resources continue to bleed, money cannot replace it.

Vacant lots are a result of centuries of discrimination and devaluation. However, they now offer an opportunity for regeneration, for both children and the communities where they live. While I do not wish for children to play in precarious lots, I do hope that children in Chicago’s neighborhoods have the same wonderful experience that I did by having their own place to play and imagine in the outdoors. To make that a reality, I suggest the following:

  1. Pressure state and local representatives to implement creative market-based changes that can attract revenue while keeping the communities’ historical integrity intact
    1. North Lawndale and East Garfield Park can be considered a historical corridor. Why not have tours of the community greystones and highlight the Jewish and African American history?  Have these tours been conducted by community members to help curve the communities’ unemployment rate.
    2. Support local businesses that cater to the communities’ racial demographic by the racial majority. Uplift youth entrepreneurs through programs and grants. 
  2. Chicago should re-examine its $1 large program. How can it be more beneficial for low-income communities who don’t have the means to turn the land into a garden or develop real estate?
  3. A burgeoning movement is the “forest school” movement. While I don’t know how this can apply to neighborhoods like North Lawndale, the idea is promising. Chicago should support and continue to explore “Forest Schools”  
  4. Support NeighborSpace
  5. Support Lincoln Park Zoo’s Urban Wildlife Institute, which researches urban biodiversity and habitats in and around metropolitan Chicago

*Cover photo courtesy of Nona Tepper