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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 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.

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

The Power of Land: Race, Equity, and Justice

By Danielle Russell, Openlands School Garden Coordinator as part of a blog series, Race, Equity, and Justice: Lessons for Climate Resilience

“Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.”

– Malcolm X

What is the power of land?

Land itself is power. Land is the source of both material and spiritual wealth and stability. Connecting to land boosts our mood and has physical benefits. From food, to minerals and fossil fuels, access to land and the ability to manipulate and extract from it is a great privilege and gives those that wield it power.

When Europeans came to the Americas and other lands around the globe, they just decided what land was “theirs.” They looted the land to find riches and disrupted the rhythm that had been in place for millennia. We can’t talk about the current uprising  that we see as a response to the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, and too many others at the hands of the state, without talking about the history of capitalism and slavery in this country.  While some just see protesters “looting” and “rioting,” others see an uprising in response to centuries of oppression. The “looting” we see is nothing compared to the continual looting of Indigenous land and Black, Brown, and Indigenous bodies. The current uprising is a direct response to the legacy of wealth built by the exploitation of land and Black and Brown communities by way of capitalism that is protected by the state. In America, capitalism is rooted in and thrives on the intersection of racial injustice and a degraded environment, and to effectively combat climate change, we need environmental justice.

America, Built on Stolen Land, by Stolen Labor

Given that the wealth of America is built on the oppression of enslaved Africans, and Indigenous people to America, there is an incalculable debt to pay. One necessary step in progress is for African Americans and Indigenous people to get reparations. Reparations are forms of allocating resources to repair harm of injustice directly to the people that have been harmed. Reparations can take many forms, and can, and should, take the form of direct payment and land-based wealth redistribution. Soul Fire Farm has a reparations map that curates a list of BIPOC ( Black, Indigenous, and people of color) farmers to donate to.  As a form of reparations, land trusts should help BIPOCs acquire land for their own land sovereignty, to grow food for their own communities, for economic stability, for protection against racism – environmental and otherwise, and really to do what they see fit with that land.

The people Indigenous to America have endured, in the past and the present, an unimaginable amount of violence at the hands of our nation. The United States Government violently displaced Indigenous people so that they could have access to fertile land. Injustice against Indigenous people isn’t something of the past. The construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline not only violates treaties, but it degrades the land Indigenous people are on, and puts their water at risk. Indigenous land loss is not a thing of the past. Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic, the Trump administration recently revoked the reservation status for the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts, taking away their sovereignty over their land.

After the Civil War, when the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, with the exception of being convicted of a crime, Black folks did not have the legal right to own land, so many folks rented land from White landowners to sharecrop. Share cropping was  slavery by another name. It continued the economic foundation of slavery by obstructing share croppers from getting paid for their labor, and only being allowed an allocation of the crop they were growing. Similarly to slavery, it was a degrading experience that many people risked their lives to flee from. People think sharecropping is something that happened long ago, but it is not. I personally know people who are in their 60’s that sharecropped with their families by picking cotton as children. While some Black folks were able to own their own land to do what they wanted with it, because of ongoing discrimination, between 1910 and 2007 Black farmers lost 80% of their land.

Today, most of the BIPOC folks who have access to land don’t have the sovereignty to do what they wish with that land. BIPOC farmers don’t tend to own the land they work. 94-98% of farmland in the US is owned by whites, yet 80% of farmworkers identify as Hispanic or Latinx. If BIPOC folks own their own farm business, they are most likely renting that space, mimicking a less brutal form of sharecropping. Exploitation of labor is at its height in the migrant farmworker crisis, where immigrants, often from Latin America, are exploited for their labor since they aren’t protected under law. Migrant farmworkers often aren’t provided healthcare, endure abuse, and are now dealing with being more susceptible to COVID-19.

Making progress

Fortunately, there are land trusts that are working to help BIPOC acquire and access land. I had the opportunity to have a conversation with Stephanie Morningstar from the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust (NEFOC), one of the land trusts that are doing this work. NEFOC functions through conservation and farmland preservation. The organization was founded by a board of BIPOC farmers in the Northeast. NEFOC is unique in that it functions as a traditional land trust while also facilitating relationships between BIPOC farmers and land trusts who want to help them acquire land.

NEFOC’s work is not only in conserving land, but in facilitating healing and solidarity. “Healing and truth telling are just as important as our conservation work.” Morningstar says, “Conservation is often a practice of trying to return the land to a fictional idea of what it used to be – untouched by humans. We can’t separate the land from its history with people, and even if we were trying to return it to a pristine state, we’d return it to Indigenous stewardship. In our work we listen to our ancestors, listen to our elders, and listen to the land for guidance.”

One mechanism that NEFOC and other land trusts are using are cultural respect easements and agreements. These emphasize building relationships between land trusts and BIPOC groups to come up with an agreement of what access to that land will look like. It involves centering needs and voices of Indigenous people whose land you’re on, consulting the community before you do work on the land, and working with the community to decide how land will be used. The Dennis Conservation Trust in Massachusetts worked with the Native Land Conservancy, led by folks from the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, to establish a Cultural Respect Agreement on Dennis Conservation Trust lands. This allows for Indigenous people to engage in traditional practices on their lands, such as ceremonies and harvesting, which isn’t allowed on other public land. Reciprocation is a large part of what the Native Land Conservancy does, so they offer public education programs on their site for being able to use the land. Relationships and building trust are the most important part of this process.

Some recommendations from NEFOC for white-led institutions that want to collaborate in this way with BIPOC:

  • Watch out for the white savior complex
  • Don’t jump in without doing a justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion audit of your organization. Who makes up your board and staff? What are you doing to reduce harm of white supremacy?
  • There’s no fast way to do this. Don’t jump right in. This is a listening journey. Just be in a listening space.
  • Ask for consent at every turn.

A few land access policy changes to consider:

  • Reform Chicago’s $1 lot program to prevent land speculation by non-resident developers and subsequent displacement of community residents
  • Stop and assess Chicago’s disproportionate enforcement of laws against property owners, like the Weeds Ordinance, in majority BIPOC neighborhoods
  • Help property owners to build financial equity in their land by offering support through incentives like the Urban Agricultural Areas Program, which can abate property taxes, utility fees, and other economic barriers to productive land ownership
  • Level the playing field for economic opportunities between rural, suburban, and urban areas – channel adequate resources into brownfield remediation, support (and enforce) industry compliance with environmental laws, and dedicate fines from noncompliance to benefit affected communities

A few things the conservation community could be doing to improve land access opportunities:

  • Partner with BIPOC farmers through buy/protect/lease-to-own arrangements through which farmers build equity in the land while protecting it and earning a living from it
  • Seek out, embrace, and support the land-based visions of non-traditional partners, like housing cooperatives and places of worship
  • Bend traditional notions of land protection to include models of communal ownership, intensive community management, and combination conservation-housing projects
  • Extend legal services and support to prospective BIPOC property owners for the acquisition, protection, maintenance, and estate planning of their land at low or no cost

Open Spaces are for All of Us

By Openlands President & CEO, Gerald Adelmann

The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many others continue to demonstrate the structural racism that puts black lives in danger every day. 

While going out to bird watch. While going outside for a jog. While simply being outside. 

Openlands stands with the Black members of our staff, board, and community against racism and oppression of any kind, and unequivocally condemns acts of bigotry, racism, and violence against people of color. 

We are committed to connecting residents to nature where they live by addressing the environmental inequities that separate people from nature in our region . We meet communities where they are, decreasing the disparity in our urban tree canopy , increasing green space in high density park deserts, and helping divested neighborhoods mitigate flooding through innovative green schoolyards that improve the quality of education for the students. 

We understand, as a predominately white organization working in a predominately white profession, we have more work to do to end systemic racism. Social equity and inclusion is intrinsically linked to our fight for climate resilience.   We will not see progress by remaining silent or working alone. Openlands is committed to internally addressing systemic issues and reforms, advocating for environmental equity and justice on local, state, and federal levels, and partnering with diverse communities across the region in support of a more just future.

Openlands’ mission plays a vital role in the health, healing, and community-building that’s needed to enhance the quality of life in our region. Since our founding, people and communities have been at the center of our work. In these uncertain and turbulent times, Openlands must do all we can to care for each other and our world.