Cook County is the largest and most populous county in Illinois, including the city of Chicago, where Openlands is headquartered. Like Lake County, Cook shares a coastline on one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes, Lake Michigan. While much the land-use in Cook County is developed, though it boasts a robust forest preserves system, with over 70,000 acres devoted to natural areas including woodlands, marshes, prairies, and hundreds of miles of trails.
Since Openlands’ founding as part of the Metropolitan Welfare Council of Chicago, it has been committed to connecting urban dwellers with nature close to home. Openlands work in Chicago and Cook County focus on building advocates for nature through community-driven tree plantings and care, environmental education, and working with partners like the City of Chicago and Forest Preserves of Cook County to acquire and restore land for future parks, preserves, and natural areas. Our work in policy and advocacy expands and deepens these efforts, by pursuing policies and land-use decisions that protect habitats and wildlife, and the health and well-being of residents across the metropolitan region.
The Chicago region has one of the most complicated geo-political landscapes in the nation, covering three states. Northeastern Illinois has more units of local government than any other metropolitan region in the nation. Land use decisions are made daily within these municipal boundaries, often in isolation, and with a limited view of how it will affect the region’s health, resilience, and biodiversity.
Rivers, streams, trails, habitat, and other landscape-scale projects do not respect these political boundaries. Since Openlands’ founding, we have played a critical role as the only conservation organization looking systematically across the region at the relationship between the natural environment, urban growth, community health, and comprehensive land-use planning.
Our projects are at the scale of the region
Looking at the scale of the region requires that projects be dynamic, strategic, and collaborative with diverse partners and communities. We take on initiatives that light up our whole region, such as advocating for stronger water quality standards and creating the region’s first headwater streams plan. We are an incubator for innovative programs that engage community members in advocating for and enjoying nature, like Space to Grow and TreeKeepers. These programs and projects transform our communities, enrich the way we teach our children, expand how we understand and interact with nature, and reconnect and heal the ecology of our waterways.
As a trusted organizational partner and convener, we do not hesitate to join the fight against major transportation and infrastructure projects that would impact critical natural and agricultural resources. We build coalitions, provide leadership, and litigate when prudent.
By Openlands Vice President of Community Conservation, Daniella Pereira
Chicago needs its trees.
Chicago’s trees have always provided respite in its shade on a hot day, a connection to nature where we live, and health benefits by cleaning our air and reducing flooding.
But our tree canopy faces threats that make Chicago susceptible to flooding, heat islands, and environmental inequities. Pests like the emerald ash borer alone are killing 11% of the city’s trees with at least half of the 409,000 ash trees (USFS Tree Census) already removed. The current lack of environmental strategy, poor or incorrect maintenance, and misinformation among Chicago residents to the necessity and benefit of trees, will lead to unnecessary injury, mortality, and removal of otherwise flourishing trees, which affects the health of the larger urban forest and our city’s residents.
In the last few years we’ve seen the most net tree loss of trees than the last 30 years. Current City tree maintenance is on an “as-needed” basis that creates gross inequities between neighborhoods. Funds to prune trees and plant new ones have been constrained. Meanwhile, we continue to see the removal of public trees due to new development, infrastructure updates, and Aldermanic privilege – with no public policy direction to deter their removal.
This shrinking canopy affects all Chicagoans – from the value of our homes to the safety of our neighborhoods to the quality of air we all breathe. We must advance policies and actions to protect Chicago’s trees, and recognize that they are critical infrastructure to combat climate change.
An opportunity exists to rebuild a healthy and resilient urban forest, one that demonstrates Chicago’s leadership on environmental sustainability, transparency, and equity.
For the City of Chicago to sustain and grow its urban forest, City Council must pass an ordinance to create an Urban Forestry Advisory Board. The Board will be able to affect immediate changes by enacting policies and practices to improve the urban forest and centralize planning with all agencies that interact with trees. It will also identify opportunities to supplement public with private funds, and better coordinate partners’ efforts. Appointed Board members, made up of Department Commissioners, industry leaders, and community members will be expected to contribute their time to attend Board meetings and share associated administrative functions without monetary compensation.
Trees need care, and they need management just like our streets and buildings do. With the urgent challenges Chicago faces with air pollution, flooding, and excessive heat – our urban forest is one of our strongest strategies to curb the effects of climate change.
An Urban Forestry Advisory Board will put us on that path.
There are ways you can help – You can sign this petition to show your support of the Urban Forestry Advisory Board, and if you live in Chicago, you can send an email to your Alderman saying you want them to vote “yes” on the Urban Forestry Advisory Board ordinance. Please share this message to gain others’ support!
The City Council voted to advance the ordinance out of the Rules Committee and Alderman Waguespack is guiding it through the legislative process. Under his leadership, and support from its many co-sponsors and your advocacy, we are confident that this ordinance will pass City Council in the coming months.
By Ted Haffner, Openlands Climate Fellow
On January 15, Aldermen Matt Martin (47) and George Cardenas (12) along with 44 other Aldermen introduced a Resolution calling for the City of Chicago to declare a Climate Emergency. This resolution was a positive step, offering the most comprehensive proposal to initiate an emergency mobilization effort against climate change and its impacts. The resolution also goes the furthest in addressing environmental justice, saying that there must be “widespread conservation and restoration of ecosystems,” and that “justice requires that frontline and marginalized communities, which have historically borne the brunt of the extractive fossil-fuel economy, participate actively in the planning and implementation of this mobilization effort and that they benefit first from the transition to a climate-safe economy.”
It is now vital that we follow this step with action. The Mayor and City Council have numerous proposals before them that offer excellent opportunities to create real impact towards climate resilience. Here are just a few proposals that would bring the city a step closer to a climate-safe economy:
- Create an Urban Forestry Advisory Board to assist the Bureau of Forestry and more adequately care for public trees and the climate benefits they provide. A study released just last week found that the historical practice of redlining has created neighborhoods with lower tree canopy cover than those wealthier non-redlined neighborhoods. A healthy urban forest is one of the most cost-effective measures to mitigate climate impacts, providing flood prevention through rainwater interception, lower temperatures via shade, improved air quality, and mental health benefits. An oversight board such as this that recommends meaningful policies is needed now more than ever.
- Introduce legislation that promotes urban farming at a community scale. According to the resolution, regenerative agriculture is of a high priority. But Chicago is currently considering legislation that disincentivizes and restricts meaningful urban agriculture practices and businesses. It is vital for the City to support policies that might promote urban farming at a community scale, especially when that urban agriculture provides a necessary source of healthy food options for many in some of the biggest food deserts in our city.
- Pass habitat-friendly ordinances that support our natural ecosystems. As the most dangerous city for migratory birds, passing the Bird Friendly Design Ordinance to create a friendlier place for birds of all types, whether migrating through or staying put, will create huge impact. And ensuring the dismissal of other proposals that seek to destroy migratory birds’ most valuable wildlife habitats, at places like Montrose Beach and South Shore Nature Sanctuary, are integral actions consistent with ending the “Sixth Mass Extinction,” as the resolution resolves to do.
- Allow conservation at homes throughout the city. Finally, planting and maintaining native plants and pollinator gardens can be a powerful way for residents to personally act on climate change and mitigate flooding in their neighborhoods. Native prairie capture as much or more carbon than trees do, and with their extensive root systems, soak up water during rain events. Introducing a Chicago Weeds Ordinance that removes rules that disproportionately penalized property owners who plant and maintain native plant and pollinator gardens is essential.
Recycling, Air Pollution, Environmental Inspections, Transportation, the list is endless, and can seem daunting, but with the outlined solutions above, Chicago can take much needed steps towards addressing how our region will be affected by climate change. And it will be affected – in a recent event, author Dan Egan spoke about how vulnerable Chicago is to the impacts of climate change.
The resolution is only the beginning of what we hope is a new day in Chicago for climate policy, we all need to work together to ensure this powerful resolution doesn’t amount to just words. Chicagoans need action and action needs advocates.
Please join us in advocating for these and other issues by talking to your local officials, and adding your voice to our advocacy efforts to ensure a green, more climate resilient region for us all.
Nestled into the north side of Chicago is one of the city’s best natural treasures, North Park Village Nature Center. The Nature Center is managed by the Chicago Park District, and thanks to the dedicated work of the volunteer network, this vibrant natural area is home to many different habitats, trails, and educational resources.
One of the Nature Center’s most popular programs is the annual collection of maple tree sap to produce maple syrup. For over 30 years, the Park District has offered the program to residents and volunteers to help them appreciate, care for, and learn about the site’s trees. But as these trees have aged, they’ve identified the need to plant new maples to continue this tradition.
To celebrate the Nature Center’s 40th anniversary, the Chicago Park District asked Openlands to assist with a planting of 40 sugar maples. On May 8, our Forestry Team assisted volunteers from North Park Village Nature Center and the Chicago Park District in the tree planting. Check out a video from the workday:
Since 2013, Openlands has worked with volunteers and the Chicago Park District to plant nearly 300 trees at North Park Village Nature Center as part of the Park District’s efforts to steward healthy habitats. It’s truly a spectacular community resource and we strongly encourage you to check it out.
Step in to Chicago’s Garfield Park Conservatory and step back in time and to a whole different world. Between the towering trees, tropical plants, vibrant flowers, the gorgeous displays, and stunning architecture, it almost feels more like an immersive art experience than a walk through the garden.
The Conservatory is truly one of Chicago’s greatest treasures: it houses one of the country’s best horticultural collections and gorgeous landscaping, it is an architectural wonder with elements designed by the famous landscape architect Jens Jensen, and it is an excellent community asset. You can spend your day wandering among the collections of plants, enjoying a free guided tour or educational program, or letting your kids explore nature in their own way, making it a great spot for visitors of all ages.
The Garfield Park Conservatory is owned and operated by the Chicago Park District and is home to thousands of plant species, spread through eight different indoor gardens. In the warmer months, visitors can spend some extra time wandering the 10-acres of outdoor gardens.
There are definitely some spectacular spots in the Conservatory to snap a photo, so be sure to bring your camera or phone and share what you find. Tag your Instagram posts with #DiscoverYourPlace to be featured on our stream and please share with us the highlights from your adventure! And something to keep in mind: the Conservatory is a pretty great spot for a date.
The 2018 Midterm elections are (almost) over, and the results are important for conservation. New leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives, Illinois Governor’s Mansion, and on county boards throughout our region offers opportunities to re-assert conservation priorities at all levels of government. Here are a few results that are especially noteworthy:
- Federal: The greater Chicago region will have new leadership in two House of Representative Districts: the 6th District, which encompasses Deer Grove Forest Preserve and many other forest preserves in Cook, McHenry, Kane, and Lake counties, and the 14th District, which includes Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. Both winning candidates have strong backgrounds in science and healthcare.
- Illinois: Many candidates who campaigned on environmental and renewable energy topics won statewide offices, including Governor, Attorney General, and Treasurer. A strong slate of State House and Senate candidates will also be working with Openlands and our partners to advance strong environmental policies in Springfield.
- Other states: Wisconsin will also have a new Governor, who can re-assert wetlands and air quality protections that were waived by his predecessor. Proving that open space has national and bipartisan appeal, California, Georgia, the City of Austin, and at least 46 other state and local governments passed open space funding referenda worth more than $5.7 billion this year, according to the Trust for Public Land’s LandVote database. However, Washington State voters failed again to pass a sweeping carbon tax program.
- Local governments: Closer to home, county boards will now include more familiar (and friendly) faces. They will also include many new names, including 6 new Commissioners in Cook County, as well as new party leadership of county boards in Lake and Will counties. Strong leaders at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District were re-elected and another long-time champion for clean water was added to their ranks.
Thank you for voting to elect such a strong slate of environmental leaders to govern us, and please turn out again during Chicago’s citywide elections on February 26, 2019. We at Openlands will continue to work collaboratively with new and returning elected officials to advance conservation issues at all levels of government. We invite you to continue telling these elected officials that conservation matters to us all!
We need you to continue making your voice heard with our elected officials, even today. Take a look at our ongoing advocacy campaigns and speak up today for our environment.
On the chilly morning of Saturday, October 13, Openlands teamed-up with partners on Chicago’s Southeast Side for a tree planting at Indian Ridge Marsh. Joining us at the planting were team members from the Student Conservation Association (SCA), Audubon Great Lakes, the Chicago Park District, The Wetlands Initiative (TWI), and the U Chicago Lab School.
Indian Ridge Marsh is a 154-acre native marsh and wet prairie habitat in the Calumet region. It sits as part of an extraordinary network of adjacent natural areas on the Southeast Side including Wolf Lake, the Calumet River, Big Marsh, and Lake Calumet. The Calumet Wetlands Working Group — which includes The Wetlands Institute, the Chicago Park District, and Audubon Great Lakes — has been restoring Indian Ridge Marsh since 2016 as part of an important conservation effort that will inform restoration and management of remnant wetland sites across the Calumet area.
Healthy and stewarded natural areas are part of the green mosaic of vibrant, resilient urban environments. They help clean our air, manage stormwater, house our region’s biodiversity, and provide a place of respite from our hectic urban centers. Due to pressure of invasive species, climate change, and development, it is essential to actively manage these open spaces, with native tree planting as a key component.
Volunteers spent their morning planting trees and shrubs in the natural areas at Indian Ridge Marsh. We planted bur oaks, swamp white oaks, and hop-hornbeam, as well as hazelnut trees, hackberry trees, dogwoods, and more! The morning was organized as part of the Openlands TreePlanters Grants program, which provides communities in Chicago and southern Cook County plant new trees in their neighborhood.
“A big thank you to our partners at the Park District, SCA, TWI, Audubon Great Lakes, and Lab School for providing crews, equipment, knowledge, and enthusiasm to plant these trees,” said Michael Dugan, Openlands Director of Forestry. “This was truly a collaborative effort of conservation organizations, stewards, and volunteers in our city and region.”
You can check out our photos from the community tree planting below. If you’re interested in volunteering with Openlands tree planting program, check out our upcoming events here. Our applications for the Spring 2019 TreePlanters Grants will open in January. For more information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Openlands is thrilled to announce Peoples Gas as the Principal Sponsor of the Building School Gardens program for the next three years. Their generous support will allow Openlands’ ongoing efforts to provide support and resources to Chicago Public Schools that have already installed gardens through the program.
Launched in 2007, the Building School Gardens program currently supports 58 Chicago Public Schools. Openlands hosts workshops for teachers, leads garden workdays for the school community, and works closely with leadership at the schools to create sustainable gardens and expand environmental education. Through this program, approximately 33,000 students are directly impacted by the school gardens each day in addition to the hundreds of teachers, parents, and community members.
“We are thrilled to support this initiative to provide students the opportunity to learn and play in an environment that encourages them to connect with nature and learn about it in a hands-on way,” said Mary Houpt, Peoples Gas Manager of Community Partnerships.
Photo: Allison Williams
Coming Soon — School Field Trips!
With the generous support of Peoples Gas, Openlands is now excited to announce that we can expand the Building School Gardens program to provide deeper connections to nature for students and their families during weekend trips to nearby large-scale landscapes such as Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Deer Grove Forest Preserve, or Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge.
Family field trips to some of the region’s best natural areas are a phenomenal way to ground what students learn in their outdoor classrooms and through environmental education lessons. Research also demonstrates that positive experiences in nature with a trusted adult are an predictor of future environmental stewards, and this informs the core of our education programs. Openlands is excited to have this new layer in our school partnerships because we know deeper relationships will lead to stronger advocates for the environment.
“A school campus is often the heart of a neighborhood and having a school with lush gardens and safe green spaces makes people want to stay, visit, and be present in their community,” said Openlands’ Vice President of Community Conservation Daniella Pereira. “Hosting workshops for the teachers, working with the students, and having the support from families and school staff has been essential to building the relationships that make a green campus a true asset. We’re honored to be invited into these school communities and we are so excited to keep the work going with the support of Peoples Gas.”
Peoples Gas, a subsidiary of WEC Energy Group (NYSE: WEC), is a regulated natural gas delivery company that serves approximately 830,000 residential, commercial and industrial customers in the city of Chicago. You can find more information about natural gas safety, energy efficiency and other energy-related topics at peoplesgasdelivery.com.
Openlands commits to long-term relationships with our Chicago Public School partners, working with students to see nature in a school garden, around their neighborhoods, and across landscapes. As our expertise in environmental education has grown over the years, we have developed new programs to help students recognize the nature around them and to engage entire school communities in conservation.
For more information on our education programs, please contact email@example.com.