fbpx

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

Why Openlands Has Joined A Lawsuit Against The City of Joliet

By Openlands’ Senior Counsel, Stacy Meyers

Founding Board President, Jeff Short, once said, “You’ve got to save the land at least twice from all the threats that come later after you preserve it.” Jeff’s statement rang true when Openlands led a coalition of 30 partners to successfully fight against the Illiana Tollway, which would have paved over thousands of acres of prime farmland and federally protected wildlife at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, and it rings true again today as Openlands joins another fight to protect Midewin.

At the end of November, Openlands joined Sierra Club and Say No To Northpoint in a request to intervene in a lawsuit in State Circuit Court against the City of Joliet for violating its own ordinances, adopting an agreement that predetermined legislation, and proceeding with an unlawful zoning process to bring NorthPoint Intermodal Facility to the city, placing Midewin in harm’s way along with residents in the shadow of the project.

Intermodal facilities and warehouses have increasingly populated the Joliet area, from planned development in clustered industrial areas, like Centerpoint, to haphazard megalith proposals that are out of sync with and would needlessly sacrifice local communities and globally significant natural resources. NorthPoint – a proposed 4.5 square mile warehousing and intermodal facility – would steamroll over rural agricultural villages and townships that have fought tooth and nail to protect their homes and way of life. Dropped down about 8 miles from any interstate, the intermodal would destroy or seriously degrade local roads, rerouting trucks away from consensus-born billion dollar traffic solutions.  An additional 53,000 cars and trucks per day would infuse the area with pollution and noise, adding to serious traffic issues that have resulted in the deaths of local residents. Veterans have increasingly come out in opposition to the project as damaging to the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery, interrupting funeral processions and compressing traffic in what is supposed to be a peaceful resting place for soldiers who fought for our country. It is a wasteful, disrespectful, damaging mess.  And yet, CenterPoint remains a third vacant, and warehouses in Joliet lie empty.   

The damage from NorthPoint would spill over into the globally imperilled landscapes of Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, which has been a poster child for restoring iconic prairie and wetlands, where hundreds of kinds of wildlife live and rest. Midewin is home to some of the rarest habitat in the world, with hundreds of acres left – some say that is rarer than the rarest rainforest.  The constant intrusion of light, noise, pollution and vibration as a result of the increased traffic and infrastructure required to make room for the facility will harm this place, rendering it hospitable for the rapidly declining species of birds, bats, and other wildlife that it was created to shelter. More than that, it robs the area and this part of the Midwest of a substantial ecotourism opportunity, which has been burgeoning with millions of dollars in government tax dollars and philanthropic support.  

Along with ecological damages, NorthPoint poses a severe danger for Joliet residents, whose water supply is at serious risk. Northpoint will pull one million gallons of water out of an aquifer that is vital to Joliet and surrounding communities, when the City is already on the brink of a water crisis. Two studies have warned that the City will fail to meet its peak water demand by 2030, and that if it takes severe conservation measures, it can secure and pipe to a new water source. The water could start to run dry as early as one to six years if the City fails to adequately act. The studies warned that these projections were based on no new major demands on its water supply. Yet, Joliet would allow NorthPoint to draw out 1,000 gallons of water per minute, without even studying how this huge amount of water could accelerate the City’s crisis and cause wells in the area to drop substantially.

With so many damages and risks posed by one facility, you would think that the City of Joliet would pause to think how we could accommodate freight in other areas that wouldn’t result in such draconian sacrifices. Yet, Joliet has proceeded with its plan to welcome NorthPoint to the city, ignoring its own process, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy with an annexation agreement that so far has in effect sold legislation.  All the long, it is exposing Joliet to great risk through exorbitant infrastructure costs, unmanageable traffic, water loss, needlessly sacrificed jobs in other industries, and damage to public lands. One of the main arguments that drives the decision to welcome intermodal facilities to a city is the expectation that they will bring in jobs and stimulate the local economy. However, the project brings more risk than benefit to Joliet. NorthPoint in past applications required $50 million in tax increment financing for the project to succeed, and the project numbers simply do not add up. What NorthPoint doesn’t say is it is generating jobs by needlessly sacrificing jobs in other industries. This is a false choice resulting from a horrible location. At a time of great division and skyrocketing unemployment, residents of Joliet and our region need to unite behind better answers. 

Openlands was part of the delegation that once met in the mid nineties to envision how we could transform a shuttered World War 2 ammunition plant into a mosaic of complementary industry, agriculture, and beautiful vast open space. There, Midewin Tallgrass Prairie and Lincoln National Cemetery were born, and roads were planned to quickly move trucks onto nearby interstates. This collective of municipalities, agencies, economic and public interest groups are again meeting as part of a regional planning initiative called Moving Will County. As a stakeholder, Openlands sees this as a way to break gridlock, move beyond the controversial stalemate of NorthPoint, and find a way to once again build consensus around smart solutions.    

Openlands has joined a legal fight, alongside people who live and farm in this special place, because as an organization, we believe that, to be competitive on a global scale, the protection of nature and jobs creation can and must coexist, and that it is imperative that we work together with all the partners for a more equitable, resilient, healthy land-use solution. By stopping the NorthPoint facility, we will clear the way for all industries to thrive alongside centennial farms, allowing for the full promise of a flourishing, majestic Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie for all of us and generations to come to visit and experience. You can get involved with the fight in three ways:

1.    Show up to meetings and hearings

2.    Contact your local representatives

3.    Contact your county and state representatives

For more information on how to get involved locally, visit Say No to NorthPoint.  

How Estate Planning With Conservation Easements Can Leave You A Legacy Of Stewardship

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

Our land and our homes are often the most important purchase that we ever make. The purchase is a reflection of our roots, our values, our families, and are very often the greatest asset that we have to give our children: a legacy for future generations. This Monday, October 19th kicks off the 2020 National Estate Planning Awareness Week. Congress acknowledged the power of “preserving assets built over a lifetime for the benefit of family, heirs, or charities” in its 2008 Resolution that designates this week. Yet the National Association of Estate Planners & Councils (NAEPC) estimates that more than half of Americans still do not have an updated estate plan.

As part of charting the course for the future of our families and the protection of beautiful private lands and waters in our region, conservation easements offer an often overlooked but powerful estate planning tool. People who own land can voluntarily enter into an agreement to sell or donate its development potential to a land trust or conservation agency to protect it. Since the vast majority of our open space is held in private hands, conservation easements are a way that people can be part of the solution for our communities to be healthier, protected from flooding, friendlier to wildlife and more resilient to climate change.

In addition to preserving our finest natural and agricultural lands, selling or donating a conservation easement offers substantial economic benefits. Selling the development value through a conservation easement can allow people to reinvest now in their agricultural businesses or help put their child through college. People who donate conservation easements can deduct up to 50 percent of their income over fifteen years, up to the value of the conservation easement. Doing so lowers property taxes, which means that the next generation can more easily afford to live on and enjoy the land while protecting beautiful natural landscapes.

Conservation easements are landowner friendly in that each agreement is tailored to their desires and needs and is a reflection of the specific conservation values of their land. These voluntary, intentional private agreements allow a family to decide everything from how the land will be used, and whether it will be open to the public, to how it will be maintained and cared for by the organization. Easements enable families to continue to live on their land for generations, while realizing enormous tax benefits for protecting our most beautiful places.

A similar type of agreement, the Agricultural Conservation Easement, allows a family to continue to live in a beautiful rural space and protect the water and land in ways meaningful to them.  People can continue to work the land and ensure the next generation can step into their shoes when they are gone. Agricultural easements afford a choice of partners to ensure the land is protected forever.

These easements can even be acquired using federal funding should you choose not to donate the land through programs such as the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, especially in some of the most beautiful parts of our state, like Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. In addition, easements can be fantastic tools to defend against major threats to the agricultural industry on your own terms. When agricultural communities choose to maintain their character and culture, easements provide one of the tools they need to do just that.

Conservation easements may also overlap with nature preserves, affording these special places an added level of protection. A prime example of the success of this strategy is the Liberty Prairie Reserve, a nearly 6,000-acre patchwork quilt of public and private protections with landowners enjoying the benefits of their easements’ protections and tax benefits. This preserve is a living, breathing, healthy network of beautiful natural landscapes and farmland in Lake County. It is protected and cared for by local government bodies, passionate advocates and stewards, and many private landowners that love their land and want to be part of a natural legacy.  

Preserving your land through a conservation easement can involve planning, complex decisions and expense, but as Stephen J. Small, a leading authority on private land protection, explains, “In a much broader sense, . . . the deep satisfaction of permanently preserving [your] own land far outweighs any of the short-term work and costs.” If you are considering options to conserve your land, Openlands is be happy to answer any questions you might have. Please feel free to contact us at land@openlands.org for further information or visit our website.

Solberg Manufacturing Explains The Importance Of Environmental Stewardship Within Business

By: Openlands Communications Coordinator, Lucia Whalen

On a hot summer August morning in the parking lot of Solberg Manufacturing, Charlie Solberg waters a thriving bush of asparagus in a garden that spans 250 feet. A random passerby might look curiously on the scene, given that it is 11am on a Thursday and Charlie is dressed in business casual.

Charlie Solberg is the CEO of Solberg Manufacturing, a B-Corp and leader in the production of filtration, silencing, and oil mist elimination systems. Solberg Manufacturing sets the standard for corporate environmental stewardship and social responsibility by engaging employees in volunteer opportunities, donating 1% of yearly sales to various nonprofit organizations and supporting Openlands as a Corporate Member, and implementing environmentally sustainable practices at their headquarters in Itasca, Illinois. 

Charlie Solberg in the garden with Solberg Manufacturing employees. Staff are encouraged to participate in the garden and take home food. Crops grown this year include grapes, blackberries, broccoli, beets, cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, brussels sprouts, kale, beans, corn, asparagus, zucchini, and pumpkins.

The business is family-owned by Charlie and Tor Solberg. Charlie’s two sons Chad and Travis currently work in sales and sustainability and his daughter Sarah works in international sales development. Travis, who works as the Chief Sustainability Steward for Solberg, helped Tor in securing the company’s B-Corp designation in 2011.

Solberg Manufacturing is Openlands’ first Corporate Member, and according to Chad and Travis, they made their decision to donate to Openlands in part because of their desire to support the Great Lakes and focus on supporting local environmental organizations. Water and trees are at the top of their funding priorities, and Solberg donates just over 50% of their charitable giving to environmental organizations.

Solberg Manufacturing was founded in 1968 when Charles Solberg Sr., Charlie’s father, invented a tubular silencer design for small air compressors for industrial equipment. In 1980, Charles Solberg Jr. (Charlie) introduced a filter silencer, which limits the noise made by machinery and protects employees from noise pollution. Solberg’s contaminant-removal products can now be found internationally in a wide range of industries, including pharmaceuticals, plastics, oil and gas, waste and recycling, and power generation, to name a few. Charlie runs the business with his brother, Tor, who is President of Solberg Manufacturing. 

The Solberg family is committed to environmental stewardship on all levels of the company, which Chad and Travis attribute to their grandfather’s influence.  

“From the beginning, our grandpa was nature-minded. He got us all started on that path and now “We Love Our Planet” is one of our six guiding principles. Our owners and personnel embody this spirit every day and our communal garden is living proof,” Chad said. Along with the expansive garden, which all employees are encouraged to work on and take food from, the Itasca campus boasts an impressive orchard of fruit trees and berry bushes. Natalie, who works at the production plant, picks wild black raspberries and blackberries, and shares the dishes she prepares with other employees. Apple, pear, peach, apricot, and plum trees stand outside Solberg headquarters, and blackberry bushes and grape vines line the side of the building.

Travis picks black raspberries from one of the bushes that lines Solberg Manufacturing’s headquarters.

Across the street from Solberg headquarters stands one of the company’s manufacturing facilities whose roof is covered in solar panels; the panels are responsible for over 100% of the energy production in the facility. Behind the building, a sign provides information on the native prairie butterfly garden that extends along the side of the building. There, Travis keeps a hive of bees that produce honey.

While many companies think that incorporating environmentally friendly practices into their operations is too expensive, Travis says that that belief is incorrect.

“For solar energy, that initial cost is a lot, but you can work with banks or different installers to pay for it. Our first building got solar panels in 2010 and our ROI [return on investment] commenced in 2018. It’s worth taking the time to investigate,” he said.  

Environmental stewardship is one of their values, and Chad explained how being profitable allows Solberg to support this very important value:

“We’re trying to be a company that has purpose and guiding principles. We consciously make an effort to make a positive impact on our planet and we appropriate funding to make that happen. Whether that’s donating a percentage of sales every year like we do with Openlands or analyzing our manufacturing processes like Travis does.”

The Solberg Prairie Garden sits behind one of the company’s buildings in Itasca, Illinois. Bees from a hive across from the Garden pollinate the plants and produce honey.

Solberg Manufacturing became an Openlands Corporate Member in 2014 and has increased their support over time. Solberg’s increased support allowed for Openlands’ purchase of Salsa, an advocacy platform that has been utilized to raise public awareness about campaigns including the Urban Forestry Advisory Board (UFAB) Ordinance and the Federal passage of the Land and Water Conservation Fund

“We want to be leaders in our industry as it relates to environmental impact because it’s important and we feel like other companies will and should do so as well,” Chad said.  

As Corporate Members, Solberg Manufacturing receives recognition for their support, including this blog post, a lunch and learn opportunity, and other ways to engage their employees in Openlands’ work across the region.

Click here for more information on how to become a Corporate Member, or contact Kate Schriner, Manager of Institutional Giving, at kschriner@openlands.org. 

*Cover photo of solar panels courtesy of Solberg Manufacturing

Why Mussel Loss Is Harming Freshwater Streams And How It Could Affect Our Drinking Water

By Openlands

Before the buttons that fasten our coats and dress shirts were made from plastic, buttons were made from the shells of freshwater mussels here in the Midwest. And while most people don’t give buttons a second thought, the tiny ornament is responsible for setting in motion the decimation of freshwater mussels in Illinois and surrounding states, threatening species that are crucial for maintaining water quality and ecosystem diversity in waterways. Currently, 72% of the roughly 300 species of freshwater mussels in the United States are extinct or in danger of extinction, which is why Openlands has teamed up with the Shedd Aquarium on a long-term mussel monitoring project at Hoffman Farm. The farm is one of five sites Openlands is currently working to protect in support of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge and is the inherited family farm of Elena Spiegelhoff, which Spiegelhoff donated to preserve the natural beauty of the area. Hoffman Farm has been preserved through a partnership between The Land Conservancy of McHenry County and Openlands. The farm spans 153 acres and sits just north or Glacial Park within Hackmatack Wildlife Refuge. Nippersink Creek, where the long-term monitoring project takes place, runs through Hoffman farm. The project seeks to understand whether reproduction and equally important, survival of all ages, is occurring within North Branch Nippersink Creek.

Beginning in the late 1800’s, the banks of the Mississippi River became a destination for clammers, as the waters were teeming with mussels whose shells were used to make pearl buttons. From the banks of the Mississippi and waterways in Illinois and Iowa, a multi-million dollar industry was born. Button factories lined the Mississippi River, and entire communities thrived on the emerging industry. However, harvesting was fully unregulated, and when one stream bed was emptied, clammers simply moved on to the next. In 1913 the harvests from the Illinois River yielded almost 600 tons of shells. Historically, Chicago had a rich and diverse population of mussels: The Des Plaines River and Lake Michigan tributaries had roughly 34 species, while the Fox River had 31 and the Kankakee River and basin had 40 species. In 2012, the Illinois Natural History Survey reported 19 species of mussel in the Des Plaines River basin and the Lake Michigan tributaries in Illinois. Of these 19, only 9 were found live. 

Freshwater mussels are crucial for filtering water and maintaining stream biodiversity. Mussels are also an indicator species of pollutants in waterways. Most mussels are like a brita filter for streams, which can be demonstrated by filling two aquariums with cloudy, dirty water. After 24 hours, the aquarium’s water with mussels is almost entirely clear. Of course, there are exceptions, and the invasive Zebra Mussel in the Great Lakes is so overpopulated that they make the water too clear, which has increased toxic algae blooms and deprived other species of food.

Photo courtesy of the Delaware Estuary Water Clarity Project

Healthy waterways are essential to the resilience of our region, which is why Openlands has been involved in monitoring mussel populations throughout the Chicago region. Openlands worked with partners to produce A Field Guide to the Freshwater Mussels of Chicago Wilderness in 2008, in order to encourage the monitoring of mussels in Chicago waterways. Now, Openlands is partnered with the Shedd Aquarium at Hoffman Farm in a long-term monitoring project. Shedd Aquarium staff set up nine monitoring sites in North Branch Nippersink Creek at Hoffman Farm in 2019. Based on the diversity of species they found at each site, they chose one area for long-term monitoring. Over a three-day period, all the live mussels in the area were caught, brought on shore to be measured, had their rings counted (similar to tree, mussels have rings that show their age), genetically sampled, then pit tagged before being put back in in the water. Pit tagging is similar to microchipping a pet and allows each mussel to be located and identified from year to year.

The main purpose of the long-term monitoring project is to monitor the survival over time of mussels in the system, including how individuals are surviving and whether reproduction is occurring. Mussels have a long lifespan that extends on average 60 years. However, while older mussels may still be abundant in streams, the young mussels may not be able to survive, resulting in a loss of the population over time.

Mussel larvae are called glochidia, which attach to fish in their early years to survive before becoming juveniles who can survive on their own. Younger mussels can be extremely sensitive to pollution. For example, fat mucket glochidia are sensitive to chloride levels and ellipse glochidia are sensitive to ammonia. So even if older mussels are surviving, younger mussels might not be able to survive because of pollutants from runoff, nearby industry, or a loss of fish hosts for glochidia.

Currently, 12 different mussel species are tagged at the long-term monitoring site at Hoffman Farm. While the button industry may have been the initial antagonist of freshwater mussel loss, our modern polluting practices, like salting winter roads and using waterways as dumping sites for industries, have exacerbated the problem and posed new threats to this endangered taxa. 

Through the work at Hoffman Farm, we hope to understand the survival of our local freshwater mussels and identify whether populations are holding their own at Hackmatack. The health and biodiversity of our waterways depends on the survival of these tiny powerhouses.

Ancestral Connections to Nature: Approaching Community Engagement through Conversations about a Community’s History

By Openlands Community Outreach Coordinator, Jennifer Idrovo

This blog reflects my own personal experience as an environmentalist of color and daughter of immigrants. I want to acknowledge that there is no singular immigrant or BIPOC experience and that every journey is multidimensional. I am using my personal experience to explore one piece of the complex immigrant experience.

In the 1980’s, my parents left their home country with the hope of pursuing a better life in the United States. My parents are from the Andean region of Ecuador, a rich landscape where agriculture is the biggest industry. My parents learned to harvest hominy, beans, and fruit from a young age. Millions of families from Latin America and all over the world have migrated to the United States leaving their loved ones and homes behind. Some leave escaping poverty or violence and others migrate to pursue more opportunities. In 2017, more than 44 million people living in the United States migrated from another country. Immigrants have settled all across the United States, particularly in urban areas where there is more opportunity for employment. In this blog, I explore how some immigrant families redefine their connection to nature when adapting to a new country. 

My family lives in Chicago’s Southwest side, a region of the city that disproportionately has fewer health, economic, and educational resources compared to more affluent areas in the city. The presence of green spaces, such as public parks and community gardens, improves air quality and health rates. The West, Southwest, and South side neighborhoods have significantly less green spaces than the rest of the city, resulting in poorer air quality and higher temperatures that negatively impacts asthma and other health issues, and increased flooding, which affects quality of life and property values. Like many social inequalities, these disparities stem from racist and prejudiced policies such as the 1930s’ Federal Home Owners Loan Corporation that created credit worthiness maps, which led to official policies of redlining as late as 1977, and more recently predatory lending practices. 

As an environmentalist of color, it’s important for me to understand the origin of redlining and how communities are continuously impacted by it. It’s also important for me to respect a community’s historical connection to nature and think about how I can incorporate that knowledge into my work as the Community Outreach Coordinator at Openlands. When I meet with community members, I make it a priority to ask them about what nature means to them and their families. I use this understanding to develop unique opportunities for them to interact with nature in ways that are meaningful for them. In my role, I engage communities on the Southwest Side to create open spaces and build advocates for nature. Collaboration with community leaders is a vital part of my engagement plan. 

To my conservation colleagues working with immigrant and BIPOC communities, It’s important to recognize the following: 

  • The conservation world can feel intimidating for folks who don’t fit the white, wealthy, and able-bodied stereotype of the outdoors 
  • Give community members the opportunity to discuss what nature means to them and use this understanding to frame a program. Folks will be more invested in a program if the content is centered around their experience
  • Community engagement is not a one-size-fits all approach and it takes time. Be patient and flexible with your approach to engaging communities.

I’ve attended meetings that weren’t accessible for community residents and not much was accomplished. In contrast, I’ve attended meetings that were centered around community participation. In these conversations, folks felt comfortable to share their priorities and goals for their neighborhoods. I’ve found that people are more connected to the work if they have been involved in the planning process and have a sense of ownership in a project.

Walking down the street of my childhood home, I see many immigrant and Latinx neighbors planting gardens and harvesting their own food. They tell stories of how their parents taught them to harvest food in their home countries and how they’re passing this knowledge to their children and grandchildren. When I travel to Ecuador, I visit the countryside and I think about my grandparents teaching my parents the agricultural knowledge they’ve passed down for generations. I’ve reclaimed my ancestral connection to nature by honoring my family’s history with the outdoors and recognizing that nature is a deep part of my culture.

Photo courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

Why Chicago Needs an Urban Forestry Advisory Board

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!

Update:

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.

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. 

What WOTUS Rollbacks Mean for Clean Water

By Molly Kordas, Openlands Staff Attorney

On June 22, 2020 the Trump Administration’s new definition of “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) will become effective, concluding a highly controversial four-year process to repeal and replace the Obama-era Clean Water Rule (CWR).

So what does “WOTUS” mean?

The Clean Water Act (CWA) was passed “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.” But what exactly did Congress mean by “the Nation’s waters”?

This is the crux of the WOTUS issue: In the context of environmental laws founded upon essential cooperation between federal and state governments, which waters did Congress intend to be governed federally? And what constitutes “water?” Is it simply rivers, lakes, and streams that we can see flowing year-round, or did Congress intend to recognize that all water is connected?

Properly defining the scope of the CWA is vital to giving effect to the Act’s protections and achieving its purpose. “WOTUS” has been revised many times in attempts to clarify which waters are regulated under the CWA. But in that first rewriting of the Act in 1972, Rep. Dingell said that the bill “define[d] the term ‘navigable waters’ broadly for water quality purposes” and that the term “clearly encompasses all water bodies, including their main streams and their tributaries.” And Rep. Jones said that Congress sought to “proclaim to all Americans that Congress has the will and the leadership to save our priceless waters from the degradation that is fast destroying them.”

In short, Congress saw pollution wreaking havoc on waters across the country: Rivers were on fire. Public health was under threat from cancerous pollutants and toxic poisons. Congress responded with a comprehensive law, resolving to make all our waters “fishable and swimmable” by 1983 and to eliminate all discharges of pollutants in our waters by 1985. This was an ambitious goal then, and one that continues to drive us today; but it is a difficult balance between federal and state responsibility.

Why is this new rule such a big deal?

For decades, the scope of the CWA has been debated and litigated, resulting in a messy patchwork of federal law. Several administrations have attempted to clarify the scope of the CWA, all of which proved controversial. The 2015 CWR led to three years of litigation, many arguing the CWR expanded the scope far beyond what Congress intended. In response, the Trump Administration almost immediately ran in the opposite direction, repealing the rule and replacing it with the narrowest definition of WOTUS in nearly 50 years.

A 2017 executive order required agencies to review and rescind the CWR and revise the rule “in a manner consistent with the opinion of Justice Scalia in Rapanos.” Justice Scalia’s narrow interpretation of the CWA in that case, however, differed significantly from Justice Kennedy’s opinion which formed the basis of the Obama Administration’s CWR. Given President Trump’s passionate advocacy for deregulation, it is not difficult to understand why he chose Justice Scalia’s interpretation as the guiding principle for the new rule.

Traditionally, the WOTUS definition includes standard categories. The Trump Administration removed the category of “interstate waters” in its entirety and made significant changes other categories, two of which are:

The new rule eliminates the CWR’s “significant nexus test” which determined WOTUS status of adjacent waters and tributaries based on their ecological nexus with another WOTUS. The definition also excludes any tributaries with only ephemeral flow, or waters that flow only in response to precipitation. This excludes many headwater streams, which sustain the health of the entire downriver system, making up roughly 50% of total stream miles in the U.S. 

The rule also excludes wetlands lacking a “direct hydrologic surface connection” to another WOTUS. Wetlands provide habitat for more than 40% of Illinois’ threatened and endangered species. They also control flooding, prevent erosion, and remove sediment, nutrients, and toxic chemicals from runoff water. Furthermore, geographically isolated wetlands without a surface connection remain hydrologically connected and perform many of the same functions as adjacent wetlands.

This new rule has left many wetlands and headwater streams unprotected and vulnerable to degradation and destruction. Excluding categories of waterbodies essential to water quality from the definition is dangerous and out of step with the entire purpose of the CWA. While we have certainly not seen the end of this debate, it’s important that the environmental community looks further into the future, and these questions are particularly relevant now as we celebrate American Wetlands Month in May.

What do we want the future to look like? Is it still our goal that all waters be fishable and swimmable? We can’t afford not to. Advocating for a more permanent legislative fix, that listens to scientists, could finally renew our nation’s commitment to a clean, resilient, and healthy environment for all people.

You can learn more about WOTUS and Openlands work advocating for its protection through this webinar.