From Resolution to Action: 4 nature-based policy recommendations for Chicago’s climate resilience

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.