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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.  

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

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.

With more record rainfall, we need Nature-Based Solutions

This past week saw a flurry of records. Thursday, May 14th and Sunday, May 17th each saw record precipitation for those individual days. Looking at data for year to date, we are far ahead of past trends. The recent storms have flooded yards, basements, and caused the Greater Chicago Metropolitan Water Reclamation District to reverse the flow of the Chicago River back into Lake Michigan. In a normal year, Chicago receives 35 inches to 40 inches of rain per year, mostly in steady summer increments. We are already at half of that total with 6.5 months remaining, and our historically wettest season to come. 

Last June, Openlands published a blog on increased rain and its regional impact for the spring of 2019. This blog corresponded mainly with the intersection of the release of new data by the Illinois Geological Survey empirically showing increased rainfall and farmers inability to plant their fields due to the wet weather. While it is too early yet to know what the rest of the spring will bear, this past week of rainfall indicate that Midwest projections released over consecutive National Climate Assessments are eerily correct: more precipitation in winter and spring.

What can be done? Openlands’ partners offer great solutions. Friends of the River has begun issuing Overflow Action Day alerts that notify people to put off running dishwashers, washing machines, and to take shorter showers during intense weather events to help relieve local flooding and combined sewer overflows. Combined sewers are an outdated method of dealing with both stormwater and sewage. When too much rain overwhelms the system, stormwater and sewage water are combined and flow directly into Chicago area waterways. Chicago’s Deep Tunnel System (TARP,) Rain barrels, sump pumps and other solutions also work.

These solutions are all necessary, but, Openlands argues that in the face of a changing climate, society needs every tool in the toolbox. And there is no better tool than nature itself – in the form of nature-based solutions. A single mature tree can prevent 2000 gallons of rainwater from hitting the ground and entering stormwater sewer systems per year. Openlands forestry program works with communities to plant trees to improve our urban forest to help mitigate local flooding and climate change impacts. The Space To Grow program is an advanced form of nature-based solutions that reduces neighborhood flooding while offering powerful benefits to rehabilitating Chicago Public School schoolyards like exercise, outdoor education and nature based play in park poor communities. Openlands farmland and urban agriculture policy work as well as our restoration work also help to relieve local flooding during times like this. Our restoration work decreases runoff into local streams by 94% and 110 million gallons less flow into the streams and waterways.

There are many others that are actions individuals and organizations can take to mitigate flooding, such as green roofs, raingardens, bioswales, and permeable pavers or simply planting a tree or native plants on your property. Openlands supports and applauds them all not only in our effort to connect people to nature where you live, but also by putting the nature around us to work for the betterment of Chicago and our region.

To Effectively Combat Climate Change, We Need Environmental Justice

by Tolu Olorode, Manager of Data and Impact

It is known that climate change is rapidly changing American neighborhoods and the built environment. America’s most vulnerable populations, historically and systematically under-resourced communities of color, are more intensely affected by the environmental effects of climate change. With recent reports showing the staggering disparities in COVID-19 deaths in African Americans and other communities of color, the veil has been lifted to illustrate how environmental injustice can have monumental effects on entire populations.

To that end, one of the organizations we highlight below is fighting hard for justice at this very moment. In recent days, a cloud of dust from the demolition of a smokestack of a defunct coal plant covered a section of the Little Village neighborhood, endangering thousands of residents. LVEJO is calling advocates across the region to hold industry partners responsible for this very clear and deliberate display of environmental racism.

Openlands stands together with LVEJO and encourages our supporters to sign the petition to compel key stakeholders, including the State of Illinois, Hilco and the City of Chicago, to provide immediate relief to the Little Village community. This is one of many examples that illustrate the environmental challenges facing urban areas, and especially black and brown communities.   

We know that in urban areas there tends to be more asphalt and pollution, and less grass, open space, and trees. This contributes to the urban heat island effect that disproportionately affect communities of color. These higher temperatures actually create more air pollution, especially harmful ground-level ozone from fossil fuel burning and volatile organic compounds from farming and manufacturing.

Moreover, a recent study found that air pollution is disproportionately caused by the non-Hispanic white majority, but disproportionately inhaled by black and Latinx minorities. This is primarily because of systemic institutional practices, such as redlining, that pushed members of these communities to live in undesired urban neighborhoods by the white majority, and these areas have tended to have higher levels of pollution.   With the COVID-19 pandemic, we are seeing how the federally sanctioned rollbacks in air pollution regulations will only further adversely affect this communities.

We understand that there are other causes to segregation, not just redlining, including panic peddling, contract selling, the refusal of the government to approve of loans to People of Color, the GI Bill after WWII only being offered to white veterans, and more recently predatory lending practices.  Although these discriminatory practices are no longer legal, the effects are still being seen today as the climate changes.

While these populations are vulnerable, they are also resilient in many ways. Many neighborhood groups form long lasting action networks and task forces led by community members and leaders to demand changes to their areas.  These communities are putting environmental justice efforts at the top of their list of justice issues to tackle. As Openlands continues to advocate for nature-based solutions to climate change, we want to also look to and support our counterparts who have been doing this place-based work and serving these resilient populations for decades.  This is the first part in an ongoing series at Openlands, and I hope you’ll check back to learn about other great organizations and work being done soon.

Below are two organizations rooted in undeserved neighborhoods in Chicago (and statewide) that are addressing climate change issues on a grassroots level.

Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO)

For over 25 years, LVEJO has championed healthy environmental practices in Little Village (a historically Mexican-American neighborhood). They have been at the forefront of large opposition to air pollution by industrial companies in their neighborhood, and its effect on residents.  In fact, Openlands’ branch office located in Pilsen is across the street from the Fisk Generating Station – a source of fossil fuel pollution that LVEJO led the successful fight to close down. In relation to climate justice specifically, LVEJO has committed to a campaign with a specific goal to develop a local climate adaptation plan and create a climate vulnerability and assets index and mapping system. The community centered approach LVEJO takes allows for its residents to feel a deep connection to the work of the organization, and contributes to its success for all these years.

Faith in Place 

Using mosques, synagogues, and other houses of worship as anchors, Faith in Place empowers these already intact enclaves to lead a plethora of environmental justice efforts. This is an interfaith, statewide approach that taps community and faith leaders to entrust their congregations with programming ranging from addressing climate change community impacts to advocacy campaigns that challenge harmful environmental policies. In fact, Faith in Place has dedicated 2020 as their “Rooted in Climate Justice” year. For them, this means unpacking environmental racism and its roots in climate degradation and exploring possible solutions.In the past, Openlands and Faith in Place have partnered on the southwest side of the City to advance urban forestry efforts, tree planting, and skill building in relation to community greening to directly address neighborhood climate change concerns.   

We recognize the climate change fight is not going to be won in a vacuum and supporting the historically marginalized in our region only strengthens the endeavor. We’ve had relationships with both organizations in the past and believe our constituents should too. Support LVEJO here and Faith in Place here to sustain the collective effort for environmental and social justice.

There are others in the region doing impressive work as well that we hope you dig deeper to learn more about:

Clean Energy Jobs Act: Why it’s important, what nature-based solutions can contribute, and how you can support it now

By Andrew Szwak, Manager of Governmental Affairs

Across the globe, we’ve come to an economic halt with the disturbing rise of the COVID-19 pandemic. And with that halt, news coverage has noted the corollary drop in climate emissions

While emissions are down today, the havoc this pandemic has wreaked on our health, communities, jobs, and nation is immense. It is also a blow to our global climate reduction goals, with the potential to lose sight of our commitments. Instead, we must rise to this challenge and rethink how to drive our economy and meet climate objectives with nature-based approaches in mind.  

At Openlands, we have put strategic focus on dealing with climate change and the nature-based solutions that can mitigate it. Nature-based solutions can provide 37% of the carbon reductions the world needs to comply with the Paris Agreement, and yet it receives only 1-2% of the investment.

In Illinois, one of the biggest climate change initiatives has coalesced around state legislation called the Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA). A diverse coalition of labor supporters, utility groups, and environmental organizations wrote CEJA to address four fundamental priorities:

  1. Transition all energy generation to renewable sources by 2050,
  2. Remove all carbon from energy generation by 2030,
  3. Take 1 million gas and diesel vehicles off the roads, and
  4. Promote jobs and equitable economic opportunity in the process.

These are ambitious goals, and necessary to ensure thriving communities, economies, and ecologies in the future.  But we must ensure that nature-based jobs and economies are included. Our ability to advance nature-based solutions gives Openlands and conservation organizations like us a key role within the global movement to curb the climate crisis, and serve as important tools in Illinois’ arsenal to meet these ambitious goals.

So how should conservation and nature-based solutions fit into CEJA?

1.Renewable energy and nature-based solutions need new job training opportunities.

The transition to renewable energy requires technicians and project managers who know these new technologies and the regulations that govern them. Similarly, increasing nature-based solutions demands more ecologists, landscape architects, engineers, hydrologists, and agriculturalists with specialized knowledge of how to install and maintain them. CEJA plans to create job training hubs for individuals to learn renewable energy skills. We are requesting that these hubs also include opportunities to learn green infrastructure installation and maintenance, urban forestry, regenerative farming practices, and other essential skills to increase nature-based climate solutions.

2. CEJA authorizes local governments to create Community Energy and Climate Plans.

These plans will guide investments in renewable energy, transportation, and workforce development. They provide excellent opportunities to embed natural climate solutions into the suite of tools that Illinois communities will use to combat climate change. Rural communities in particular will be well-positioned to prioritize workforce training and funding for natural climate solutions into their efforts. Consequently, Openlands is advocating for mandatory consideration of natural resources and natural climate solutions in these Community Energy and Climate Plans. We also hope to use these plans to build momentum for more concerted efforts to incentivize nature-based solutions.

3. CEJA incentivizes new renewable energy installations, such as community solar and wind facilities.

Energy generated by these facilities will need connections to the electricity grid. Unfortunately, renewable energy in other states has followed dirty energy’s lead by targeting public lands for transmission and siting of new projects. Protected public lands, on which nature-based solutions are so abundant, should never be sacrificed to accommodate additional, and often redundant, energy infrastructure. Openlands is advocating strongly for CEJA to include better safeguards against destruction of protected lands related to new energy projects.

We are working hard to align CEJA more closely with the interests of conservation. WE NEED YOU to support our work with your own advocacy. Lend your voice to passing the Clean Energy Jobs Act by contacting your state legislators using this form and ask them to include nature-based climate solutions in the final bill.

Where is the nature in the Presidential Candidates solutions to climate change?

By Tolu Olorode, Manager of Data & Impact

There are many hot button issues for the 2020 United States Presidential election, and climate change is getting more and more attention. A recent Pew Research survey has shown most Americans said dealing with climate change should be a top priority for the president and Congress, rivaling economic and job concerns for the first time.

Openlands advocates for Nature Based Solutions (NBS) (also referred to as natural climate solutions). In the simplest terms, NBS utilize the natural environment to mitigate climate change impacts. Think planting native trees and plants in your backyard instead of putting in a cement patio to mitigate flooding in your neighborhood, protecting and acquiring natural landscapes that support diverse habitats, or passing legislation that protects bird migration patterns – these are all NBS policies, micro and macro, that support the ecosystems that naturally exist.

So why focus on nature to help solve our climate problems? Frankly, it presents us with one of the most common-sense solutions: working with nature will help heal the harm humans have done, in comparison to using new technology to solve the damage caused by older technology. Estimates show that using cost-effective NBS can provide 33% of climate mitigation needed between now and 2030 to stabilize global warming to below 2 °C, climate change’s magic number.

With many primaries coming up soon, we wanted to take a deeper dive into each candidate’s climate policy to determine how their nature-based solutions stack up, if they mentioned any at all. 

Before we jump right in, a couple things to note. This list includes running candidates and public plans and policies as of February 20, 2020, and all the that had policy plans had the following components, which we refer to as “The Green Three”:

  • Energy impacts and creating jobs
  • Re-joining the Paris Climate Agreement
  • Some sort of “punishment” to large industry polluters  

Republican Candidates

Donald J. Trump: No Policy or Plan.   

Bill Weld:  Climate Policy

Although the plan is not very detailed, Weld pledges to address “The Green Three”. There are no specific references or plans to address nature or natural climate solutions.

Democratic Candidates

Joe Biden: Joe’s Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice

The plan is very robust and chiefly concerned with “The Green Three”. There are no specific references or plans to address nature or natural climate solutions.

Mike Bloomberg:  Fighting for a Bright, Sustainable Future

Although hitting on the “The Green Three” quite hard, the plan takes an imprecise position on federal and local level nature related ideas. In discussing climate change resilience, the plan pledges various federal agencies will work with local communities to develop resilience strategies for natural areas and working lands, aimed to maximize protection against climate hazards and protect communities. It doesn’t determine whether these resilience strategies will be nature based. Bloomberg’s plan also aims to create block grants to help states and cities acquire and otherwise protect floodplains, wetlands, coastal salt marshes and other natural areas that are critical to protecting communities from extreme weather.

Pete Buttigieg: Mobilizing America: Rising to the Climate Challenge

This plan reflects the Green New Deal (see Sanders’s Plan below). However, Buttigieg specifically calls out wanting to promote conservation of forests and grasslands through voluntary conservation programs, tax incentives, and the carbon sequestration market. While this does not explicitly add to the NBS conversation, this inclusion does reiterate that nature-based approaches are possible.

Tulsi Gabbard: No Policy or Plan.

Amy Klobuchar: Senator Klobuchar’s Plan to Tackle the Climate Crisis

In addition to “The Green Three”, part of the plan gives space to the science community to conduct research and gain knowledge for new and innovative green technologies to help combat climate change. This type of approach is quite unique in comparison to the other candidates’ plans. Klobuchar, however, did not specify nature or natural climate solutions in any aspect of her plan.

Bernie Sanders: Green New Deal

The plan specifically mentions conserving public lands in addition to “The Green Three”. This idea includes reinstating the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) to build green infrastructure, plant billions of trees and other native species, prevent flood and soil erosion, rebuild wetlands and coral, and eradicate invasive species and flora disease.

Tom Steyer: Justice Centered Climate Plan

Steyer’s plan is discretely focused on environmental justice and addressing climate change through this lens. Like Klobuchar, this justice centered approach is singularly distinctive in its novelty. While the plan dives deep into what justice could look like on this scale, there is no mention of natural climate solutions throughout the plan.  

Elizabeth Warren:  Tackling the Climate Crisis Head On

Warren’s platform includes 13 different climate plans that address separate climate related issues. Although one plan was specifically focused on “Protecting Public Lands” (related to land management and access), there are no specific references or plans to address nature or natural climate solutions.

Honorable mentions:

Even though Andrew Yang and Michael Bennet both dropped out of the race in early February, Yang was the only candidate that had a plan to measure the success of the implementation and sustainability of his climate change mitigation effort, and Bennet was the only candidate to who’s plan mentions agriculture-based conservation to mitigate climate change impacts.