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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 Combined sewers are an outdated method of dealing with both stormwater and sewage.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: