Oak Park Climate Action Plan Input by West Cook Wild Ones
The Village of Oak Park is creating a Climate Action Plan to be released this summer. The consultants and planning committee have done extensive outreach to encourage citizen involvement, including a “DIY Kit” by which individuals and groups could submit comments. There were several categories in which to comment. West Cook Wild Ones elected to focus our comments on the Parks & Vegetation section. We submitted these remarks on April 30, 2022.
We wanted to share these ideas because we feel that they are so important and want you to know how tirelessly we advocate for biodiversity.
The following is an explanatory section from the DIY Kit materials
About Parks & Vegetation
- Climate change contributes to a loss of habitat, meaning a healthy environment for plants and animals. This leads to the extinction and migration of local plants and animals. It also forces animals into human spaces, which can spread diseases and cause disturbances.
- Healthy habitat keeps pollinators alive – the insects and birds that we need to grow food.
- Parks and vegetation provide many health benefits for us – they help clean our air and water, provide places to recreate and exercise, and provide vital shade during extreme heat events.
- Parks and vegetation fight the “urban heat island effect,” which traps heat in built-up areas. Hotter days and nights are linked to illnesses, such as heart problems.
- Protecting existing parks and areas with high vegetation cover.
- Planting shade trees and other vegetation, especially species important for wildlife.
- Planting native plants in landscaping and removing invasive plants.
DIY Kit Questions followed by West Cook Wild Ones Responses
Introduction: West Cook Wild Ones
West Cook Wild Ones (WCWO) is part of the national Wild Ones: Native Plants, Natural Landscapes organization (https://wildones.org/) with a mission of promoting “environmentally sound landscaping practices to preserve biodiversity through the preservation, restoration and establishment of native plant communities.”
WCWO is a volunteer organization funded through its memberships. It was founded in Oak Park and has grown to include members throughout Cook County. Our activities include education, advocacy, partnerships with other organizations such as Cook County Forest Preserves, awarding grants, a native garden tour, spring and fall native plant sales, monthly presentations, and mentoring individual gardeners and groups. We have chosen to focus our input on the Parks & Vegetation section of the DIY Kit because this is our area of expertise. Board members who are Oak Park residents contributed to this submission with the approval of the entire board. Contributors include: Stephanie Walquist, Laura Hartwell Berlin, Douglas Chien, Byron Lanning, Carolyn Cullen, and Adrian Ayres Fisher.
Questions and Answers (The prompts from the DIY Kit are in italics. Our commentary is in bullet points.)
Strengths: How is Oak Park succeeding in the areas of parks and vegetation? Where can you find good parks or natural places in Oak Park? How do you utilize the parks and natural amenities in Oak Park? How are you caring for trees and nature at home or in the community?
- The Oak Park Park District is doing well, both by attempting to expand open space in parks, by good stewardship, and by establishing and maintaining native plant gardens, including rain gardens, natural areas, and pollinator gardens.
- Other encouraging signs include a commitment by Public Works to sustainable and pollinator-friendly plantings in public areas.
- The Oak Park Public Library is doing a great job both in its native-plant-based landscaping and its educational efforts, such as taking part in last year’s Year of the Butterfly initiative.
- West Cook Wild Ones’ mission and activities are all about caring for nature through education, grants, and hands-on help. Many of our members live in Oak Park and have established native plant gardens on their properties. This has created, along with members’ efforts in River Forest, a corridor between Columbus Park and Thatcher Woods that is beneficial to pollinators and birds. Non-members are also part of this effort. Native plant gardening is increasing throughout the Village!
Hazards: What makes it difficult to visit parks or natural places in Oak Park? Are there any areas of Oak Park where it’s hard to find parks or natural areas? What concerns do you have about this issue in Oak Park and neighboring communities?
- Parks in Oak Park are easy to find and visit. They are a great, well-used resource. However, the village is well below the recommended ratio of parks to population, especially on the south side.
- WCWO fears that Oak Park will continue to make development mistakes, such as Albion, which negatively impact the outdoor quality of life for Oak Park residents and fail on sustainability grounds in general. Population pressure on Austin Gardens has increased to the point where the park is very crowded and building shadows have led to the decline of the trees. The building itself incorporates few to no sustainability features. If the village is serious about including equity and quality-of-life goals in the climate action plan, a goal of smarter, low-carbon development that includes plenty of open space and benefits all citizens should be prioritized.
- Zoning and building codes for new construction should include environmentally-friendly requirements such as bird-safe windows, larger setbacks and requirements for solar panels, green roofs, native plants, water smart landscaping, and dark sky-compliant lighting; rules like these should be ironclad and it should be nearly impossible to acquire variances.
- Decreasing biodiversity is a major hazard
- Ever-increasing light pollution is a hazard for all living beings in Oak Park
- An excess of honey bee hives inhibits native bee diversity
- Invasive species for residential and institutional landscaping such as Callery pear, barberry, vinca, and lily-of the-valley flow into natural areas such as the forest preserves to their great detriment.
- Lack of awareness about how using and sharing of invasive species continues to contribute to invasion pressure on local natural ecosystems beyond Oak Park.
- The Park District is doing a great job on landscape care practices: what about the school districts, the village, and other non-residential property owners?
- Active recreational sports (soccer, etc.) will continue to push for access to the detriment of passive users and reduce the ecological benefits of having multi-layered natural plantings that include tall grasses and flowers, shrubs, mid-sized and tall trees.
- Replacing natural turf with artificial turf should be limited (certainly not increased to more than it already is in the village).
- How can we protect large trees, especially our heritage trees, or encourage property owners to replace the trees they take down?
Affordability: What concerns do you have about the cost of maintaining or protecting parks and vegetation?
- Our concern is that, considering the manifold social, physical and mental health, and environmental benefits of parks and vegetation, the real danger would be that these things could be underfunded or not valued as they should be and funding cuts put in place.
Actions/Solutions: What would you like to see happen in Oak Park to improve options for parks and natural places? What people, organizations, programs, and resources are working on this?
At West Cook Wild Ones, we believe that parks and natural areas are very important and the plan should contain provisions that would expand park space and also expand the percentage of natural areas on all public land in the village when and wherever possible. However, much of the village’s open space is privately owned; whether by large entities such as hospitals, or by homeowners. There is no biological separation between public and private property. Therefore, the plan should also include goals and initiatives that educate, encourage, and aid Oak Park residents and other private property owners to help strengthen existing and future natural habitats by planting native plants in their gardens and by using earth-friendly landscaping practices. Brainstormed suggestions include:
- Start a tree program to supply native trees to private yards.
- Leaf blowers should be electric, but their use should be discouraged: leave the leaves.
- Landscaper training courses in environmentally appropriate methods (native landscapes take less effort and fewer machines, but require more knowledge and skill).
- Require landscapers/landscape maintenance crews to become certified in environmentally-appropriate methods.
- Ban pesticide use for aesthetic purposes.
- Help the Park District develop citizen involvement in native plant garden care in the parks.
- Oak Park should incorporate 30×30 into its climate action plan.
- Use iTree tools and encourage residents to do so also. How much carbon are our trees sequestering? https://www.itreetools.org/
- Educate homeowners about native plant landscaping and encourage them to incorporate natives on their property.
- Provide more education and resources in helping residents identify and remove invasive species.
- Encourage residents to properly dispose of invasive plants instead of passing them on to other people.
- Encourage homeowners to use fossil fuel-free landscaping practices.
- Change weed ordinances to promote growth of native plants (make sure weed inspectors are knowledgeable about native plants).
- Plant the parkways with sedges and other native plants block by block – a collaborative effort between public works and groups of homeowners this would lead to real green infrastructure benefits (this could also be done when there is street work by the village: plant sedges instead of grasses on parkways when replanting.)
- Encourage place-based natural education in the schools so that children learn about native trees, birds and other lifeforms, and also about the ecosystem in which they live.
- Build a chimney swift tower in one of the parks.
- Much of our privately-owned open space (yards) is awash in chemically maintained turfgrass, which functions as a biological desert and are harmful to pets and neighbors. Organic methods, No Mow May, and bee lawns should be preferred options.
- Work to convince homeowners to reduce their turf in favor of pollinator gardens (223 sq. feet. provides a functional habitat for many pollinators.)
- Check for nesting birds when cutting down trees in spring.
Consensus: As a group, come to a consensus (agreement) about your top three actions/solutions discussed in the question above:
- Biodiversity loss has hit crisis proportions, and this is largely, though not solely, due to habitat loss worldwide, caused by human land use that includes deforestation, agriculture, and development. Besides helping avoid extreme extinction events, mitigating climate change will require natural solutions in the form of conserved and restored natural landscapes. Part 2 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Sixth Assessment Report, reiterates that, “…maintaining the resilience of biodiversity and ecosystem services at a global scale depends on effective and equitable conservation of approximately 30% to 50% of Earth’s land, freshwater and ocean areas, including currently near-natural ecosystems.” https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg2/
The 30×30 America the Beautiful Initiative is ongoing. This fall, the UN Conference of the Parties on Biodiversity will most likely ratify 30×30 as part of the post-2020 decade of biodiversity. In Illinois, a task force is studying how our state can get to 30×30 and will report to the governor this June. https://www2.illinois.gov/dnr/programs/30by30/Pages/default.aspx.
30×30 is not only about setting aside natural areas such as nature reserves, it is also about increasing the amount of habitat available to wild species everywhere there is land, including in cities, suburbs, and agricultural areas. Therefore, we believe it is vital that the Oak Park Climate Action Plan should enshrine 30×30 as an important part of how the Village can take action against climate change and help restore biodiversity. The Village could then analyze what we already have and see what can be done to implement it throughout not only our public spaces, but on private property as well. Ideally, 30×30 would be a framework for nearly all land use decisions in the village. This would lead to improved parks and open space village-wide.
- Landscaping practices need to change wholesale, both in what is grown and how it is maintained. Because so much of the open space in the Village is privately owned, strategies will have to be developed to encourage, educate, and aid private property owners in this Homegrown National Park project (https://homegrownnationalpark.org/). Examples include increasing the amount of native shrubs, trees, grasses and flowers throughout, reducing the use of fossil fuel powered tools, and developing public and private green infrastructure such as rain gardens and green roofs.
- Laws, zoning, ordinances, and building codes should reflect a serious commitment to maintaining and increasing ecosystem health and biodiversity, thereby helping improve the built environment for the benefit of humans and non-human species alike.