As it nears its midpoint, the Lightfoot administration is disappointing on environment. There’s time to change course
Particularly disappointing is the administration’s failure to look within and build on existing city and partner successes.
In response to the Sun-Times coverage regarding the city vacant lot program Pilot Program’s Progress Falls Short By Lots and the editorial “For the good of neighborhoods, city must fix vacant lot beautification program,” the midpoint of the elected term of Mayor Lightfoot is an appropriate time to assess progress on her commitments made as Candidate and Mayor-elect Lightfoot. Based on the views being shared among community and environmental organizations and advocates in terms of environment and sustainability, the administration has seriously disappointed in matters of policy, program and equity. As the city’s last Commissioner of Environment for the City of Chicago (Mayor Emanuel shuttered the department in 2012), and a member of Mayor Lightfoot’s Environment Transition Team, I feel a disappointment that edges into anguish — less for the administration’s lack of progress and more for its outright regression from any comprehensive environmental agenda or even vision for one.
Regarding the vacant lot program, particularly disappointing is the administration’s failure to look within and build on existing city and partner successes. As the Sun-Times investigative reporting revealed, the overhyped, under-considered and underdelivering Grounds For Peace was touted by the mayor in summer 2019 as new and progressive. It was, even at inception, neither. In addition to the city’s own Greencorps Chicago program, Openlands’ Space to Grow program and TreePlanters Grants, Grow Greater Englewood, Growing Home, Sweet Water Foundation and many groups represented by Advocates for Urban Agriculture and NeighborSpace, to name a few, are actively and successfully restoring vacant lots and making lands more functional, more inviting and a real opportunity for pathways to job-readiness, safe spaces and environmental progress.
The historical default to the term “beautification” understates a core policy objective and value of improving vacant lots and other lands, especially in Black and Brown communities where they proliferate. Equity-oriented approaches to urban greening — whether government sponsored or community-originated — are now decades old with abundant academic research on their substantial benefits: air and water quality improvements, expanded habitat for birds, butterflies, and other plant and animal species, community building and improved quality of life. Additionally, improvements in physical and mental health — such as asthma and trauma, respectively — can most notably help children in long underserved and neglected communities. Indeed, such projects benefit us all during this challenging time of inordinate societal stress and violence. Investing in existing, proven programs for environmental benefits and improved health would be immediately and successfully enjoyed.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The aforementioned organizations possess the knowledge and experience - including successes and failures — necessary to take all of this work to the next level. Let’s invest more in them! Especially in a difficult economy, building capacity where good things are happening is a far better investment than to “sit down and straighten out” a nonexistent program. Those who preceded and were inherited by this administration know what needs to be done and how to do it. The Greencorps Chicago program is a decades-long city-founded successful job training and community greening program which lost city support for community programming and has been serving primarily as a landscape maintenance and restoration program that has survived through funding by non-city agencies such as the Park District and the Cook County Forest Preserve. It exemplifies the consequences of the Emanuel administration’s closing of the Department of Environment from which national-model programs were either discontinued, defunded or split from each other and flung into numerous departments of the City.
Mayor Lightfoot has sidestepped a repeated commitment to reconstitute a Department of Environment, leaving Chicago, once a leading innovator in environmental, energy and climate policy, shockingly behind the curve relative to peer municipalities. The alternative, the appointment of a respected and experienced advocate — to the position of Chief Sustainability Officer – is a laudable investment — but in the absence of professional staff and meaningful authority is another public relations play executed on the cheap.
The Grounds for Peace launch is just another example of this administration’s lack of experience and vision. The indicators are not complicated and examples in the news are already legion, mostly inflicting direct harm on Black and Brown communities, and ignoring not only their concerns, but disdaining voices. Hilco implosion, General Iron, lack of water access to community gardeners, unnecessary removal of mature trees. The list goes on. Vacant lots as an opportunity for greening, wellness, safety is low-hanging fruit that could have been and should be easily harvested. The waste of the last two summers will only make the urgency and challenge of this coming summer more severe.
This is our opportunity to build on pre-existing success — not reinvent the wheel; build capacity for and with exciting, successful and, sometimes battle-worn organizations who know how this works. And, as importantly, doing the work within community. The opportunity — with R3 (state cannabis) money, impending stimulus funding, and other resources could be transformative for communities that far too long have waited for the comprehensive resources necessary to rebuild wealth and health.
It is hard to watch the Lightfoot administration continue to squander the goodwill, hopes, and intentions of a committed and impassioned environmental constituency. The Mayor-elect’s Environment Transition Committee wrote a cogent and well-considered Report in warp speed. The report was not an ethereal wish list. Rather, it provided reasonable, affordable, and proven recommendations to improve our environment and build real environmental justice in this city unlike ever before.
The Grounds for Peace expose exemplifies how good ideas falter without holistic vision, good governance, and commitment. The Sun-Times rightfully noted that the waste of money is the least of the resulting harms. Those targeted for benefit are failed, yet again, and the experience and dedication of those citywide who have learned the lessons and delivered are left to carry on with string and duct tape.
Mayor Lightfoot: your administration is overlooking the knowledge and experience of those who have long labored in these vineyards, both literally and figuratively. Building capacity would turbocharge their progress. Rebooting environmental work to make this city more equitably healthy and climate resilient while building real economic opportunities doesn’t require new programs; Follow your own Environment Transition Report by listening, learning, and building on existing internal and external programs and act accordingly.
Suzanne Malec-McKenna was the last Commissioner of Chicago Department of Environment.