Evanston became the first Chicago-area city in almost a decade to adopt a formal climate action plan with an effective transition to renewable energy and resiliency to climate change.
The Climate Action and Resiliency Plan, approved unanimously by the City Council last week, calls for the city to meet 100 percent of electricity needs from renewable energy by 2030, to reduce waste by 75 percent by 2035, and to reduce vehicle miles that cars travel in town by 35 percent that same year.
The plan was the culmination of over a year’s worth of discussion and coordination between the city government and the working group of 17 local residents who had been tasked with putting the document together. Kumar Jensen, Evanston’s sustainability coordinator, helped serve as liaison between them and the municipal government.
The plan passed the Human Services Committee 5-0 the week before.
“From our residents, to our businesses, to our schools and hospitals, Evanston is united in its efforts to mitigate the far-reaching effects of climate change through bold and immediate action,” said Mayor Stephen Hagerty in a press release. “While Evanston will likely undergo many changes on the way to 2050, this plan ensures that our longstanding commitment to climate action will remain.”
“The approval of the Climate Action and Resilience Plan is an historic moment,” says Lauren Marquez-Viso, one of the co-chairs of the working group that put together the document. “I’m so honored to have worked with such a dedicated and knowledgeable group of concerned community members on this important plan.”
The working group, convened by Hagerty in 2017, was co-chaired by Marquez-Viso, a local nonprofit manager and climate activist, and Joel Freeman, a professional engineer who has organized workshops on renewable energy.
“So many hours of work went into this plan,” Marquez-Viso says. “But what I am most proud of is that we sought public comment throughout the whole process, we consulted groups in different venues, and we reached out in different ways to try and get as much input as possible. Our CARP group is very representative of the community and everyone brought different strengths and insights.”
Co-chair Freeman, agrees. “It’s been a good array of backgrounds and personalities, I think that was done on purpose,” Freeman says.
Marquez-Viso credits Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project training program as the catalyst for getting more involved in helping shape environmental policy in Evanston. “The main takeaway for me was to really get involved at the local level and really focus on grassroots strategies in your city,” Marquez-Viso says.
The night the plan came to the human services committee, several local environmental organizations – Citizens Green Evanston, the Citizens’ Climate Lobby and the Chicago chapter of the Climate Reality Project – held a joint event to celebrate community support for the plan.
“By passing this resolution, Evanston is the first city in the state to boldly address climate change,” says Jennifer Linton, Chapter Chair of the Chicago Climate Reality project. “They’ve proven that they hear the countless warnings by top scientists and analysts and they don’t take their residents’ livelihood for granted. The time taken to devise this detailed and meaningful plan will, no doubt, prove to be worth every second. Now is the time to hear the warnings and be prudent and that’s just what they’ve done.”
Evanston has had two previous action plans, adopted in 2008 and 2014. According to Jensen, this plan focuses beyond the fossil fuel footprint and expands priorities to reducing waste, increasing efficiency, and preparing for future weather events.
The plan is “specific enough to hold the city accountable to actions, but is visionary so that it makes us think, makes us have to be creative and form alliances that lead to new solutions,” Jensen says.
He also praised the documents’ flexibility. “If things change in the next 5-10 years,” Jensen says, “we can adjust and we can pivot to things that are easier. The primary value is in that you have agreement in the city council that these are priorities.”
Working group member Victoria Jacobsen, who helped draft the plan’s section on transportation issues, said it was important for both the city and residents to think about how urban design relates to the environment. A big part of that is the street grid; Evanston hopes to reduce vehicle miles traveled by 35 percent by 2035.
“It means thinking about the other uses [of a road],” Jacobsen says. “How do sidewalks function? Are there schools nearby? What other modes of travel happen on the street? Are there transit stops? How do bikes move through this corridor? … Are we making improvements to the street, for all users in mind?”
Jacobsen describes working on the plan as an “amazing experience” that was “almost like going to school”, in that each member of the working group brought their own knowledge and expertise.
“We were able to share our silos of information,” Jacobsen says. “We educated each other, we worked well together, and I think it’s kind of inspiring to be in a group full of knowledgeable people, who want to spend their time working on something for the benefit of the public, or society in general. It was an experience I’m honored to be a part of.”
“The Midwest is likely to experience more instances of extreme heat days,” Jensen says. “More intense precipitation and storm events can cause challenges. There’s also likely to be a change in what types of plant and animal species are prevalent and which ones may survive. New vectors [such as mosquitos] could bring disease.” To help research local impacts from climate change, the city sought data from the University of Michigan, which has been compiling research for communities around the Great Lakes region to identify hazards, which include shorter winters, more extreme heat days, more intense storms, and possibly drought.
Jensen says that there haven’t been a lot of coordinated efforts on joint planning processes with other munipilaties in the region. “At least with Chicago we are using similar information and similar approaches,” Jensen says. “Evanston works and collaborates with cities around the country. There are numerous cities in Illinois doing excellent work but they aren’t facing the same challenges Evanston is, so not all solutions being proposed fit with what Evanston is anticipating. Most of our work is with organizations and cities in other jurisdictions that have similar challenges to what we’re looking at.”
Many of the people in the working group hope to be part of the process moving forward, although implementation is formally now in the hands of the municipal government. City aldermen, despite the unanimous vote, raised concerns about the cost of dealing with climate change, which was also reflected in a recent editorial in the online magazine Evanston Now.
The plan itself does not include any budget estimates, but Freeman cautioned that delaying action comes with its own costs.“People need to find value in long term thinking,” Freeman says. Freeman characterized budget concerns as a “misinformed fear” considering that there are also costs associated with addressing whatever consequences [such as accelerating flooding] arise from climate change. “It’s easy to use short term thinking. In the U.S., it’s a cultural thing. Here we are used to putting on a cape swooping in for the emergency and taking care of an immediate problem instead of taking care of avoid problems.”
That is more a problem for older generations, according to Freeman. “For kids it’s more of the landscape to think about those things,” Freeman says. “They see it around themselves, a lot more than we did. We [our family] now have a compost container, every now and then they wag their finger at the adults, I take pride in that.”
Marquez-Viso hopes to be involved in community outreach to get residents on board. “It’s going to take time and a lot of education,” Marquez-Viso says. “And just a lot of people changing the way they do things for the better, educating people on that creating buy in and letting people know that we are in this together.”