We are Built Environmentalists - Metropolitan Planning Council

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We are Built Environmentalists

Man sitting on Chicago lakefront bench overlooking beach and skyline

The annual United Nations climate summit (COP 26) ended with lots of impassioned speeches but few tangible commitments and no guarantee pledges will be fulfilled. This despite daily evidence that our planet is becoming less inhabitable. Aggressive action is needed to curb climate change, and there is a major role for state and local leaders to play. Given the urgency of the problem, MPC is increasingly approaching our work through an environmental lens. 

It has become obvious that, if you are an urban planner, you must also be an environmentalist. Planners are guiding the future of the built and natural environments that we will live with for generations. And also cleaning up the messes of the past. Climate change and the built environment are inextricably linked. We all want and need to live in a cleaner environment that contributes less to climate change and is more resilient to anticipated climate impacts.  

Given that climate impacts are affecting low-income communities of color the most, we must ensure that investments to facilitate adaptation are prioritized to protect the most vulnerable. With every investment, we must ensure historically marginalized communities experience improved environmental conditions and no additional harm. 

Therefore, MPC is more explicitly considering environment and resilience in all the work we do. We are built environmentalists. Every time we build infrastructure, or change our built environment, we must achieve a net improvement to environmental conditions. This means emphasizing natural solutions like parks that can help manage stormwater, prioritizing investments that solve multiple problems like improving transit station areas to address equity and heat impacts and transportation needs, and making investments that provide a wide range of community benefits. Below we highlight some of our work’s connections to environmental outcomes. 

Planning 

MPC staff participate in several working groups in which we continuously ask how our region’s policies can achieve desired environmental outcomes faster. Staff on the City of Chicago’s Environmental Equity Working Group serve on committees updating the City’s Climate Action Plan.   

MPC is a co-chair of the advisory committee guiding work of the We Will Chicago, the citywide plan intended to encourage neighborhood growth and vibrancy while addressing social and economic inequities. It is guided by the themes of equity and resiliency, with one of the seven “pillars” of the plan focused on environment, climate and energy.   

MPC participated in the development of the 2021 regional Climate Action Plan led by the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus and hosted the plan’s July launch event attended by hundreds.  And we will be partnering with the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus on programs to support municipalities in implementing the plan moving forward, particularly in the area of transportation.  

Performance-based planning and programming is a best practice for sustainably prioritizing transportation resources. We collaborated with partners including the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago and the Transportation Equity Network to advance the passage of HB 253 this spring, which requires Illinois DOT and RTA to develop transparent methods for prioritizing transportation investments using a range of criteria, with climate impacts being a major one.    

Equitable Transit Oriented Development 

MPC has been a highly engaged member of the Elevated Chicago Equitable Transit Oriented Development (eTOD) coalition since its inception in 2017. The three pillars of the program are racial equity, improving health outcomes and climate resilience, using our transit assets as tool for building neighborhood vitality. The idea is to maximize density of housing, businesses, and amenities within ½ mile of transit stops to create walkable communities and reduce reliance on cars. As an outgrowth of this work, MPC staff were among the many contributors to the City’s recently published eTOD policy Plan and are part of the coalition working to define zoning and other policy changes to accelerate this environmentally friendly pattern of development. Additionally, MPC’s Transit Means Business report highlights the importance of businesses locating near transit and encouraging sustainable transit use.  

Pedestrian Improvements 

Walking emits zero emissions. It is the most basic form of mobility, not “alternative transportation.” Our Toward Universal Mobility report highlighted many changes needed to support mobility for people who do not drive due to age or disability. Highlights include a focus on the extent of needed improvements to sidewalks throughout the region to ensure people can access more destinations and transit stations on foot or in a wheelchair. Our Where the Sidewalk Ends analysis of the lack of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) planning for sidewalks in the region is spurring action to get all our communities compliant with this requirement, which will help ensure sidewalks and crosswalks form comprehensive and accessible networks.   

We also collaborated with Active Transportation Alliance and Ride Illinois to advance HB 270, which will now ensure that when IDOT develops a transportation corridor with a sidewalk or sidepath for walking/cycling, those elements are included in the total project costs. This means that no longer will a local financial match will be required for the pedestrian/bike components, making it easier for communities to build out sidewalk networks enabling zero-emissions transportation and supporting access to environmentally-friendly transit.     

Land Use 

MPC has been investigating environmental justice issues and highlighting the health impacts through research such as the Calumet Connect Databook, to serve as a resource guiding future planning and policy in the Calumet Industrial Corridor, one of 26 Chicago corridors undergoing review via the Industrial Corridor Modernization Initiative. This information will inform strategies to reduce future environmental impacts of industrial uses and freight transportation.  In the Little Calumet River Conservation Action Plan developed in partnership with Openlands and the Field Museum, MPC identified key land areas for conservation so more public land is protected to provide habitat and natural spaces for human use.   

Water Policies 

MPC is a leader in developing policies that ensure a healthy water ecosystem. To reduce flooding, a primary impact of climate change in our region, MPC has been working to establish mechanisms and policies that support sustainable stormwater management practices.  In partnership with The Nature Conservancy, we are currently standing up StormStorea stormwater credit trading marketplace that will allow developers to use off-site water storage locations to meet their obligations. This is intended to enable easier development of denser and more affordable residential and commercial projects and greater use of nature-based solutions that can provide increased community benefits, such as improving air quality, reducing the urban heat island effect, and improving wildlife habitat while storing and treating stormwater on-site. 

MPC’s seven years of facilitating the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative have resulted in strengthened relationships, information sharing, and new strategies for managing stormwater in the Calumet region.  Key results include a new Green Infrastructure Baseline Inventory dataset documenting green infrastructure installations throughout the region. Moving forward, the region can measure progress in increasing the number of green infrastructure installations against this baseline to track how we are using natural solutions to flooding that also produce other community benefits like green space.    

The Great Rivers Chicago vision established a few strategies to contribute to a healthier river ecosystem and implementation work has been underway for the past 5 years. This StoryMap highlights some of the accomplishments and efforts underway led by many community-based organizations with support by MPC.    

Where do we go from here?  

It boils down to this: We all must greatly accelerate our actions to reduce climate change and speed adaptation to ensure we can continue to live on this planet. Planners must look at each decision – transportation infrastructure, housing and economic development initiatives, zoning and land use decisions, everything! – through both an environmental and equity lens. It is our obligation to proactively improve the overall health of the natural environment in our region, slow climate change, and adapt to impacts that cannot be avoided, while prioritizing benefits to communities that have already experienced the most harm. We are going to need to do much of this work at the state, regional and local level.  This is going to take all of us working together and making some difficult policy choices that will provide long-term benefits. Will you join us? 

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