The Green and Blue Exchange in Chicago
Improving Neighborhood Health and Resilience to Climate Change
In cities around the world, some communities face greater consequences from climate change than their neighbors because they have seen a disproportionate lack of investment in green space. Residents in these areas sometimes struggle to stay safe during weather-related hazards such as extreme heat or financially recover after natural disasters such as flooding.
That outcome held true in The Nature Conservancy’s analysis of climate risk in Chicago. Marshall Square, a neighborhood in the city’s West Side that is part of the largest Mexican-American community in the Midwest, emerged as a neighborhood with great need and great opportunity. “Just one percent of this neighborhood’s geography is open green space, compared to seven percent across the city,” says Forrest Cortes, TNC’s director of community engagement in Chicago. “The Chicago Park District opened a new neighborhood park several years ago, but it’s underutilized because of factors such as unnavigable sidewalks and hidden barriers, including dividing lines for street gangs. If people don’t feel safe, they’re not going to be able to benefit from these amenities or advocate for new ones. We had to ask ourselves, are we meeting the needs of the community we intend to serve?”
The Conservancy and the Chicago Park District are building on the leadership of local community organizations by collaborating with new partners such as Latinos Progresando. This local nonprofit provides resources to help Marshall Square-area residents build secure, healthy and productive lives. “This vibrant community is facing pressures of displacement, so it’s important that plans to activate green space be created by, intended for and accessible to local families,” says the organization’s former neighborhood network director, Jennifer Idrovo. “Access to green spaces is crucial in addressing eco-social determinants of mental and physical health. Public spaces for recreation facilitate physical activity and relaxation, reduce health inequalities, improve well-being and aid in the treatment of mental illness.”
To address this challenge, TNC and a diverse group of partners developed the Green and Blue Exchange. “We are listening,” says Forrest. “The community is identifying improvements and programming they want to see. We are looking at unlikely places—open lots, streetscapes—in new ways, to envision what these spaces could be.” For instance, an inaccessible channel on the Chicago River runs through Marshall Square; as part of the exchange, residents visited a similar well-used recreation area featuring native habitat. Scores of residents have also participated in bike tours, river excursions and a walkability study. “These experiences have confirmed the need for deliberate engagement,” says Forrest. “We have learned that when we offer residents ways to have positive interactions outdoors, they begin to imagine new possibilities, all the while making the neighborhood more resilient to climate change.”
“Organizations often plan and conduct work in silos,” says Jennifer. “The Green and Blue Exchange bridges the deep local connections of an organization like Latinos Progresando with the issue-area expertise of a national organization like TNC, all with the shared goal to improve peoples’ health and the health of our planet.”
The Green and Blue Exchange was kickstarted with funding from TNC’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, and continued work over the next two years will be funded by a Partnership Fund Grant from TNC’s North American Cities Network and the JPB Foundation. These investments reflect a deep organizational interest in identifying and sharing best practices to achieve community-driven conservation outcomes.