My generation: Gary Cuneen thinks locals will embrace an expanded environmental effort.File 2007

Oak Park is no stranger to community-wide initiatives, but Gary Cuneen, an activist around environmental and healthy food issues, thinks residents in both villages will coalesce around this latest one.

His organization, Oak Park-based Seven Generations Ahead, is among the sponsors of PlanItGreen, a wide-reaching environmental sustainability project that’s currently in its mid-stage of development. The goal is to develop and implement a sustainability plan for Oak Park and River Forest around strategies ranging from waste reduction and improving the quality of water to expanding recycling efforts.

A community forum is planned for this Thursday, Nov. 4, at Percy Julian Middle School, 416 S. Ridgeland Ave., from 6:30 to 9 p.m. to educate the public about the project and recruit people for several working groups. Seven Generations Ahead, an environmental advocacy group that started in 2001, is organizing the public input phase of the project, along with the Delta Institute, a Chicago-based environmental group.

Cuneen noted the two villages already have some initiatives focused on the environment but that this broader effort is meant to bring more individuals and groups into the fold.

“Anytime you do this, you have to realize that other people have been working on smaller strategies,” he said. “What we’re really hoping to do is cast a wider net to include the schools, the parks, congregations—anyone in Oak Park and River Forest to help not only create a plan and vision, but to implement it.”

The project’s first phase involves gathering data on how residents in the villages use resources. That effort will be conducted by the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a Chicago group focused on sustainability issues. By December, the project’s organizers hope to have a draft plan completed, put together as a result of the community forums and surveys and work done by the various working groups.

PlanItGreen was launched by the Oak Park River Forest Community Foundation, and is something Cuneen’s group has envisioned for years. By early January 2011 and through the summer, the hope is to continue to review and revise the draft plan and gauge community support. They hope to have a final plan completed by June.

Certain goals could include, for instance, providing low-cost funding for residents to make their homes more energy efficient, Cuneen said. Another could involve creating a “sustainability criteria” for developers wanting to build in the two villages.

Some of the plan’s initiatives likely will require a cost, Cuneen said. He said they’ll work to secure grants and funding from corporations, as well as the federal and state government, private institutions and the local taxing bodies. Cuneen said once implemented, the plan will be continually reviewed to see if it is accomplishing what they set out to do.

“We really do want to create something that’s transparent and has accountability to it,” he said, “developing strategies to see if things are working, and if not to be able to go back to the table and find ways to improve it.”

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