Community solar is on its way to Oak Park and River Forest. More than 1,200 Oak Park households, 18 institutions and all District 97 schools are composting their food scraps. Rush Oak Park Hospital now has a healing garden filled with native plants. Maple Place at corner of Chicago and Maple avenues will be the first LEED-registered luxury condominium building in all of the western suburbs. Third-graders in River Forest want to see their communities work harder for cleaner air.

These were among the updates and revelations shared when more than 60 sustainability leaders, eco-champions and municipal officials from Oak Park and River Forest gathered on Thursday morning, Dec. 8, at the 19th Century Club. 

The occasion was PlanItGreen’s fifth Annual Institutional Leaders Forum, put on to highlight the progress that has been made toward achieving specific environmental goals over the preceding 12 months. Oak Park and River Forest leaders get time to proclaim their eco-successes along with representatives from schools, nonprofits and grass-roots groups. 

All together in one room, they also shared ideas on collaborating across communities and institutions to drive systemic change. 

Taking note of the post-election “political climate” that has given rise to “a time of uncertainty” nationally, speakers stressed the importance of local eco-activism.

“So much of what happens with sustainability happens at the local level, happens at state level,” said Gary Cuneen, executive director of Seven Generations Ahead, before representatives of 15 projects and initiatives shared brief success snapshots. “It gives us the impetus collectively to dig deeper and try hard to figure out ways to blend economic development with environmental conservation and social equity.” 

Green leaders in both villages have been advocating for community solar, which now looks pretty much assured after the recent passage and signing by Gov. Rauner of the Future Energy Jobs Bill, Mark Burger, a solar consultant for PlanItGreen, told the audience. Expect first installation sometime in 2018, he said.

But implementing that renewable energy platform will require some creative thinking, said Kristin Carlson Vogen, president & CEO of the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation. The many old-growth trees that residents love create a challenge for solar. “All that shade can keep from absorbing the sun’s energy,” Vogen said.

In his remarks, Oak Park Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb shared the village’s 2016 environmental accomplishments:

 Nearly 11 million gallons of water saved through water-saver kits distributed to public.

 Nearly $300,000 in disposal fees saved by diverting almost half of residential waste from landfills.

 About 130,000 pounds of electronics recycled from nearly 3,000 households.

 More than 20,000 pounds of used paint, clothing and paper collected from nearly 1,000 households. 

 Nearly 1,600 tons of yard waste and food scraps composted from 1,000 households, 18 institutions.

And next year, Abu-Taleb said, “Oak Park will step up its green game.” A new contract with Waste Management will offer safer disposal of common hazardous household waste such as garden chemicals, automotive fluids, household cleaners and electronic items. 

River Forest Village President Cathy Adduci said the village’s environmental practices have become more visible in the last two years. River Forest became the second community, after Oak Park, to offer curbside composting. It also installed permeable pavers in its alleys and a commuter parking lot to control storm water, switched to LED lighting, and has been an active supporter of the One Earth Film Festival. 

Adduci said a presentation she gave earlier this year to third-graders at Lincoln School in River Forest caused her to see why the village needs to do more on the sustainability front. When she asked the students what they wanted to see done in the village, their answers took her aback. They wanted to see less litter and more efforts to improve air quality. The moral of that story, she said, shows “why we need to do more about environmental and sustainable issues. And River Forest will.”

There’s a push to make that happen. Passionate River Forest residents who have led multiple eco projects want to see sustainability fully integrated into village affairs. They may soon get their wish. 

“The village is looking at making its Sustainability Committee more into a permanent commission,” Adduci said. “Look for more on that next year.”

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