Chicago’s Mayoral Candidates (Well, at Least Some) Discuss Their Favorite Parks and Their Views on Protecting the Environment

View of the Chicago skyline from Palmisano Park

A few weeks back, I contacted the 14 Chicago mayoral candidates to see if they would answer the following questions:

  • What’s your experience using Chicago’s parks or forest preserves in Chicago or its suburbs?
  • What are the top three environmental concerns facing the next mayor?
  • How will you protect and improve the environment in Chicago?

I know that Chicagoans face many other major issues. For some, protecting the environment may not be a top priority. But the Windy City is at a crossroads. Will it become another rust-belt town with broken everything, or a place that’s beautiful, economically livable (and viable), and safe for ALL of its residents? Nearly 60 percent of voters surveyed by Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy for Telemundo Chicago/NBC 5 between February 11-13 said that the city is on the wrong track.

Chicago is a modern-day Jekyll & Hyde. “Jekyll Chicago” bursts at the seams with creative and entrepreneurial energy, stunning architecture, amazing museums and cultural events, many charming neighborhoods that are almost like unique small towns, sports mania that borders on insanity when our teams are good, and much underappreciated nature (our beautiful parks, Lake Michigan, and the Chicago River, which is on the road to recovery after years of being a garbage dump for the manufacturing industry). On the other hand, “Hyde Chicago” is a place of poverty, pollution, political corruption, pension plan chaos, food deserts in neighborhoods that have been left behind by City Hall, lead in the water, high taxes, surge parking meter pricing, and car jackings, gun and gang violence, and other crimes.

These are big challenges, but we shouldn’t forget the importance of protecting the environment when we consider the mayoral candidates. Because clean water, air, and soil help Chicago residents live healthier lives; tree-lined neighborhoods and easy access to parks reduce stress and lower crime; a healthy lake and related ecosystems bring tourists; and the use of renewable energy creates a healthier environment—and jobs.

Chicago River

The negative effects of global climate change, the slashing of environmental regulations by the Trump administration, and other challenging environmental-related developments have reinforced the strong need for us to know where our elected officials stand on the environment. We need to know if a candidate’s environmental platform is simply a one-line bullet point on a campaign mailer, or a well-thought-out plan. Our next mayor doesn’t need to be an avid hiker or camper (though I’d prefer it), or even spend a lot of time in our beautiful city parks and along the lakeshore (but that would be great, too), but Chicago needs a mayor who understands the importance of protecting the environment. Some of the major environmental issues that our next mayor must tackle include:

  • Protecting and improving the quality of our air, water, and soil (this requires working with local, state, and national officials, and environmental advocacy groups on a long list of issues that are too complex to cover in a short blog)
  • Reducing/eliminating industrial pollution on the South, Southeast, and West Sides, which can cause heart and lung disease and even brain damage
  • Bringing back the Department of the Environment, which was eliminated about 8 years ago
  • Protecting Lake Michigan (fighting beach erosion, working to eliminate microplastics, keeping Asian carp out of the lake, tackling illegal dumping, and more)
  • Supporting and working with scientists and local and state environmental agencies to reestablish ecosystems that will restore the biological diversity in and around Lake Michigan, the Chicago River, Lake Calumet, and other nearby waterways
  • Embracing the use of renewable energy resources as a cost-effective and environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels.

Encouraging the creation of more farmers’ markets, as well as providing resources to help residents create their own backyard gardens, may not be a top concern, but accomplishing these goals would make Chicago a heathier and greener place.

Also, while reducing light pollution may also not be a top concern, wouldn’t it be nice to reduce the nighttime glare in the city and have the opportunity to see more stars? For thousands of years, humans received the nightly gift of being able to look up into the heavens and see a wash of stars, the Milky Way, and even the occasional meteor shower. Since time immemorial, people have fallen in love and dreamt of better futures under the stars. And the stars provided the first mass nighttime entertainment available to humans (take that Netflix!). Industrialization and modernization have ruined this nightly sky show in our cities. The migrating birds would also love not colliding with brightly-lit skyscrapers at night, although the city has taken good steps to reduce the bright lights of skyscrapers during twice-yearly bird migrations cycles that involve more than 5 million birds from 250 species using the Mississippi Flyway.  (Looking for the best-possible stargazing in Chicago and nearby suburbs? If so, click here for a helpful article.)

Lake Michigan

So, back to my attempt to get all 14 candidates to tell me what they think about the environment. I received, well….three replies. One from a former head of Chicago Public Schools, one from a former alderman, and one from the Illinois Controller. Four other candidates promised to respond, but I’m still waiting.

I want to thank Paul Vallas, Bob Fioretti, and Susana Mendoza for providing thoughtful responses to my questions. You can read their interviews at the end of this article.

I understand that the candidates are busy during this final stretch before the primary on February 26. But they should also understand that Chicagoans are entitled to know where they stand on environmental issues. Is their professed concern for the environment just a proforma step to gaining power and continuing the Chicago Way, or do they have well-thought out ideas and beliefs that have been part of their DNA throughout their lives?

I encourage you to visit the candidates’ websites to learn if they’re environmental warriors or weaklings. Better yet, try to attend candidate forums to ask the questions that I sent them and many more. Conduct some web research to see if they’ve been active in environmental organizations, or at least have been strong proponents of healthier air, water, and soil over the years. Many of the candidates have a long track record in government, and their records can be reviewed and assessed. Did they propose legislation that hurt or helped the environment? Do the candidates regularly use and appreciate our many natural resources?

Unless one of the candidates receives more than 50 percent of the vote, there will be a 2-person runoff on April 2. Let’s hold these 2 accountable so that we can make Chicago a great place to live again.

And after the election, let’s hold the new mayor to his or her campaign promises. Because talk is cheap; the environment, in many ways, is on life support, and the recent midterms have shown that motivated people can still change the direction of our nation. Let’s stay organized and motivated and hold our next mayor accountable.

Here are the interviews (Note: Interviews appear in the order in which they were received.):

Vallas Photo-headshot photo credit goes to Shaun Gillen
Paul Vallas

Paul Vallas

Paul Vallas has held many positions in government, including Executive Director of the Illinois Economic and Fiscal Commission; City of Chicago Budget Director; CEO of Chicago Public Schools; Superintendent of Philadelphia Public Schools; Superintendent of Recovery School District, New Orleans; and Superintendent of Bridgeport (CT) Public Schools.

Q. What is your experience using Chicago parks or forest preserves in our city or suburbs?

A. One of my favorite places to go is Palmer Park in the Roseland-Pullman community. Palmer Park has great facilities and is an important part of my life, as I grew up in the Roseland-Pullman neighborhood and built Gwendolyn Brooks High School, right across the street, as CEO of Chicago Public Schools.

Paul Vallas-IMG_2007

Q. What are the top three environmental concerns facing the next mayor?

A. Lead poisoning, especially the problem with our drinking water; speeding the transition to renewable energy; and protecting Chicago from rising lake levels that threaten its shoreline.

Last June, I presented my plan to remove lead from the drinking water and create a Neighborhood Environmental Fund to support that and other efforts, such as to ensure healthy homes like lead paint and mold. I also will employ an “Environmental Justice” standard as part of my comprehensive economic development plan to ensure that we [do] not subsidize the location or expansion of businesses or, for that matter, relocating city facilities, that pose an environmental risk.

Q. How will you protect and improve the environment in Chicago?

A. My Clean Water Plan will address the issue of lead in Chicago water. You can read more at https://vallasforallchicago.com/issues/#cleanwater.

A pillar of my “Healthy Homes, Healthy Communities” initiative in my Economic Development Plan includes stopping the practice of moving pollution-producing facilities to low-income communities under the guise of economic development.

I also want to begin to develop a plan of removing pollution emitting plants from low-income communities. Having been raised on the South Side of Chicago in the Roseland-Pullman area, we were within smelling distance of the Sherwin-Williams plant and could readily see the steel mills in Chicago and Gary. I believe that in terms of jobs and economic growth, more can be gained from cleaning up those facilities and making the land available for environmentally safe development than from the current pollution-generating facilities.

I will restore the Department of the Environment and determine staffing needs by reviewing the structure of the old department, how those functions are currently being carried out, and what environmental needs of the city currently are. This work would also be informed by an advisory committee for environmental issues that I will create, and they will have oversight responsibility of the department. I would also look to create an advisory council that could, in effect, operate in an oversight capacity working with the department to review and to assess City environmental programs and policies and to make recommendations on advancing a dynamic pro-environment agenda. It will be a priority to work with this new advisory council and the new Department of the Environment, and we will develop a new comprehensive plan to revamp the city’s recycling programs and strategies with the objective of reaching the State’s 25 percent goal within five years.

I will also work with the Illinois EPA to expand the network of air-quality monitors throughout areas that are at most risk of toxic pollution, explore the possibility of converting areas where the overwhelming majority of homes and other structures have been cleared into designated natural areas, expanding the Chicago River Trail on both the north and south sides of the river, and utilize grants and revolving loan programs so the City can work with home and small business owners to boost insulation and energy efficiency efforts in all neighborhoods. ###

Robert Fioretti (by Scott L from Los Angeles, United States of America – 1_E1C1714, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67821064)

Robert Fioretti

Bob Fioretti is a civil rights attorney, a member of the adjunct faculty at Northern Illinois University, and a former member of the Chicago City Council. (Note: The responses were provided by Fioretti’s director of communications.)

Q. What’s your experience using Chicago parks or forest preserves in our city or suburbs?

A. Bob walks in and through the parks like anybody else. He lives near Skinner Park. As alderman, he established five new parks, including the incredible Mary Bartelme Park, and he made improvements to all the parks in his ward. He also saw to it that what was done for the West Loop and South Loop parks was also done for parks further west into the East Garfield area and further south into Bronzeville.

Q. What are the top three environmental concerns facing the next mayor?

A. One is lead in our water service lines. Two is disease that apparently has environmental causes: asthma in Pullman, breast cancer in Roseland, and brain cancer in Beverly and Morgan Park. Three is litter.

Q. How will you protect and improve the environment in Chicago?

A. The one area where Bob is in favor of bonding is to take care of the lead water service pipes. These are the pipes that go from the main to the individual buildings. These pipes must be replaced as soon as possible, and the replacement must be paid for by the water system as a whole, not by individual property owners, because the system can borrow money over time more readily than individual property owners can. ###

Susana Mendoza

Susana Mendoza

Susana Mendoza served as Chicago’s City Clerk for five years, and was the first woman ever elected to this position. She also served six terms (1st District) in the Illinois House of Representatives, and is currently the Illinois Comptroller.

Q. What is your experience using Chicago parks or forest preserves in our city or suburbs?

A. Chicago is lucky enough to have more than 600 individual parks within the city limits. As the mother of a six year old son, my family spends a lot of time running around in parks, playing on jungle gyms, and going to T-Ball games at public baseball diamonds. My husband David and I are also avid cyclists; he and I have ridden hundreds of miles in our beautiful forest preserves together, pulling our son in his Burley. [Note: The photos above show Susana and her family after a 40-mile bike ride from their home to the Chicago Botanic Garden.] Now that our son is old enough to ride a bicycle with his training wheels, he comes along for shorter rides! We’re also avid campers and have especially enjoyed camping at the Roy C. Blackwell Forest Preserve in the suburbs.  

Q. What are the top three environmental concerns facing the next mayor?

A. We must create a clean and sustainable city where current and future generations can live healthy, active lives. For too long, pollution has disproportionately harmed working families and communities of color. While we work to clean up environmental problems from the past, we must invest in green jobs to lift up every neighborhood across our city,

The biggest concern for Chicago’s next mayor is fighting to ensure every home has access to safe and clean drinking water. Lead in our drinking water is a public health crisis, and I will work hard to replace the lead pipes, and work to ensure every Chicagoan has access to frequent testing and filtration while we address lead remediation.

The second concern of Chicago’s next mayor is working to improve the air quality of our city. Chicago gets an “F” grade for air pollution according to the American Lung Association’s 2018 State of the Air Report. I would implement new innovative technologies like “smart inhalers” so we can know what parts of the city have the highest amounts of pollution, and will utilize the University of Chicago’s Air Quality Life Index to ensure that air quality concerns inform our policy decisions.

Finally, the next mayor should set a goal of having the city’s energy — from residential homes to city and sister agencies — be 100% clean and renewable.

Q. How will you protect and improve the environment in Chicago?

A. I have a variety of plans to improve the environment in Chicago. One of them is my “Solar in Schools” initiative. This program will seek to bring solar panels to all CPS schools in the city, but also would work to create new environmentally focused STEM curriculums in our schools. As more of our children grow up learning about the importance of solar and sustainable energy we will be able to see dramatic changes in our future. Furthermore I would advocate for community solar farms throughout the city. Community solar is a concept that allows people to buy a share of a solar project without owning their own solar panels, allowing many people to invest in solar energy who would not otherwise be able to. A new wave of community solar programs will be a powerful tool for the expansion of renewable energy in Chicago. I will also work to grow and protect the many square miles of park space that the city already enjoys. As mayor, I will ensure that park resources are distributed in equitable ways throughout Chicago’s neighborhoods and will fight to make sure that everyone in the city has the ability to access parks and public open space. I will also work to create “green playgrounds,” which can be eco-friendly structures that help generate energy, divert water, and reduce pollution. ###

The Other Candidates

Here are some weblinks for the candidates who did not respond, or who sent links to policy papers. When possible, weblinks to a candidate’s environmental platform are provided. Mayoral candidates: It’s not too late to send your responses. I will be happy to add them if you care to inform Chicago voters about your views on the environment.

Gery Chico

William Daley

Amara Enyia

La Shawn Ford

Jerry Joyce

John Kozlar

Lori Lightfoot: Lightfoot’s representative sent me a link to her policy paper, A Plan for a Cleaner Environment.

Garry McCarthy

Toni Preckwinkle

Neal Sáles-Griffin

Willie L. Wilson

Copyright text (except interviews) Andrew Morkes

Copyright photos Andrew Morkes (except all photos of the candidates; copyright is held by the candidates or as otherwise noted)

Interested in a career that protects the environment? I frequently write about job opportunities in environmental science, environmental activism, and clean energy in my career newsletter, the CAM Report. Of course, it also offers information on hot careers, the latest on internships and salaries, and interviews with workers–from our nation’s planetary protection officer, to entertainment engineers, to crossword puzzle creators. Click here to read a sample issue and learn more about subscribing.

College Spotlight newsletter-300dpi
CAM Report newsletter-300 dpi
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My College Spotlightnewsletter often covers interesting environmental majors. It also provides information on admissions trends, scholarships, and much more. Click here to read a sample issue and learn more about subscribing.

Finally, my book, They Teach That in College!?: A Resource Guide to More Than 100 Interesting College Majors, 3rd Editionprovides more information on environmental- and sustainability-related majors such as Ecotourism, Range Management, Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Built Environment, Sustainability Studies, and Sustainable Agriculture/Organic Farming. Click on the title to read the table of contents, the introduction, and a sample chapter.

If you like Nature in Chicagoland, please share my blog with your friends and family.

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