Picture the scene: Approximately one thousand ten-year-olds packed into an expansive field house, explaining to their parents, teachers and other guests what worsening climate impacts will feel like in Evanston, Illinois, and how their ideas or products could help mitigate these effects.
The crowd convened at Evanston Township High School (notably, the country’s largest high school facility under one roof) in May for the Citywide 6th Grade STEAM Project Showcase 2019. The mission: to use the city’s newly minted Climate Action and Resilience Plan (CARP) as a basis to present solutions to the region’s most challenging climate and environmental issues.
The event was the first collaboration of its kind in Evanston, bringing together the highly diverse Evanston/Skokie school district, the city, Northwestern University and EvanSTEM, a public-private partnership designed to increase success for underrepresented students in STEM careers. Mayor Stephen Hagerty spent over an hour at the event, speaking to several pint-sized, burgeoning climate scientists about their projects, and chatting up parents about local climate issues and other matters.
The mood was energetic and hopeful, with talent scouts roaming the crowd asking questions of the sixth graders and investigating project feasibility. Meanwhile, Kumar Jensen, the city’s Chief Sustainability and Resilience Officer, and Sustainable Business Fellow Alyson Wright, led participants through the Experience Climate Change educational activity. Wright, who originally hails from Atlanta and has a multi-disciplinary background in ecology, statistics and business, explained the scenario: How should the city prepare for an increasing number of extremely hot days due to the climate crisis?
Participants walk through the extreme heat scenario along with three others (stormwater, invasive species and waste reduction), and select from three possible solutions for each topic. At the end of these scenarios participants are encouraged to share what they’ve learned and consider changing any of their earlier decisions based on information they gained throughout the experience.
Designed and executed through a collaborative effort between the city’s Office of Sustainability, local artists and several local non-profit leaders, the objective of Experience Climate Change is to educate residents on how climate impacts will change daily life in the city, and to help city officials gather input from local residents on the types of decisions they would make based on various scenarios. This feedback is then integrated into the city’s decision-making process to ensure that the solutions to climate hazards and impacts are informed by the community.
As recipients of NLC’s Leadership in Community Resilience grant, Experience Climate Change is just one of many programs Jensen and Wright are juggling. Notably, in 2018, Jensen was the sole honoree from the public sector to be included in the “2018 GreenBiz 30 Under 30” list of young leaders.
Wright, meanwhile, has been busy designing Sustain Evanston, a citywide effort to encourage sustainable practices among local businesses. Once a business completes 10 actions on a checklist of 20 sustainability requirements, it receives a window decal of the program logo, $250 and significant publicity. Thus far, nine businesses have been recognized by the city, and many others are in the application process. Wright is on staff as part of her service in the Metro Mayors Caucus Greenest Region Compact AmeriCorps program, and will continue to work with the city through the end of 2019.
The mix of art, science and youth engagement at the city’s first annual project showcase was emblematic of Evanston’s broader engagement with, and support for, entrepreneurship, culture, and education, and its dedication to comprehensive and proactive programs. Jensen and Wright hope to expand the content areas to include other important topics such as energy, air quality and a broader perspective on water that includes climate impacts on Lake Michigan. In addition to educating residents, the Office of Sustainability is eager to keep municipal staff as informed as possible on climate impacts, and will soon deploy the Urban Sustainability Directors Network’s Game of Extremes, a scenario-based game designed to educate city staff on various climate-related impacts such as king tides, flooding and extreme heat.
Not only does the City of Evanston punch high above its weight in culture, livability and economic prosperity, but it is also making strides to address both the climate crisis and the housing crisis. In fact, the city was recently awarded a Partners for Places grant to help fund its efforts to maintain resident access to resilient affordable housing. We look forward to seeing how this mid-sized powerhouse city progresses on all fronts.
About the Author: Anna Marandi is a senior associate on the Sustainability Team at the National League of Cities (NLC).