Is Austin ready to go green?

September 21, 2011
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Picture Chicago in the year 2050.

Climate-wise, experts say, things could be a lot different than they are today, with milder winters and stickier, buggier summers similar to the east Texas of today. And weather is just the beginning.

Bigger, more damaging storms could lead to flooding and fallen trees, saddling the city with more lawsuits from water, wind and tree damage. Gardens could suffer, as they’re battered by heavy storms but have to survive with less precipitation overall. Even the police could be hit hard, as studies have shown hot temperatures are linked to more aggressive behavior.

Climate change has the capacity to affect more than our wardrobes; it could force the city and all its people to change the way we function. How will we adapt? And what strengths do different neighborhoods possess that could help ease that transition?

These questions brought a team of Field Museum cultural anthropologists to Austin this summer to conduct research for the city of Chicago.

The team’s work dates back to 2008, when the anthropologists – from a department in the museum known as Environmental, Culture and Conservation, or ECCo – were commissioned by the Chicago Department of Environment to help get communities on board with the Chicago Climate Action Plan, a citywide program that aims to reduce harmful carbon emissions.

The anthropologists started by researching various communities to learn what people and organizations are already doing that could serve as “springboards” for climate action throughout the city.

Seven communities – South Chicago, North Kenwood-Oakland/Bronzeville, Pilsen, West Ridge, Roseland, Forest Glen and the Polish community along the Milwaukee Corridor – have been studied so far, and their reports are available online. The final two – Austin and the Southwest Side – are being completed now.

In each of the communities, anthropologists spent time conducting focus groups and interviewing residents and community leaders, said Mario Longoni, an urban anthropologist and the Field Museum’s primary field researcher for this project.

At one focus group, held last month at Austin’s Friendship Baptist Church, two anthropologists heard from members of Austin Coming Together, a coalition of social service and education nonprofits. Attendees talked about their work with youth gardening projects and green energy initiatives.

One resident described how a friend living in Austin is raising chickens and goats in her backyard.

Others relayed concerns that public schools are missing the boat in teaching sustainability.

“I think we’re really blowing an opportunity in the schools to get to kids,” said Bill Gerstein, head of CPS’ Office of Family and Community Engagement, “because they’re going to drive this stuff.”

In meetings like this, the anthropologists have sought input and looked for ways that communities are responding to local problems in sustainable ways – even if saving the environment wasn’t the original intent.

An ice cream seller in Pilsen, for example, avoided buying Styrofoam by serving his ice cream in fried tortilla bowls, Longini said – keeping the toxic Styrofoam out of landfills in the process.

Parent groups in Pilsen, concerned about their children’s safety, lobbied for “pocket parks,” which are small green spaces built on a single vacant lot.

And in Chinatown, residents commonly use parasols, or umbrellas, to protect their skin from the sun – something that’s rarely done elsewhere in Chicago.

“If we’re trying to look at being more sustainable, what kind of clues can we take from them?” Longoni said.

The information about Austin is still being analyzed, but researchers said they found an abundance of backyard gardens in the area. They’ve learned that Austin is deeply reliant on networking, more so than other communities, so ties between organizations are strong, Longini said.

The methods of encouraging people to participate in green practices could vary based on the different needs within each community.

To get Austin residents on board with climate change programs, they’ve learned, the city should tie them to jobs creation, such as weatherization and green building projects, Longini said.

A different approach may be required in other communities, such as Forest Glen on the Northwest Side. Longini said in that predominantly white, middle-class community, climate change programs should be tied to youth activities, such as the Boy Scouts.

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