The Time to Act Is Now: Urbana Park District Addresses Climate Change

by Savannah Donovan, Environmental Public Program Coordinator
Urbana Park District / Anita Purves Nature Center — Urbana, IL

urbanaparks.org/facilities/anita-purves-nature-center

 

THE NEED TO ADDRESS CLIMATE CHANGE is evident, and our desire to act was already there, but it was a simple conversation that accelerated the Urbana Park District’s organized effort to combat climate change. 

In the fall of 2019, Executive Director Tim Bartlett called me with a message of encouragement. He wanted to explore how the District could more aggressively act on climate change, and he wanted me to know that he would support my role in making it happen.

Today, the District is in the process of writing its own climate action plan that will direct its environmentally-responsible practices and policies into the future, and we have expanded our networks of internal and external support to help ensure our success.

A history of environmental action

The Urbana Park District is fortunate to have a decades-long culture of environmental awareness and stewardship. The District began organizing education and volunteer programs in natural areas in the 1970s, at a time when community-led environmental groups were also forming. A volunteer, Anita Purves, began with a cart of natural materials that quickly expanded to become a classroom called the Environmental Awareness Center. Today, the District manages 595 acres of public lands, and its Anita Purves Nature Center (named in memoriam) has been curating environmental education and interpretive experiences for schools and the public for more than 40 years.

Anita Purves Nature CenterSolar panels sit atop Anita Purves Nature Center. The Center installed the panels in March 2019.

The District’s story of climate action is more recent and complex — so much of our progress has seemed to unfold simultaneously over the past year. And this story can be only halfway told; we are still in the process of gaining a deeper organizational awareness as we start confronting climate change. My hope is that by sharing our story, you might feel inspired — even pressured — to initiate your organization’s formal acknowledgement of and action against climate change.

Creating a culture to address climate change

Based at the Anita Purves Nature Center, my position at the Urbana Park District is coordinating environmental public programs. Over the past few years I have been actively seeking out more opportunities to incorporate climate change into my programs, but with some hesitation. I admit I was afraid that I, or the District, would be perceived as taking a political stance and apprehensive of potential backlash from the public.

Knowing that I have the full support of the administration has made all the difference in my confidence in approaching climate change issues through public programming. The truth is that deniers, who are the minority in most populations, tend to be more outspoken than those who accept the reality of climate change. We need to make climate change a topic of everyday conversation in order to make lasting changes in our behavior. 

The Urbana Park District’s success in addressing climate change has come through a key combination of internal structure and involvement, and external networking and support. Over the past five years, the District’s internal “Green Team” committee has been encouraging all staff to make environmentally-responsible choices in their daily work. The team is made up of staff from all facilities and departments. This allows for a comprehensive understanding of challenges and opportunities across the District. 

Making a formal plan

Green Team logoPromoting conservation and community health, contributing to the attractiveness of neighborhoods, and improving the quality of life of its citizens are at the heart of the District’s mission. In the last five years, we have installed solar panels and bioswales, restored wetlands and other natural areas, and decreased overall energy consumption and waste. It became evident that a formal plan of action would help to coordinate our efforts to decrease our greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprint, anticipate and respond to the local impacts of climate change, and effectively communicate about the importance of action. 

The Green Team chairs organized a thirteen-person steering committee of several team members plus some additional internal stakeholders — staff who will be integral to the ultimate implementation and success of the plan. This committee has been meeting monthly since September 2020 and aims to have the plan complete for final public release by Earth Day 2021.

These plans come by many different names depending on their focus; there are sustainability and resilience plans, green infrastructure plans, climate action plans and more. Before COVID, members of the Green Team had already started collecting, reading and evaluating plans from other cities, park districts, and forest preserves. Themes from other plans that most pertained to the District’s mission were teased out and organized into our plan’s three primary pillars: 

    1. Communicating Climate Action incorporates both internal communication and education and external outreach and partnerships. 
    2. Protecting & Strengthening Natural Environments focuses on supporting natural areas, natural resources and biodiversity. 
    3. Conserving Resources examines how the district can reduce waste and conserve energy.

The plan’s final name was suggested by the District’s Facilities Maintenance Supervisor and received overwhelming support: the Urbana Park District CARES (Climate Action, Resilience, Education & Sustainability) Plan.

Our next step was to interview external advisors — individuals from other agencies who have worked on sustainability plans or their implementation. Eight interviews were conducted, and we gained expert advice about how to make our plan realistic and achievable. We also opened the doors for preliminary feedback by introducing the project in its early stages to the district’s citizen advisory committee, Natural Areas Committee, and board of directors. These individuals, plus all 50 full-time staff at the district, will be asked for their input in drafting the plan’s values statement and primary topics or goals. Once the CARES Plan is halfway complete, a draft will be shared with the community for review and feedback. 

Building a coalition

Following my conversation last fall with the District’s Executive Director Tim Bartlett, we arranged a meeting to learn what other community organizations were doing to address climate change issues. We invited individuals from the Champaign County Forest Preserve District, the City of Urbana, the University of Illinois, the teen-led Climate Justice Forum, and other local organizations to meet. Together we discussed how we could amplify our work through collaborations and coordinated outreach. One year later, the Champaign County Climate Coalition (C4) has evolved.

The Champaign County Climate Coalition meets every two weeks to address climate change in the communityThe Champaign County Climate Coalition meets every two weeks to address climate change in the community.

Our peers in C4 are an ideal group to review and assist with the development and eventual implementation of the CARES Plan. The mission of C4 is “to empower individuals and groups in Champaign County to create equity and resilience through education, relationship-building, and responsive action to counter climate change.” The Coalition is working toward hosting climate change discussions, planning collaborative community programs, and encouraging the adoption of climate action plans with similar standards across organizations. I like to call it “the power of positive peer pressure.”

We must act now

It’s not serendipitous that the Urbana Park District has the encouragement of C4 as we develop the CARES Plan and take our first major strides toward fighting climate change head-on. We sought out external support through new partnerships, and these relationships are invaluable resources. But what has further accelerated our District is the administration’s support and empowerment of its staff. If you are an administrator of a nature center or similar agency, I encourage you to talk to your staff about the importance of addressing climate change. Make that call to action. 

The Urbana Park District’s battle against climate change is long from over. We see the road ahead, and there will always be more to do, but our momentum is strong. As Tim best said to me, “The time to act on climate change is now. Many organizations will look back and wish they had acted sooner.”