Natural Solutions Tool Debuts at Chicago River Summit

Indian Ridge Marsh-South on Chicago's Southeast Side.

At our annual Chicago River Summit on March 8, Friends of the Chicago River and our partners at The Trust for Public Land (TPL) unveiled the innovative Natural Solutions Tool. The custom-built, open source searchable map was designed to increase the use of multi-beneficial natural solutions to address a myriad of community and environmental problems. The Natural Solutions Tool is free and available to anyone.

The Summit speakers emphasized the imperative for nature-based solutions in their remarks including Dr. Jeff Opperman, the global freshwater lead scientist at the World Wildlife Fund, who showed the Top 10 Risk List from the World Economic Forum and spoke about the poly-crises we face globally but also the poly-opportunities natural solutions present.

The product of nearly two years effort, the Natural Solutions Tool is the largest and most comprehensive data analysis and visualization tool of its kind in the U.S. Its purpose is to focus strategic investments on nature-based green infrastructure, prioritize communities of greatest need, and reveal opportunities across the Chicago region where the multi-beneficial power of nature can be employed to improve community and environmental health.

The nearly 100 national and local environmental experts who gathered for the Summit were excited to begin using the tool to help identify and prioritize multi-benefit green infrastructure projects. Nature-based green infrastructure employs natural systems such as native trees, shrubs, and forbs to manage environmental problems including air and water pollution, flooding, combined sewer overflows, and the urban heat island effect. In return, these natural systems provide wildlife habitat, improve mental and physical health, and myriad other benefits.

A project of the Greater Chicago Watershed Alliance, the free, publicly available Natural Solutions Tool was built from 84 searchable data layers centered on equity, public health, biodiversity, water, and connectivity. The project footprint is 1,300 square miles and includes nearly 1.5 million parcels in 176 municipalities and 42 subwatersheds in Cook, Lake, DuPage and Will Counties. The searchable layers were provided by local, regional, and national institutions such as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S Census Bureau, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, Texas Tech University Climate Science Center, and the University of Illinois Urban-Champaign.

“This dynamic tool empowers decision makers and community leaders to better understand and target the places where nature-based green infrastructure investments can have the most effect,” said Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River. “By harnessing the power of nature we can address multiple urban environmental problems such as air pollution, water pollution, flooding, and biodiversity loss all at once while we build resiliency against the climate crisis and make our region greener.”

The Natural Solutions Tool emerged from a vision for more strategic and collaborative watershed-wide investments in multi-beneficial nature-based solutions set by the Greater Chicago Watershed Alliance, a coalition established by Friends of the Chicago River in 2020. Tool development was led by TPL with input from Watershed Alliance members, broad stakeholder involvement over a dozen focus group meetings, and a collaborative Technical Advisory Team, which included more than 30 local data experts.

“The Natural Solution Tool directly supports TPL’s mission to increase access to green space and our work in the Chicago region supporting underserved communities,” said Caroline O’Boyle, Associate Vice President / Illinois State Director for TPL. “TPL will work with the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council’s GROWSS Committee to use the Tool to identify vacant lots for green infrastructure projects and will deepen its partnership with and Blacks in Green to explore how the Tool can support development of the Sustainable Square Mile.” The Natural Solutions Tool is customized for the Chicago region and adapted from TPL’s Climate Smart Cities Decision Support Tools, which have been employed in 14 municipalities across the US.

Exploration of the Natural Solutions Tool reveals multiple opportunities across the region. A good example of how to use and understand the Tool, Frisbie explained was the fact that all of the Chicago region’s river corridors and their tributaries are priorities for investing in nature-based solutions; but certain stretches are identified by the Tool as especially important for health, equity, and climate resiliency. They include the communities surrounding the Calumet and Little Calumet Rivers, the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, the upper Des Plaines River, Chicago’s west, southwest, and southeast sides, and southeast suburban communities of Cook County.

 In addition:

  • The tool identifies the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal as a regional hot spot for air quality and other environmental justice concerns; the canal passes through eight City of Chicago communities and 13 suburban municipalities.
  • The tool illustrates the how the Calumet and Little Calumet Rivers are surrounded by communities disproportionately impacted by health inequities that shown clearly by the equity, flooding, and health layers in the tool.
  • The tool substantiates the importance of the Chicago River system’s headwaters near Park City and other upstream areas of the watershed such as in north Lake County, southeastern Cook County, and northern Will County. Attention towards these areas will help increase resiliency throughout the river system.

Friends will be hosting trainings to help government agencies and community organizations across the watershed to learn more about the dynamic features of the Natural Solutions Tool to inform decision-making, reveal opportunities and priorities, for advocacy and community protection, substantiating grants and investments, and strategic planning.