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Wangari Maathai on the West Side

The Center for Neighborhood Technology recalls a 2007 visit to a Chicago school by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai, who died Monday in Nairobi at the age of 71.

Maathai graced the Al Raby School for Community and Environment in East Garfield Park to attend the dedication of a natural garden that was named for her, one of CNT’s first green infrastructure projects.  The 1,500 square-foot native woodland garden at the school’s entrance  is “not only beautiful; it also connected the students to nature by providing a hands-on experience in landscape design, creation, and maintenance,” CNT writes.

“At the garden dedication, Ms. Maathai drew a connection between the work of the students on Chicago’s West Side to students around the world who ‘get down on the ground’ to plant gardens as a means of making the world more peaceful and just.

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Sustainable backyards

A Northwest Side park which has become a hive of urban gardening activity will hold its first garden exchange tomorrow, featuring workshops on creating “sustainable backyards.” If you are looking to have a pond installed then visit, they build beautiful ponds.

The event takes place at  Kilbourn Park Organic Greenhouse, 3501 N. Kilbourn (Saturday, March 5 from 1 to 4 p.m.) and raises funds to support programming for children.

It’s the Chicago Park District’s only “teaching organic greenhouse,” and it features the only public fruit tree orchard in a major city, along with a prairie garden with native wildflowers, a rain garden, and a popular community garden. It’s all backed by a large and enthusiastic group of volunteers (and a Facebook page), said coordinator Kirsten Akre.

The garden exchange will offer donated gardening and cooking supplies, tools, books and magazines at cut-rate prices. Organic compost will be for sale along with seeds for early spring plants, and a rain barrel and a composter will be raffled off.

Three workshops in the fieldhouse are available (there’s a $5 charge for each).  Seneca Kern of We Farm will offer an introduction to organic gardening, Blayne Greiner of the Chicago Botanical Garden’s Windy City Harvest will discuss “farming the frost” with plants appropriate to early spring gardening, and Ellen Meyer of DuPage Master Gardeners will speak on “winter sowing,” using small containers to grow seedlings for transplant.

In the greenhouse there will be free demonstrations covering soil by Robert Lee, a Chicago master gardener; worm composting by master composter Lila Russell; and rain barrels and composting bins by Kathleen Boyle, a Chicago Conservation Corps volunteer.  (CCC now has a blog tracking some of the activities of its many volunteers, by the way.)

Educational efforts at the greenhouse range from programming for preschool and elementary school kids to service learning for high school students, Akre said.

“They get so enthused,” she said.  “They beg me for salad, they beg me for kale.  They want to grow, they want to cook.”

CNT celebrates 30 years

Thirty years ago, while most environmentalists focused on preserving natural areas, a small group of young people opened an office on the West Side, where they started working with community organizations to promote community gardens.

Thirty years later the Center for Neighborhood Technology has compiled an impressive record of achievement as a “think-and-do” tank which combines research and practical innovation aimed at making cities sustainable.

The group will celebrate its 30th anniversary Wednesday, September 17 at the Garfield Park Conservatory (300 N. Central Park, 6 to 10 p.m.)

CNT “started out small with some crazy ideas, and now those crazy ideas are what everyone is talking about,” said Nicole Gotthelf.

In its early days, CNT worked to scale back the Deep Tunnel project, saving taxpayers billions of dollars — today it’s working with public agencies on stormwater management, a topic of growing concern.

In the 1980s CNT built greenhouses in low-income neighborhoods, won a ban on landfill expansion, joined the community fight against the Chicago World’s Fair, helped 170 local nonprofits increase their energy efficiency, and improved energy conservation in thousands of units of multifamily and single family homes. The group worked on local networks to prevent housing abandonment and job loss.

In the 1990s CNT helped lead the fight to turn the Federal Highway Bill into a comprehensive transportation appropriation, with money for mass transit and other transportation alternatives. Locally it organized citizen involvement in regional transportation planning.

Recent accomlishments include CTA’s U-Pass for students at 23 local institutions; the Local Efficient Mortgage and the Housing and Transportation Affordability Index; the Community Energy Cooperative (now CNT Energy); and the I-Go car-sharing program, which now has 10,000 members.

CNT has worked with the City of Chicago on its Climate Action Plan and is now working with the Clinton Foundation helping cities around the world reduce their carbon footprint.

The key concept which CNT pioneered was sustainability, combining environmental and economic concerns to promote efficiency and equity in resource use and improve urban quality of life — while lowering the cost of living.

“Our work is demonstrating that cities can be the solution to the challenge of climate change and economic inequality because of their often hidden assets of density and social networks,” Gotthelf said.

Nobel Laureate to Dedicate School Garden

Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, founder of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement, will preside over a ceremony dedicating a new garden named in her honor at the Al Raby High School for Community and Environment, 3545 W. Fulton, on Saturday, September 22, at 6 p.m.

The native woodlands garden has replaced 2000 square feet of concrete at the school’s entrance and provided students a hands-on experience in landscape design, creation and maintenance, said Nicole Gotthelf of the Center for Neighorhood Technology, which is the school’s founding civic partner. Students, staff, and CNT collaborated with city Greencorps workers and community businesses on the garden, which was supported by a grant from the Prince Charitable Trusts.

A small school opened in 2004 in the old Lucy Flowers Academy building in East Garfield Park, Al Raby High is named for the Chicago civil rights leader and teacher who worked here with Martin Luther King and later directed the Peace Corps in Ghana. The school equips students to tackle social justice and environmental issues, and seeks to use community activism to inspire students personally and academically.

A community mapping technology called Geographic Information Systems, which helps study the impact of social and environmental issues, is used throughout the school’s curriculum; the same GIS technology is used by Maathai’s Green Belt Movement to map reforestation efforts.

Maathai is visiting Chicago as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival, discussing her recent autobiography “Unbowed” at the University of Chicago on September 23.

The Green Belt Movement she founded in Kenya in 1977 has planted 30 million trees, created 6,000 nurseries and provided livelihoods to thousands of poor rural women in an effort to address deforestation and poverty.

Finding the roots of environmental degradation in government corruption and global development strategies that consume resources and promote inequality, the Green Belt Movement confronted Kenya’s dictatorship, and Maathai was jailed repeatedly and severely beaten by police; she lived in hiding at times during the early ’90s. But in Kenya’s first democratic election in 2002 she was overwhelmingly elected to parliament and became assistant minister for the environment.

The 2004 Nobel Prize recognized Maathai for “a holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights, and women’s rights.”

This year she is spearheading the Billion Tree Campaign of the United Nations Environmental Program, an effort to plant one billion trees in one year in an attempt to mitigate global warming.

Englewood Garden Honors Community Leader

At the Jean Carter-Hill Community Garden in Englewood, banks of flower beds curve around an open green space and stone paths lead to a tree-shaded corner with two small circles of wood benches

The community-school garden at Nicholson School, 6006 S. Peoria, is a site for learning and community service for 8th grade students of math and science teacher Belinda Childrey. Students learn about growing and gain a sense of accomplishment and ownership, Childrey said.

“They work hard on the garden,” she said, and they come back to visit it years after graduation. “It’s part of them.”

Students named the garden for Hill is 2004 when she retired as school-community representative at Nicholson after 25 years in Englewood Schools. Hill and Imagine Englewood If…, the group she co-founded with another Nicholson teacher in 1997, pulled together partners for the garden ranging from the school and the neighboring New Canaan Land MB Church to the Chicago Botanical Garden and the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs.

Hill turned to the schoolyard as a community garden site after lead levels were too high at a nearby vacant lot and a churchyard. Lead levels are still too high at the school to grow vegetables, but not to work in the soil.

With Englewood leading the city in lead contamination levels, it’s one of the issues that Imagine Englewood If… has taken up. “People are growing gardens and planting vegetables and don’t realize there’s lead in the soil,” Hill said.

The lead problem is compounded because community and home gardens are a possible response to another concern of the group — the lack of availability of healthy food in Englewood.

“We took the kids to the neighborhood stores looking for vegetables,” Hill said. “We told them to write down what they saw.

“All chips and candy. Way in back there might be a bruised banana or a potato.”

Then they took the children to a South Loop supermarket. “Their eyes got so big,” Hill said. “They told us, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this.’”

Imagine Englewood If… holds town meetings on issues of concern as well as an annual volunteer recognition ceremony.

At Nicholson’s graduation on June 12 (10 a.m. at New Canaan Church, 5957 S. Peoria), Childrey will be giving out the Jean Carter-Hill Award for community service. “It’s for children who go above and beyond,” said Childrey. “That’s what Jean does all the time. She’s always working for the community and for the children.”

Afterwards students take graduation pictures in the garden, Childrey said.

The Jean Carter-Hill Community Garden will hold community volunteer days starting at 1 p.m. on June 13 and 27, July 11 and 25, and August 8 and 22.

So. Chicago Grows Community Garden

The tomatoes are still turning red, but the peppers are ready for harvest at the South Chicago Art Center’s new community garden at 88th and Burley.

Residents are growing squash, beans, radishes, eggplant and beets, along with watermelon and raspberries. The garden also features flowers and fruit trees.

It’s intended to beautify the neighborhood, but it also helps build community, said Sarah Ward of SCAC. And it provides a hands-on opportunity for children and adults to learn about healthy food and creating sustainable living environments, she said.

Built on four city lots, the garden is supported by CSA Learning Center and Heifer International.

For African Americans and Latinos in the area who may be removed by distance or time from recent agricultural roots, the garden can provide a kind of homecoming.

On two sides the garden faces the Germano Millgate Apartments, a private subsidized housing development. The community center there has involved children from its afterschool and summer programs, and has offered gardening and cooking classes for adults.

Joining in as individuals are a number of Mexican immigrants who were farmers before they came here. They are growing corn along with peppers and tomatillos.

The Chicago Public Art Group is creating a quiet space for rest and reflection at the garden.

The art center is planning a community celebration at the garden on August 27.

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