ELPC Events

Lena Guerrero Reynolds

Vegetative Buffer Pilot Project Protects Kids from Air Pollution

New air monitors will track highway pollution and gauge effectiveness of protective tree plantings

This spring, Illinois EPA is installing a series of air monitors to track highway pollution at Chicago-area schools. This is a great step forward for ELPC’s vegetative buffer project, a partnership with the Morton Arboretum, EPA Region 5, the Illinois Department of Transportation, and local schools. We identified dozens of schools located directly adjacent to major highways, where installing natural barriers could help to protect kids from vehicle pollution. Dense plantings of trees and bushes, known as vegetative buffers or vegetation barriers, can trap pollutants and improve air quality. The new air monitoring data will help us compare the impacts before and after tree planting, to help demonstrate the program’s effectiveness.

Learn more about vegetative buffers here

Jensen Elementary

This Chicago Public School in the East Garfield Park neighborhood has a student population of K-8 graders that is 97% Black, with 86% receiving free or reduced lunch. Ironically, the school is named after Jens Jensen, the famous landscape architect who designed Chicago’s West Side park system and fought to save the Indiana Dunes and Cook County Forest Preserves. But instead of being immersed in the natural landscape, his namesake school looks over a sea of concrete: the Eisenhower Expressway (I-290) on the city’s West Side. With an average daily traffic count over 170,000 vehicles in 2021, the highway is eight lanes wide at this point, plus a three-lane exit ramp directly adjacent to the school playground.

ELPC’s Senior Policy Advocate Susan Mudd and digital communications specialist Sam Suarez joined our coalition partners at Jensen on March 20th to unveil the new air monitoring equipment and talk with students. Suarez noted, “it was nice to see the students asking questions and curious to learn the science behind the machines. It was also really jarring to see them run around and play with the highway right there. They deserve better.”

Perspectives Charter School

Overlooking the Dan Ryan Expressway on the city’s South Side, the Perspectives campus includes both a middle school and high school, collectively serving grades 6-12. Similar to Jensen, the student population here is over 97% Black and largely low-income. Not including entrance/exit ramps, the Dan Ryan is ten lanes wide at this point, with an average daily traffic count of nearly 300,000 vehicles in 2021.

Susan and I joined our coalition partners at Perspectives for a tree-planting day in October 2023, which was a great opportunity to connect with students, parents, and community volunteers. ELPC’s Illinois Government Affairs Representative Genevieve Kwan returned to the school on March 19 for IEPA’s air monitoring installation. She met with more students to discuss air quality and advocacy in Illinois, noting “you’re never too young to start advocating for yourself or learning how to reach out to your legislators.”

Huff Elementary

Huff Elementary in the northwest suburb of Elgin was established in 1954, named after an advocate for working women’s recreational activities in the early years of the city’s history. The K-8 student population is over 85% Latino and 64% economically disadvantaged. Although the school is not near the region’s largest interstates, it is just north of US Grant Memorial Highway (US 20), which had an average daily traffic count nearly 44,000 vehicles in 2021. The Illinois Department of Transportation has completed preliminary engineering for roadwork on US 20, so now is a good time to incorporate vegetation into the design to protect the adjacent school from future transportation pollution.

At each school, we found students, faculty, staff, and parents who were interested in better understanding their air and excited about improving the health of the school community. We have made a point of including students and teachers in the process as much as possible, and they’ve embraced this as an educational opportunity. The Morton Arboretum’s Vegetation Barrier for Schools and Communities toolkit offers lesson plans and curricula, and our school visits have given us opportunities to connect with students in person as well. Every community deserves healthy clean air to breathe, and safe, enriching educational opportunities to learn. We look forward to building on this program in the months to come.

Lena Guerrero Reynolds,

Communications Writer

Lena Guerrero Reynolds is the communications writer at ELPC, where she works to educate and update our supporters with our victories and impact.

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