Highland Park IL

By Jann Armenta
(December 2013)

When we think of sustainability we often think of progressive energy initiatives. We think of windmills and solar energy panels. Sustainability is often associated with a vast clean unspoiled landscape in states like Wyoming, Montana, and Washington, or on a remote island somewhere, but if sustainability is to have any real value in more urban states like New Jersey or California it must have urban applications, it must be cost effective, and it must promote an improved quality of life. That being said, in a perfect world every continent, country, and community would be self-sustaining. People would consume less and reduce, reuse, and recycle more.

Unfortunately, that is not the case. Most of the time, the individual person feels like they can’t make a difference because they’re only one person, which can be somewhat true in the grand scheme of things. However, when an entire community acts as whole to make changes, prominent results can be the outcome. The goal is to get more urbanized areas to begin making the same changes that the smaller communities are already making.

Armenta image - HP signA suburban area that is well on its way to making said changes is the city of Highland Park, Illinois. Highland Park, a northern suburb in the greater Chicagoland area, is a city known for its unique shopping districts, one-of-a-kind music festivals in Ravinia Park, and historical architectural structures.

The City of Highland Park, Illinois, a community of nearly 32,000 residents situated along the shores of Lake Michigan, is home to the largest retail economy in Lake County and the world-renowned Ravinia Festival. The City has demonstrated its leadership in sustainability by founding the Green Initiatives Alliance (“The Alliance”) to help the City meet its commitment under the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement. In signing the Agreement, the City committed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 7% below 1990 levels by 2012. The Alliance was recently recognized by both the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the Northwest Municipal Conference for its excellence in sustainability. (City of Highland Park, 2010).

The above information shows that this community has began the process of moving forward in the right direction by setting tangible goals with a plan of action to which the city must be held accountable.

Many aspects go into the success of making a community sustainable. As stated on their official website, Highland Park has grown to be a thriving community, diverse in its population and abundant in its educational, recreational and business opportunities, that prides itself on already having the makings of what would be a sustainable community. For starters, the landscape consists of abundant ravines and wild flowers, for which the city has a carefully planned approach for reforestation, public flower gardens and preservation of open space (City of Highland Park, 2013). Their housing demographics consist of neighborhoods filled with the perfect mix of historic colonials that date back to the mid-1800s, to award-winning contemporary homes and comfortable downtown condominiums (City of Highland Park, 2013).

What has justly made the city of Highland Park stand out as a community that truly wishes to take initiative in creating a sustainable community is their very extensive and tactical Sustainable Community Strategic Plan. As noted in the plan, The City, its business partners and residents developed a vision and 10 Sustainability Goals and accompanying Community Pledge to guide community-wide sustainability initiatives over the next twenty years. The 10 goal areas identified include: Community Engagement, Governance, Green Economy, Energy & Built Environment, Mobility, Materials, Water, Ecosystems, Culture and Legacy” (Sustainable Strategic Plan, 2010). This shows that the city has a plan of action, with solid ideas on how to make all of it possible.

The Plan notes that only human ingenuity, cooperation and resolve to focus on the social and environmental impact of daily life along with finances can effectively leverage resources for sustainable development and secure a proud legacy (p.11). I must say that I completely agree with this statement. All the planning in the world won’t get a community anywhere without the full support and participation of the community members. People sincerely have to want to make a difference and be apart of those changes in order for the process, and work to be truly rewarding in the end.

Overall, the City’s Sustainability Plan strives to: 1) leverage school involvement and volunteer participation to enhance cost effectiveness and build community support for sustainability, 2) coordinate governance activities through sustainability staff, commissions and a more defined Alliance role, 3) achieve deeper collaboration across city departments and with the business community and 4) employ a blend of incentives and impact fees to fund sustainability efforts on energy, water, materials, mobility and ecosystems. (Sustainable Strategic Plan,  2010)

The community of Highland Park has the makings of great sustainability initiatives. However, all the initial strategizing, action planning, and community organizing won’t make this plan come to life without there being a few setbacks, or revisions along with way. Also, if this sustainability plan is successful, could it be applied to other surrounding communities, or even the urban area of Chicago? I believe the answer is yes to its surrounding areas if it were modified to fit the needs of that particular community, but no to applying it to a more urban area like Chicago.

For starters, I believe that the demographics of the area play a large part in the community support in such drastic plans. Highland park claims to be a “diverse area,” but according to the 2012 census the demographics are made up of 91.20% White, 1.78% African American, 0.08%Native American, 2.28% Asian, 0.01% Pacific Islander, 3.46% from other races, and 1.18% from two or more race, and Hispanic or Latino of any race are 8.90% of the population (Wikipedia, 2013).  To me, that doesn’t seem very diverse.  Would it be possible to apply these same initiatives to more diverse population, that may not be as interested in preserving their community, like these older, more financially established demographics?

In addition, the average household income in Highland Park of $106,832 is nearly double the median household income ($53,234) of a typical Illinois household (City-data). I believe that this has a large part to deal with the community in which they live. Obviously it would seem that the community of Highland Park, is an older, more financially stable one, with prime real estate to boot. So, how could these things be applied to a much more diverse urban community like Chicago?

One of the best things the city of Highland Park is doing to implement these initiatives is involving the younger generations through the local school district’s involvement. According to the Sustainability Plan (2010), they plan to devote 60,000 instructional hours to sustainability curriculum across Highland Park District 112 schools, Highland Park High School and North Shore Academy by 2012 (p.4). Based on an article in the Chicago Tribune, it’s safe to say that the students and faculty of Highland Park High School are well on their way to achieving these goals.  “Students at Highland Park High School have kept 90,000 plastic water bottles from the landfill, turned cafeteria grease into biodiesel fuel and built a habitat for endangered turtles” (Trotter, 2013).  This news article shows that the Sustainability Plan‘s efforts have not gone to waste and have been put into action like they’ve been planned.

Highland Park has many other sustainable strategies projected to take place as well, including: enhancing mobility, by promoting community’s needs to have an efficient, safe and accessible intermodal transportation system that relies heavily on public transit, biking, pedestrian traffic, car sharing and clean fuels; creating water usage consciousness by acting as responsible stewards of the quality and abundance of the surface and groundwater resources Highland Park shares with its neighbors through conservation, storm-water management and other water quality initiatives; nourishing the productive capacity of the North Shore by preserving habitat for threatened and endangered species, and promoting the health and diversity of local animals, plants and microorganisms; practicing responsible land use and supporting sustainable local and community agriculture conservation; and lastly, creating a legacy for future generations to want to continue these sustainable efforts (Sustainability Strategic Plan, 2010)

On the whole, it would seem that Highland Park and their sustainable initiatives are a prime example of what a sustainable suburb has the potential to be like. If the community continues to work on implementing the objectives of the Sustainable Strategic Plan they should have no problem meeting their goals by 2030. Now, the real work will be looking at their successful initiatives and trying to adapt such things to larger, more culturally diverse, urban areas.


Advameg, Inc. (2003-2013). Highland park, Illinois. Retrieved from http://www.city-data.com/city/Highland-Park-Illinois.html

City of Highland Park, Illinois. (2010, August 23).Highland park sustainable community strategic plan. Retrieved from http://www.cityhpil.com/documents/21/sustainabilityplan.PDF

City of Highland Park. (2013). The city of Highland Park, Illinois. Retrieved from http://www.cityhpil.com/

Trotter, G. (2013, October 01). Highland park talks environmental sustainability. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-10-01/news/ct-tl-lk-1003-highland-park-sustainability-20131001_1_park-district-rain-water-rosewood-beach

Wikipedia. (2013). Highland Park, Illinois. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Highland_Park,_Illinois

Banner image: Winter in downtown Highland Park IL (Ed Kwaitkowski, Jan. 2009)