One Saturday earlier in July the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) informed Leslie Shad, Lead at Natural Habitat Evanston, that Evanston would be designated a Wildlife Habitat City. This means that Evanston is now certified as a city that does two things: educates and provides outreach about how to create healthy, sustainable habitat for pollinators and birds; and has at least 200 gardens as habitats that meet NWF standards.

In Evanston, the spaces that helped the community reach the 200-certified-garden requirement include public spaces like the Clark Street Beach Bird Sanctuary and parks, schoolyards, garden spaces at places of worship, the sixth hole at Canal Shores Golf Course and Westminster Place retirement homes, as well as a number of residential gardens.

Natural Habitat Evanston, a program of Citizens’ Greener Evanston, led the effort to earn Community Wildlife Habitat certification. Ms. Shad said the Fifth Ward was one of the areas with the fewest certifications, but there were a number of Fifth Ward residents interested in participating. “Those gardens in the Fifth Ward helped push us over the top on the requirement,” said Ms. Shad.

“People really do care about pollinators and migratory birds in Evanston,” said Ms. Shad. “We still have too many lawns and too much pesticide. But those who have certified their garden and have a sign that shows their neighborhood that they are part of it are making a difference.”

Ms. Shad said NWF has reviewed and studied some of the certified habitats and the related certification process and found that when people go through the checklist to determine steps toward certification, they are taking the perspective of the caterpillar or bird.

“They’re thinking about what I’d need if I were a bird, what I would need in the garden as a caterpillar,” said Ms. Shad. “You then develop your garden in a way that is more friendly to those critters.”

People are paying more attention in Evanston, Ms. Shad said, and the City is making an inroad on pesticides, but there still is a great deal of work that needs to be done to educate residents. “It’s challenging to live where people are spraying their caterpillars out of the trees. Why do we spend money to spread poisons?” she asked. “Having a mosquito [control] company to your home on a regular schedule, for example.”

She said residents should not set up routine spraying, but rather wait until they have a problem.

The City has done a “great job” with habitat and environmental conservation more broadly. Ms. Shad said that so much good work has happened because of the efforts of the City, increasing public awareness and promoting certification programs for homes. A garden can also become certified as a “Monarch Watch” or as a pesticide-free zone.

“The reason we chose NWF’s program is that it was a basic 101 on community engagement. It helped us think through key questions. What are my assets? Who cares? Who are our allies? Who do we need to approach?” said Ms. Shad. The NWF program also includes important tips, like the need to pay attention to schools and places of worship, where there is a natural affinity for community gardens that can easily be certified.

“The NWF program is not a scolding thing, it is only a self-assessment. No one grades you,” said Ms. Shad. “You don’t have to get rid of all your lawn, but it gets you to think about how you can make it better.”

Asked what is on the list next, after the achievement of such a major milestone, Ms. Shad said continuing to create habitat around Evanston and supporting the City in all its efforts are key.

“I try to encourage volunteers. There’s a whole climate action plan that needs to be implemented, we need to reduce the use of leaf blowers, there is so much more to do. On trees in particular, in June we lost a lot of big trees, including one that was around 230 years old. That’s when George Washington was president – one of the oldest things in Evanston . . . We cut them down, and we lose something that in our lifetimes we can never replace. I hope we can do something to protect trees on private property through an ordinance. Somebody extends the mud room or the garage and takes down the tree.”

Ms. Shad talked about regulations that are already in place but that need to be enforced. Speaking of leaf blowers in more detail, she said the City’s noise ordinance protects against gas-powered leaf blowers. She said propane-fueled blowers are still allowed, but said she believes they should also be considered as gas-powered.

“Leaving leaves in place protects critters. If you can leave the leaves under bushes and in gardens, you let little critters make it through the winter,” said Ms. Shad. “You’re helping sustain insects over the winter and having insects in leaf litter is good for baby birds. Rake leaves off the grass, but leave leaves in flower beds. Also, leave flower stalks and flower heads, which have seeds for birds.

Ms. Shad said the community needs to be protecting birds more and along with them insects. “I get concerned about bumble bees, moths and fireflies. We need a lighter touch on how we treat our bugs. … We need birds and bugs.”

Natural Habitat Evanston will have its annual “Oaktober” community celebration from 9:30 a.m. to noon on Oct. 5. This year, along with activities that relate to trees, sustainability and the City’s climate action plan, it will include a celebration of the Wildlife Habitat City certification.

Ned Schaub

Ned Schaub is a feature story writer for the RoundTable. He has served as reporter, content developer and communications manager across his career in the field of nonprofit communications. Ned studied...