University of Illinois Extension

A Little SOUL Reclaims Urban Wastelands

Through a unique partnership between University of Illinois Extension and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, inner city teens have received hands-on training in how to make their water supply and neighborhoods safer.

For the past three summers, Chicago teens learned what a difference hard work can make. They cleaned lots choked with garbage and weeds in their South Side community of Englewood. "It was the hardest I ever worked and it was the best job I ever had," says one Englewood High School junior.

Twenty-six young people from Englewood who spent their summers transforming eight vacant lots into community gathering places filled with vegetable garden plots, flowers, shrubs, and shaded walkways. The reclamation project, Save Our Urban Land (SOUL), is administered by Extension and funded by a three-year grant of $235,000 from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

SOUL reclaimed eight inner city lots in Englewood over three years. Empty lots laden with garbage, junked cars, and other trash are a common site in inner city neighborhoods like Englewood. Often, the lots become major sources of nonpoint water pollution when rainfall causes pollutants from the lots to flow through storm sewers into the water system. By reclaiming the vacant lots, SOUL helped limit the amount of pollutants entering the water system. At the same time, it revitalized the community and provided jobs for teenagers.

SOUL participants removed more than 27,976 pieces of trash, cut down weeds, and planted raised-bed gardens. The student workers learned about water quality and career opportunities in environmental sciences through field trips and presentations. And then they taught others the importance of keeping our water supply safe.

Don't Dump!

To reduce the amount of dumping of toxic wastes into the water system, and to increase the public's understanding of nonpoint source pollution, the SOUL participants have stencilled warning signs saying, "Don't Dump!" on more than 650 storm drains in the neighborhoods surrounding the gardens.

SOUL Program Recognized by President

The SOUL Program was recognized as an outstanding program and regional finalist for the President's Environmental Youth Award by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Only 11 of the 56 projects were recognized.

SOUL Making a Difference in Englewood

Getting feedback from the community was an important part of the program. Thirty-one neighbors of the lot at 1338 West 71st Street were surveyed to learn their reactions to this project.

The results were:

  • 84 percent had seen the reclaimed lot and 16 percent said they had not.

  • When asked what one word described the lot before it was reclaimed, people used such words as ugly, junky, dangerous and unfit, terrible, filthy, a garbage dump, and a hazard.

  • When asked to describe the lot and how it looks now, the respondents used words like it is beautiful, fantastic, perfect, A+, never better, 100% improvement, clean and nice, creative, and wonderful.

  • The students were described as dependable, dutiful, cooperative, very nice, hardworking, helpful, and special.

When asked how SOUL changed the community, residents said:

  • "It brought jobs and turned a dump into an excellent community area."

  • "It made our neighborhood safer, instead of having abandoned buildings on the street corners."

  • "It has gotten rid of the junkies that used to hang out there."

  • "It has made it more liveable."

  • "The project makes the vacant lots look like someone cares about the community."

SOUL Garden Sites

The SOUL gardens are located at:

Frances W. Parker
Child Parent Center Garden

328 West 69th Street

Elaine O. Goodlow Magnet School Nature Preserve
2040 West 62nd Street

J.P. Altgeld School Garden
1338 West 71st Street

61st Street Block Club Garden
6100 South Sangamon Avenue

Wentworth School Garden
6902 South Peoria

Englewood High School Garden
400 West 62nd Street

Englewood High School Garden
405 West 62nd Street

Neighborhood Garden
535 West Englewood Avenue

Field Trips Important Part of the Curriculum

To enhance the students' understanding of the working world, they have participated in several educational field trips and programs focusing on water quality, exploration of career opportunities in water quality and public service; various student research projects on water quality, water safety, and environmental violence.

They visited Mary McDowell Garden to see a finished project and the Resource Center to better understand the importance of recycling and proper techniques for handling disposal. They also visited the Soil Testing Laboratory at Frankfort and each took soil samples and learned about the importance of testing for pollutants, lead, and cadmium.

The students visited the Slumbusters program in Lawndale. This program is a community development/lot reclamation project by the citizens in the community. The Slumbusters have reclaimed a four lot site and the SOUL students were able to get reclamation ideas and learn how to involve the adults and children in a community. This project was initiated more than seven years ago and has been recognized by the Governor and by President Clinton with a Points of Light Award.

The students also visited the Altgeld Gardens Environmental Project and met with Hazel Johnson who is known as the Black Mother of the Environment. An environmental activist, she talked with the SOUL students about the importance of getting involved in environmental issues and saluted the work they are doing. From their meeting with her, they learned about industrial dumping and pollution from an activist's point of view.

An important field trip was with the Friends of the Chicago River. The SOUL students had an opportunity to view the river from the river and were able to link their education regarding storm drain stenciling with what they saw as runoff into the river.

SOUL Builds Community Linkages

Many of the SOUL participants are students or graduates of Englewood High School. Because two of the SOUL gardens are across from the high school, students who are enrolled in the horticulture classes have helped to care and maintain the gardens and are using it as a hands-on laboratory during the school year.

Mary Willmore, a teacher says, "My students working on the garden have a lot more respect than before for the neighborhood and keeping it clean. It is good to watch them work and realize that they are not only gaining skills at gardening, but that they are also learning respect for property and a sense of community while they build upon their own self-respect and self-worth. Their growing sense of responsibility is seen in their continually checking with me to see if any after school work is needed on the garden."

SOUL Participants Teach Others

As a part of the public education effort the students visited a Salvation Army day camp to teach 350 children how to protect their urban lands and the importance of clean water. The SOUL students led a hands-on gardening activity with the children and served as role models.

SOUL students taught thousands at the Black Creativity Program at the Museum of Science and Industry how to recycle throw-away garbage using a worm bin. They met people from all over the world and have become more self-confident in meeting people and talking to others.