Mapping Local Planetary Health in Chicago

Mike McPharlin is a 5th grade teacher at the Francis Parker School in Chicago, Illinois, USA, and a longtime member of the Out of Eden Learn Community.

Spending the second semester doing a deep dive into Planetary Health opened my students’ eyes to the role of choice and its impact on the interdependence of environmental health and human health. As we looked closer into this topic, our gaze inevitably turned towards our home city of Chicago. With a population of almost 3 million people, 22 miles of coastline, 156 miles of waterways, and over 8,800 acres of park space, Chicago is a fascinating urban example of the successes and failures of how humans choose to interact with the environment around them. The students were excited to learn that the new mayor of Chicago, Lori Lightfoot, has committed the city of Chicago to reaching 100% renewable energy by 2025.

While this made the students proud of their city, we also looked closely at the sobering results of the recent UN report released by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) in the Spring. The report summarizes that, “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundationmike 2s of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.” (1) We also read an article about the decline of fireflies and monarch butterfly populations, specifically in Chicago.  The students were struck by statements like, “Chicago and the surrounding area has already seen “significant” declines in its insect and bat population,” said Andrew Wetzler, managing director of the Nature Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Monarch butterflies — the orange and black butterflies that flutter around gardens and flowers in the spring and summer — and fireflies, a staple of many Chicagoans’ childhoods, are expected to be among the local insects that will be lost. Insects like butterflies and creatures like bats are pollinators, and plants need to be pollinated to produce food.

“We’re profoundly dependent on nature. One out of every three bites of food that we take are pollinated by an insect or bat,” Wetzler said. (2) While this article pointed to an unfortunate reality here in Chicago, it also gave the students hope that there is still time to make a difference through actionable choices that are already happening throughout the city. Identifying those actions and creating a record of what is being done locally to share with the community, and our walking parties as a means to inspire action became the goal of this mapping project.

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The first step was to brainstorm topics that could be the focus for our maps. Students drew from our neighborhood walk in Footstep 1 where they identified things that could have an impact on human and environmental health. This slow look into our immediate area had raised questions like, “How much green space is there? Green roofs?”, “Will habitat restoration really make a difference?”, “How many miles of bike lanes have been established?”, “Do farmer’s markets really make a difference in energy consumption and quality of food?”, “If so, who had access to farmer’s markets and who didn’t?” We considered the choices that had been made in our community of Chicago, and thought about who had the power to make those choices and who didn’t. Ultimately, we settled on the following topics to research further and the students self-selected the specific topic they wanted to explore and map.  Students studied: bike lanes and location of bike share stations, farmers markets, native plant restoration, Chicago River clean up, green roofs, and public transportation.
mike 3Students began by researching everything they could find that was happening at a local level, who was doing the work and what the issues were the Chicago community is trying to fix.  They explored innovative ideas like robots being used to clean up the river. They discovered areas of the city that contained no farmer’s markets and were introduced to the concept of food deserts. They discovered the importance of planting native species in their own gardens and the impact that can have on pollinator populations.

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From there the students used information they found as KMZ files on the City of Chicago data portal and imported that into Google My Maps. They also dropped pins adding information and links to existing sites to provide  further information. Pictures and videos were added to provide media. Once completed, all of these different layers were uploaded onto one map that can be shared with our community to inform and inspire work that is currently happening.

5M Planetary Health Map – Chicago

This project came together quickly towards the end of the school year so there is a lot of room for development and improvement. Things we are considering for the next iteration of this project (including the time of year we work on it) are possibly focusing on a specific topic and diving deeper into that.  We are also considering a partnership with a local organization and giving students space to develop their interview skills to gather information. This could also include a site visit, which would give the students a chance to create their own content through 360 degree photos or video. We are also interested in exploring the structures of power when it comes to decision making for Planetary Health here in our city. There is also the possibility of exploring other platforms to convey information such as the ArcGIS platform by ESRI for mapping.

With all the challenges our world faces, students need to feel empowered that their voices can be heard and that those voices can be used to teach or inspire others. These maps were a step in that direction.




  1. natalie belli · · Reply

    ‘With all the challenges our world faces, students need to feel empowered that their voices can be heard and that those voices can be used to teach or inspire others. These maps were a step in that direction.” Absolutely!

    Your classroom learning takes project-based learning to a new level. By encouraging student choice, students create change that is personal and meaningful.

    I can’t wait to see what’s next. Wow!

  2. “With all the challenges our world faces, students need to feel empowered that their voices can be heard and that those voices can be used to teach or inspire others. These maps were a step in that direction.” I definitely agree with this!

    It is really nice to see that your classroom learning takes such project-based learning to a great new level, where students can research and venture on their own to find out more of what they wish to and develop their own opinions about things. This allows students to advocate and create changes that is personal and meaningful! It is especially heartening that this focuses on the environment around us that we may have neglected on a daily basis, and how we can do to help the environment and Mother Nature.

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