GreenTown: The Future of Community | Creating Healthy, Sustainable Communities

Creating a Healthy, Sustainable Future for Elgin

Situated on the banks of the Fox River, the City of Elgin is a community of 108,000 residents. Nearly 150 years old, the city grew up as an industrial town, fell on hard times and has been revitalized through strong leadership, a focus on strengthening its downtown, and efforts to attract new, green industries.

GreenTown talks with City of Elgin Sustainability Coordinator Aaron Cosentino about creating the community’s sustainability plan.

Tell us about the process of creating Elgin’s sustainability action plan.

We started with a consultant-driven effort and evolved into a citizen-led process. We created nine working groups and began to meet monthly. Over one hundred people from the community were involved. Going forward, our plan gives us a game plan. We have an action plan that we can begin to implement – the public and the private sector working together.

From your work on the community sustainability plan, what are three key items that the community values most?

We received an overwhelming response from the community for us to focus on energy efficiency. Business and residents can save a lot of money by conserving energy, retrofitting buildings and building energy efficient structures. Water conservation is a big issue too. Elgin gets its water from the Fox River, so we not only have a great recreational asset that is beautiful, it gives us our drinking water. And it can generate power for us. In the plan, we recommend pursuing construction of a hydropower dam on the Fox River. And we need to manage water too. We need to create green infrastructure to aid in stormwater management. The plan calls for native planting, community rain gardens, bioswales, permeable pavers and other best management practices.

What about walkability and bikability in Elgin?

Connecting the transportation systems in Elgin is a top priority. The plan allowed us to establish this focus area – concentrating on the sustainable transportation networks and resources; amenities for pedestrians and bicyclists; a strong connection between land use, transit and non-transit modes of transportation; low-emission vehicles; and car sharing. Elgin has a comprehensive plan and will be updating it this year, and we have a bicycle and pedestrian master plan. Our greater sustainability plan is strengthened by the bicycle and pedestrian master plan, parks master plan and the Community Forestry Program. We say, “let’s connect them; let’s make complete streets.”

If someone outside of Elgin heard of Elgin, what would you want them to think?

Progressive. Vibrant. Elgin is a very walkable, bikable community. That is the advantage of Elgin moving forward. People have got to see Elgin as a great place to work, live and play. There’s much more to Elgin than meets the eye, and we invite those from outside the area to explore our great city.

You set some specific goals and targets in the plan, including some items that may generate “push back”. One of those is the recommendation to create a franchise agreement with a waste hauler for downtown Elgin. Another goal: create a curbside composting program to divert food scraps from landfills. How do you expect businesses and residents will react? Change happens and needs to happen. Could things be better? Sure. The question is, “how do we get there?” If you’re not setting goals, you’re not leading. You need to be as specific as you can be. You have to send a signal. If you water everything down to “we would like to see”, then nothing will happen.

How can the city create change?

The good news is that there is a lot of interest in making Elgin a healthy, sustainable community. There are a lot of people, a lot of groups, who worked on this plan and are already doing things. Siemens is here making wind turbines and employs one hundred people. National Bank and the Gail Borden Library District built energy-efficient buildings. Sherman Hospital, Activate Elgin and Kane County’s Get Fit for 2020 – and others – are working on getting people fit and eating better. Judson University and Elgin Community College know they have a big role to play in changing the community through education, training and entrepreneurship. The City of Elgin is the connecting piece. We are working to build relationships and create synergies so it all works together.