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Going Green in the 'Burbs

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To many environmentalists, suburbs equal sprawl. They fault the car-dependent lifestyle, large houses and huge lawns. So is it possible to be green in the suburbs? That's exactly what one woman in west suburban Lisle aims to do. But that's not all—she wants the rest of suburbia to go green as well. As part of Chicago Matters: Growing Forward, Chicago Public Radio's Ashley Gross reports.

The suburbs have been seared in our consciousness ever since the post World War II housing boom.

MOVIE: And so they joined the stream of family life in the suburbs. Soon to become part of its familiar sights. Soon to absorb its familiar sounds. Anybody home?

ambi: crane lifting wind tower

But back in the '50s, those familiar sounds didn't include a crane lifting a 70-foot wind tower. Now, Aileen Eilert is at the forefront of a quiet revolution aiming to transform suburbia. This spring day, Eilert's watching her husband and some neighbors hoist the tower into the sky.

EILERT: Look at that.
FRIEND: Wow, is that neat.
EILERT: It's so shiny. Isn't it?

The turbine, and the solar panels on her garage, are part of the Eilerts' dream to live off the grid.

PHIL: Okay.
JIMMY: Try a little more!
PHIL: A little more!
JIMMY: Tighten it, tighten it!

Turns out they've come to the right place. Their neighbors in unincorporated Lisle are just as gung-ho as the Eilerts. One has his own wind turbine and even a solar oven baking chicken and potatoes outside as he works. Aileen says it was a great surprise to find such an eco-conscious block when they moved in last year.

EILERT: Who would have thought? I didn't think so. I was worried, what are the neighbors going to think when we tell them we're putting up this wind turbine? Most people were like, 'Okay.'

JIMMY: It's coming up there, Phil, watch yourself there buddy. Ho ho, yeah! Whoo! It's a beautiful thing.

But one block over, she says it's a totally different story. And she has her sights set on that most quintessential suburban amenity.

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To Eilert, big suburban lawns are an environmental scourge.

ambi: door opening to outside

She and her husband Bruce have a lawn, but they're busy converting much of it to vegetable plots.

EILERT: This is what I'm the most proud of because I was out there that first nice day. So I have some snowpeas growing here and here's, you know, four tomato plants and Bruce planted some peppers all the way down here.

Of course, gardening isn't all that revolutionary. But growing their own food means driving less often to the grocery store, and not having to buy produce flown in from a different continent. Combined with using alternative energy and driving a Prius, Eilert sees it as her way to reduce oil consumption.

EILERT: The whole thing was my nephew's death pushed me to do something. You know, like to find some meaning in it?

Her nephew was killed in Iraq in 2005.

EILERT: You know, we're fighting over there and it was about oil, and so I just thought I've got to do something. I mean, it's too late for me to do anything about my nephew, and it's sad, he was such a good kid. I'd like to see it where we don't have to do this anymore. I'd like it to be where people, 'Oh we don't need to buy oil from countries that may not be friendly to us or may not be stable.'

Eilert's motivation to conserve is both political and personal, but sustainable living is catching on in suburbia as a whole, at least according to Evan McKenzie, a professor at University of Illinois Chicago. He researches the politics of suburbia. McKenzie points to developments like Prairie Crossing in north suburban Grayslake. It's built around a train station and more than 60 percent of the land is preserved as open space.

MCKENZIE: There's just a changing awareness. The stuff that was planned and put in place in the '60s and '70s and even the '80s, I think in some cases is giving way to new ideas. I mean they're selling and giving away rain barrels in the suburbs so people collect rainwater to water their plants with. I never heard of that before. Suburban homebuyers today are thinking a lot more about the quality of life issues, and as a result the market and municipalities are reflecting it.

That doesn't mean perfectly manicured lawns have gone away. Americans spent almost $11 billion on do-it-yourself lawn care last year, according to the National Gardening Association. Well, Goliath, meet David. Eilert's about to start her new campaign called Grow Food, Not Lawns.

EILERT: Here's the wagon that I'm going to use and I thought this would be like so much easier than trying to carry stuff.

Stuff refers to tiny little tomato and pepper starter plants. Eilert's destination? The subdivision one block over, where there's not a wind turbine or solar panel in sight.

ambi: wagon sound EILERT: Hi! My name's Aileen and I live around here and I'm giving away free plants to start a garden for people. I have some peppers and just a couple tomatoes.
LAKIS: Uh, pepper would be fine.

Then comes the pitch.

EILERT: Lawns actually use a lot of chemicals if you put chemicals on your lawn and that gets into the water system.
LAKIS: Okay.
EILERT: And then also your lawn mower has way more emissions than a car would not that I'm saying that…
LAKIS: Okay, I'll look it over.

But before long it becomes clear there's way more gardening – and green gardening at that, here in this neighborhood Eilert had pegged as a lawn-addicted wasteland.

WOMAN: I mean, every year I grow my tomatoes and peppers and zucchinis…
MAN: This is going to be the first time I'm cutting the grass.
AILEEN: I assume you use a gas mower?
MAN: No. Electric.
AILEEN: Do you? Oh you are just the perfect person to talk to today…
AILEEN: Grow food, not lawns!
SECOND MAN: That's right, I'm all with that. That's my motto. Every year I try to get rid of more grass and put in more plants.

Eilert even gets a recipe for cooking dandelions, and one woman invites her to pick mint out of her backyard. She leaves the subdivision encouraged.

EILERT: People were concerned and people did think it was a good idea to have gardens and they'd be willing to make a little more of a sacrifice to make the earth a little bit better. I hope! Because that's the whole point.

The Eilerts themselves are finding the path to green living isn't always smooth. Their wind tower isn't working due to mechanical problems. But they have just bought a new completely electric car. And Aileen Eilert's already planning how to get more people interested in growing their own food.

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