How to Reduce Floods, Heal Ecosystems, and Protect Human Health through Natural Solutions: A Conversation at Brushwood Center’s Smith Nature Symposium

Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods welcomed speakers Elena Grossman, Vidya Venkataramanan, Aaron Feggestad, and moderator Ted Haffner to It’s Raining, It’s Pouring during the Smith Nature Symposium.

This roundtable, part of a seven-part live-streamed series on critical environmental issues, examined the local implications of climate change in the form of altered ecosystems, more frequent and intense floods, and increased public health threats. These researchers, designers, and strategic planners shared their perspectives and solutions for this defining crisis of our time.

The coronavirus pandemic exposed how economies, health, and futures are inextricably intertwined. The climate crisis – also an all-encompassing, but less tangible threat – will likewise worsen human and environmental health and deepen existing inequalities.

“This year’s Smith Nature Symposium is all about exploring a more just and sustainable future amidst the Covid-19 pandemic and the climate crisis, two of the greatest global challenges facing our world. These speakers illuminated why nature, health, climate change, and racial equity are all critical parts of the solution,” expressed Catherine Game, Executive Director of Brushwood Center.

Panelist Elena Grossman is the Program Director for BRACE-Illinois (Building Resilience Against Climate Effects), a partnership between the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health and the Illinois Department of Public Health. This program, which Grossman develops and designs, is formulated to prepare Illinois for the health effects of climate change. In leading this program, Grossman researches the relationships between climate change and health, creates education and training tools, and facilitates the strategic process for local health departments to address climate change. She also collaborates in developing and writing state reports to share possible solutions to these problems and increase awareness that climate change will disproportionally affect disadvantaged communities.

While Grossman focuses on designing strategic processes that mitigate the effects of climate change on public health, Vidya Venkataramanan (a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Northwestern University) is interested in understanding the flipside of the equation: how communities perceive these interventions and value environmental sustainability programs. Venkataramanan’s research is specifically focused on water sanitation and hygiene programs, and she uses her findings on community engagement and participation to understand how to set sustainability initiatives up for success. She uses qualitative and quantitative methods, particularly drawing on tools from policy and implementation research. Her current research goals are two-fold: understanding community perceptions and impacts of green stormwater management interventions to prevent flooding in Chicago and understanding perceived value of urban green spaces to inform education and outreach for conservation programs.

Green spaces are crucial to mitigating the impacts of climate change, because they provide habitat for local flora and fauna and reduce surrounding temperatures for human and non-human residents in urban areas. Green spaces also provide a connection to nature that people need for good mental and physical health in a rapidly urbanizing world.

Aaron Feggestad, a restoration ecologist at the design and consulting firm, Stantec, has deep knowledge of how restoring natural areas mitigates the effects of change by creating a buffer for plant, wildlife, and human communities. Working from his base in Madison, Wisconsin, he uses his understanding of ecology and project management experience to restore the health of degraded ecosystems, making land hospitable to native flora and fauna and bringing beauty to communities. He sees projects through all phases from planning and design and on-the-ground implementation to natural resource assessments and monitoring. He works with clients to promote resiliency in natural systems and is currently managing several large restoration projects in the Great Lakes Region.

Moderator Ted Haffner, a Climate Fellow and Landscape Architect at Openlands, also approaches climate challenges from a land-based background. Prior to Openlands, Ted served as Senior Associate and Project Manager with Terry Guen Design Associates, a landscape architecture firm specializing in public and institutional landscape design. His deep technical knowledge and project leadership helps Openlands design spaces that are refuges for wildlife and people. When realizing urban green infrastructure projects, Ted takes existing community contexts into account and works innovatively to connect the natural world to the built. As climate change makes the future more uncertain, ecological restoration and landscape design are an increasingly important part of the solution in protecting the health of natural and human communities.

This year’s Smith Nature Symposium is virtual for the first time, which presents an exciting opportunity for Brushwood Center to reach as many people as possible with these timely discussions. Ticket prices are “give what you can” with a free option available for students and those who are unable to donate. The series began on August 13th and culminates in the Smith Nature Symposium Awards Ceremony on Friday, October 9th, with honorees Bill McKibben and Sue Halpern and Masters of Ceremonies Bill Kurtis and Donna La Pietra.

To learn more about the series visit

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