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Alliance for a Greener South Loop

When Gail Merritt founded the Alliance for a Greener South Loop five years ago, she said she felt the power a group like hers can generate.

“When we started, I had this idea that the South loop has lots of community-based organizations already and we didn’t need another one,” said Merritt on Thursday. “But I wanted to get one up and running that was environmentally based. So we went to the other organizations in the area.”

Merritt said she had hoped someone from each of the existing organizations would be designated to work with the alliance. However, she has been disappointed that participation has been “highly variable.”

The Alliance for a Greener South Loop is a group of neighborhood activists dedicated to making “the South Loop a greener place to live, work, and play,” according to the mission statement on its website.

Relying solely on volunteers, the organization’s success is based completely on the amount of support it gets from the community.

Tina Feldstein, president of participating organization, Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance, said the community has supported the group as much as it can.

“It’s based on what people are willing to do out of the goodness of their heart. Based on their environment, they are doing what they can do with what they have,” Feldstein said.

Merritt said residents are calling for a community garden, but she said the project may be out of reach until someone steps up as leader of the project.

“I don’t rule it out, but even just getting the land, you need fundraising, space, soil. … We know enough of what needs to be done. It just depends on the community interest. We don’t want to undertake anything that the community won’t support.”

The group’s past events have included the “Greener Awards” and “Meatless Mondays in May,” which draw outside attention to the group and its green mission.

“Meatless Mondays” began last year and encouraged not only community members but also restaurants to participate. The alliance encouraged individuals to avoid eating meat every Monday, and participating restaurants highlighted meatless menu items, as well as put promotion signs outside their establishments.

“I realize that there are a lot of reasons why people don’t eat meat, but I think a lot of people don’t realize the environmental impact of meat production,” Merritt explained. “We thought that if we could increase people’s awareness – for example, not eating meat is better for the environment than recycling.”

Merritt said this is one event the group hopes to bring back this year, along with the fifth annual “Greener Awards,” which honors environmental efforts by individuals, institutions, buildings and businesses. This is the alliance’s most extensive event, but it included only five to six active volunteers in December.

Among the 2012 Greener Awards winners, one of the two Green Hero Awards went to Alex Borgen, a second-year graduate student in the Interdisciplinary Book and Paper Arts Program at Columbia College Chicago, a supporting college of the alliance.

“I was nominated for the Green Hero Award because I try to really live the green standards,” said Borgen. “I bike everywhere all year long, I limit my garbage and have a compost bin, but also because my artistic practice is focused on a sustainable artistic approach.”

Borgen also organized the Papermaker’s Garden, located on Columbia’s campus between Congress Parkway and Roosevelt Road, which she said has had an impact on the students and staff of Columbia as well as South Loop residents.

“The garden has rain barrels, composts, provides green space in an urban setting, organically grown fibers for paper making, a hands-on interdisciplinary education area and beautifies the Wabash Arts Corridor,” Borgen said.

Merritt said she admires Borgen because she is such a dedicated and environmentally conscious individual.

As for the business winners of the Greener Awards, Merritt said, “They use it as a marketing opportunity for doing environmentally friendly practices. We think that’s great. We want to shine the spotlight on whoever is proactive in going greener.”

Merritt said she created the program to encourage and congratulate others. “I do not know if we have motivated anyone who wasn’t already interested, but for those who are, it’s very encouraging to learn who is doing what in the South Loop.”

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