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Local leaders work to achieve Chicago's green urban planning legacy

by Maya Linson
Feb 15, 2009


Chicago Wilderness/Robyn Thorson

This map shows the Chicago Wilderness region in beige. It is defined biogeographically, following watershed boundaries instead of political boundaries, according to engineer and urban planner Dennis Dreher. The light green represents recommended resource protection areas and the dark green show areas already designated public open space.


Maya Linson/MEDILL

Liam Heneghan, Dennis Dreher and Frances Kuo (left to right) answer questions after presenting at a AAAS seminar.

A century after Daniel Burnham created “The Plan of Chicago” – considered the first comprehensive U.S. city planning document – local experts presenting at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in Chicago still marvel at his foresight and the relevance of his message. 

Burnham's plan established the importance of natural land in urban environments and is credited with protecting Chicago’s cherished lakefront.

Speaking at the meeting on Friday, science and land planning experts said the anniversary reminds them to continue adapting and evolving plans to improve Chicago’s urban wildlife diversity.

Moreover, presenters highlighted findings suggesting nature is key to human health and well-being. Research suggests nature deprivation can lead to social, psychological and physical breakdowns, said Frances Kuo, director of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s landscape and human health laboratory, making urban wildlife an important mitigation.

Robyn Thorson, regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s pacific region, praised local leadership for its work thus far to create a culture of urban conservation through a nonprofit consortium called Chicago Wilderness. “Over 240 organizations have banded together into a united effort to protect and restore the biodiversity of the Chicago region,” she said.

The real question, however, is not just how you do this, but also how you maintain it, said ecologist Liam Heneghan, co-director of DePaul University’s Institute for Nature and Culture, adding that long-term viability is a key goal.

Noting Chicago-area habitats are not common, Heneghan said if sustainable land management is successful here, it can have a far-reaching impact for the global environment. “The opportunity for doing real research occurs within hitting distance of the city, and that’s exciting.”

One research project called “100 sites for 100 years” involves studying 100 land plots in the Chicago wilderness area, which stems from southeast Wisconsin to northeast Illinois, to northwest Indiana. Researchers hope to determine how effective the current style of local land management is by analyzing, for instance, incorporation of soil management in restoration practice, Heneghan said.

These sites are among 140 consortium-recommended resource protection areas – totaling 1.8 million acres or one-third of the entire region, according to Dennis Dreher, a planning consultant and engineer with Cowhey Gudmundsun Leder in Itasca.

Just 360,000 acres have actually been designated as protected thus far, Dreher noted.

The Green Infrastructure Vision is another major component of Chicago Wilderness. The approach outlines specific recommendations for those 140 protection areas, as well as broadly applicable steps including:

  •  connecting greenways through trails and other means
  •  encouraging private conservation easements (meaning individuals put their land in life-long protective trusts)
  •  conservation development, including improving residential land planning

The Vision should be implemented at various spatial scales from individual land plots to communities to entire regions, Dreher said. Infrastructure can involve developing ordinances that preserve nature’s integrity, such as McHenry County’s Land First Initiative, which protects land, waterways and connectivity with nature, Dreher said.

Other steps include using native plants; green roofs; permeable paving; and bioswales, or ditches that naturally filter runoff water before it enters waterways.

“Counter to the stereotype that if it’s environmentally friendly its going to cost more in the short term, most of the techniques – particularly something like natural landscaping – actually cost less to install and maintain than conventional techniques,” Dreher said.

For instance, turf grass is extremely labor and chemical and water intensive, while native prairie grasses and wildflowers require less frequent management, he said.

A study by the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Homebuilders also concluded that “clustered or environmentally-friendly developments saved about 33 percent in terms of infrastructure costs for relative landscaping and grading and that kind of thing, compared to conventional development,” Dreher said.

“So the numbers are there … its just a matter of educating folks and convincing folks to change their traditional patterns in terms of what constitutes an acceptable urban design standard,” he said.

“If you look at outcomes like aggression and crime and violence and physical breakdown, the cost of fixing those things after they’ve occurred is staggering,” Kuo noted.

“What (research) findings suggest is that urban forestry, greening and green infrastructure, these are all actually public health measures,” she said, adding the minimal investment provides “a healthier system to live in and then people just do better and you spend a lot less money and effort fixing things that may have gone wrong.”

Jerry Adelmann, executive director of the Chicago-based conservation nonprofit Openlands, noted many leaders are lobbying for the national recovery bill to support green infrastructure.

“We have to reach out to others and create a much broader base and articulate the multiple benefits of the kind of things we’re talking about: social, economic, environmental, and so forth,” he said.

“I think there’s some real opportunities in these challenging economic times … to really do some dramatic things to illustrate at a grand scale the power of green infrastructure.”