Regional Planning Effort Taking Root

From southeast Wisconsin to the Indiana dunes, a large chunk of the Chicago region is working to preserve and restore natural areas. It’s the first voluntary effort of this size in the nation and it’s becoming a model. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports… government is now getting involved, but some of the private sector is still wondering what’s happening:


From southeast Wisconsin to the Indiana Dunes, a large chunk of the Chicago region is

working to preserve and restore natural areas. It’s the first voluntary effort of this

size in the nation and it’s becoming a model. Government is now getting involved, but

some of the private sector is still wondering what’s happening. The Great Lakes Radio

Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:

Almost one hundred organizations, including museums, zoos, federal agencies, and

environmental groups have been putting together a plan to preserve the few remaining

natural areas in and around Chicago. Kent Fuller heads up a task force for a group

called Chicago Wilderness. He also works for the U.S. EPA’s Great Lakes National

Program office. Fuller is working to implement the Chicago wilderness biodiversity

recovery plan.

“One of the elements of the plan is to try and reach local governments. Not only the

municipalities, but the park districts as well. To try to get the word out that there

are important aspects of biodiversity that exist on their lands and in those

communities that can be helped through the actions by, you know, things like local

zoning decisions, or decisions by a local park district whether to build one more ball

field or to manage a piece of their land for natural purposes.”

The plan’s organizers got the help of planning agencies because they coordinate a

region’s growth. The Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Commission has approved the

project and late last year the Northeast Illinois Planning Commission – called NIP-C –

also approved. John Paige is the director of planning services for NIP-C. He says

although the commission has no regulatory powers, once the agency adopts a plan, it

filters down to county and municipal governments. They use it as a blueprint. State

government uses the planning agency’s designs for funding decisions.

“When we look at an expressway proposal, have they incorporated into it the provisions

for not altering or degrading any existing natural areas, but have they incorporated,

maybe, planting prairie grasses in the right-of-way. And we can say that must be done,

based on this plan.”

Paige says the biodiversity recovery plan will mean more natural areas, and more

native wildlife. And that improves the quality of life. He adds the quality of life

attracts business. And Paige believes business and wildlife preservation can go


“It is somewhat seemingly conflicting or counterintuitive that they’re going to buy

land and build on it when it could have been a prairie or something like that. But I

maintain that it takes people and it takes people that appreciate that to, in fact,

protect the land. You know, they’re going to build on this one, but they’re going to

be interested in saving the valuable natural areas that exist.”

Paige says urban planners have begun to understand the importance of preservation as

the region continues to grow. The chair of the Biodiversity Recovery Task Force, Ken

Fuller, says his group isn’t looking to return Chicago to swamps, dunes, and

prairie… at least, not all of it.

“This is not anti-growth. We’re looking at sustainable growth and particularly in the

rapidly growing areas, trying to get out there and talk to people ahead of time and

get them to have the idea, ‘Well, we should preserve the best places.’ And it really

builds a quality of life. And the hope is that people could sort of get re-acquainted

with nature and really come to appreciate it and understand the place they live and

love it in a different way than they maybe are able to at this moment.”

The Chicago Wilderness Biodiversity Recovery Plan is changing some of the landscape of

the region. Cities are planting more native shrubs and trees in parks and roadsides.

Some corporate campuses are converting bluegrass lawns to prairie flowers. As new

office complexes and shopping malls are built, zoning laws will encourage or require

more of this kind of planting. But it’ll probably take a while for the idea of

biodiversity recovery to filter down to existing businesses. Amy Anderson is with the

Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce.

“I would not say that there is a wide understanding of environmental issues,

particularly among smaller businesses where it’s a struggle every day to keep your

business afloat.”

Anderson says most business people understand planting a tree is good for the

environment. But they figure a Japanese weeping cherry tree is as good as a native

wild black cherry tree.

“Biodiversity is another step above probably where most of the general public is,

thinking it’s a pretty complicated technical issue, but I would definitely say there

is movement afoot among industry, among business to become more environmentally


Anderson says being green is seen as a good public relations move. But she notes, it’s

easier to get businesses to think about things such as native grasses and shrubs when

economic times are good. She says as soon as the economy takes a turn downward, native

landscaping is the kind of thing that gets cut first to improve the bottom line.

Even if businesses keep planting marigolds instead of native prairie clover, more

natural plantings will be springing up in parks and landscapes all over the Chicago

region. And it might not stop there. Already a half-dozen cities in the U.S. and a few

in other countries are contacting Chicago wilderness to see how they can restore some

of their own natural areas.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.