Making Room for Wildlife in the City

  • Natural areas aren't the first thing that come to mind when you think of the city of Chicago, but the city has recently released a plan to protect the ones they have. (Photo by Lester Graham)

One of the biggest cities in the U.S. is trying out a new approach to protect its natural areas. Rebecca Williams reports the city’s mapping out the hidden little places that get overlooked:


One of the biggest cities in the U.S. is trying out a new approach to protect
its natural areas. Rebecca Williams reports it’s mapping out the hidden
little places that get overlooked:

(Sound of birds and buzzing bugs)

You might forget you’re in Chicago as you walk up the path to the Magic
Hedge. It’s a big honeysuckle hedge planted as screening for a missile base
on this land that juts out into Lake Michigan like a crooked finger. When
the Army left in the 70’s, the hedge grew wilder. Migrating birds have been
going nuts over this little area ever since.

“It’s kind of like a bird motel, where on their trips they can stop and rest
and re-energize before they take off again. So it’s just a wonderful
natural oasis within this very dense urban city.”

Jerry Adelmann’s been a fan of green space in the city for decades. He’s
the chair of Mayor Richard Daley’s Nature and Wildlife Committee. Two years
back, Adelmann suggested making a comprehensive inventory of Chicago’s last
remaining scraps of habitat.

“We have some of the rarest ecosystems on the globe – tall grass prairie
remnants, oak savanna, some of our wetland communities are extraordinarily
rare, rarer than the tropical rainforest, and yet they’re here in our forest
preserves and our parks, and in some cases, unprotected.”

The city recently unveiled a new plan to protect these little places in the
city. The Nature and Wildlife Plan highlights one hundred sites, adding up
to almost 5,000 acres. Most of the sites are already part of city
parks or forest lands, but until recently, they didn’t have special

Kathy Dickhut is with Chicago’s planning department. She says before
Chicago’s recent zoning reform, these sites the city wanted to protect were
zoned as residential or commercial areas. Now they’re zoned as natural

“Buildings aren’t allowed, parking lots aren’t allowed. This area is not
going to be zoned for any other active use whereas other parts of the parks
we have field houses, zoos, ball fields, but in these areas we’re not going
to have structures.”

Dickhut says even though land’s at a premium in the city, the planning
department hasn’t run into a lot of opposition with the new habitat plan.
She says she just got a lot of blank looks. Local officials were surprised
the city wanted these small pockets of land.

And that actually worked in the city’s favor.
The city’s been able to acquire new lands for habitat that no one else wanted.

“As a rule we don’t like to take the throwaways for parks and habitat. But
in some cases, habitat lands work well where other things won’t work well.
If you’ve got a road and a river and a very skinny piece of land that won’t fit
anything else, that’s good for habitat, because anywhere where land meets water is
good for habitat.”

The city’s also turning an old parking lot back into sand dunes and
elevated train embankments into strips of green space. And though some of this land
isn’t exactly prime real estate, the city does get donations with a little
more charisma.

In Chicago’s industrial southeast side, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
discovered bald eagles nesting in the area for the first time in a century.
The birds were nesting on a 16 acre plot owned by Mittal Steel USA. The
city got the company to donate the land.

Lou Schorsch is a CEO of the steel company:

“Of course, you always would like to keep the option, it’s close to the
facility, if the facility expands, you could put a warehouse there, but we
had no immediate plans for it and I think when the city approached us, given
this unique circumstance of eagles returning to nest there, frankly it was a
relatively easy decision for us.”

(Sound of crickets)

Surplus land and a symbolic bird helped the city’s cause in this case. But
the city’s Nature and Wildlife Chair Jerry Adelmann hopes this can be the
beginning of a national trend.

Adelmann says preserving remnants of habitat on industrial lands fits into
Mayor Daley’s larger green vision for the city. It’s a vision Jerry Adelmann thinks doesn’t have to
be at odds with the city’s industrial past.

“I’ve had friends come visit and they think of Chicago as this industrial
center, City of Big Shoulders, gangsters and whatever and then they suddenly
see this physical city that’s so beautiful. Our architecture is world-famous but also our public spaces, our natural areas, our parks I think are
becoming world-famous as well.”

But Adelmann admits it’s early yet. It’s too soon to know how well these
remnants of land will function as habitat and what the city might need to
do to make them better. He says while it’s important to provide green
spaces for birds and bugs, these places are even more important for the people
who live in Chicago. Especially people whose only contact with wildlife
might be in the city.

For the Environment Report, I’m Rebecca Williams.

Related Links