Urban Conservation and Biodiversity Is Right Around the Corner

By Patty Wetli | Monday, May 21, 2012

Sisters Amelia (12) and Cecilia Thyen (10) work together planting a parkway corner at Hoyne and Bradley in Northcenter. Credit: Sarah Tilotta

To the untrained eye, the Northcenter Neighborhood Association’s Parkway Corners Initiative appears to be little more than a beautification effort, swapping out turf for pretty plants and flowers. To Laurel Ross, Urban Conservation Director at the Field Museum, it looks like part of a biodiversity recovery plan.

“A lot of conservation focuses on the protected areas,” said Ross, who also works with the North Branch Restoration Project. “Those are all very much islands.” In linking NBRP with Parkway Corners, the goal is to connect those islands and create a corridor of friendly habitats for birds, butterflies, bumblebees and bats in between traditional preserves. In that vein, think of street corners like rest areas along the highway.

“We really need it to be all the people, to make environmental work culturally diverse,” she said. “We’re all in this together, from the EPA to Parkway Corners.”

The group of Northcenter residents, including a number of youngsters, who gathered last week to plant the four corners at the intersection of Bradley and Hoyne are at the forefront of this movement in an urban setting.

“Sustainable and native plants, that’s my thing,” said Cynthia Kearby-Scheffler, a member of NNA’s environmental committee. Though Kearby-Scheffler grew up as part of a farming family in Kentucky, urban dwellers with little prior connection to the land are increasingly entering back into a relationship with plants and animals.

People like Mark Thyen, who spent four hours digging up a single corner to prepare it for planting, removing sod, turning soil and adding compost. And Sandy Roth, a transplant from Hinsdale who was thrilled to find a community of city gardeners. “I just like planting and being out here and digging in the dirt.”

Though it might seem an exaggeration to compare folks like Thyen and Roth to Daniel Burnham and Teddy Roosevelt, Ross believes they share a similar mindset. A hundred years ago, Chicagoans like Burnham watched as prairie converted to agriculture and pushed for conservation; as a result, 11 percent of Cook County is devoted to forest preserve.

“It’s our job to think 100 years ahead,” Ross said.

Part of that job requires people to shift their notions of the meaning of “garden” and “yard.” Most Americans grow up with well-manicured lawns and flower beds. Native plants – think cone flowers and black-eyed Susan – tend to have a wilder appearance and spread at will. “It’s a shift in aesthetics,” said Ross. “You’re seeing it more and more. It sort of broadens your perspective about what it possible.”

Because people tend to replicate what they know best, involving children in Parkway Corners is one of the most important components of the program. Recent studies show that kids readily recognize corporate logos but struggle to identify the name of a single leaf.

Even if they don’t fully understand biodiversity – and would much rather make “dirt angels” than weed and water – introducing kids to the concept of conservation will reap benefits later. “What they don’t know, they can’t care about,” said Ross. “If they’re going to care about nature, they have to know it where they can live with it. They’re the ones who are going to take ownership of this.”

Applications are still be accepted for Parkway Corners. Find out more here.

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