Our Kind of Town

Biodiversity in Chicago

Will Chicago become the world’s first urban bioreserve? It’s beginning to look that way. In a major breakthrough for the environmental movement, the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission, which helps local government units with land planning, has put biodiversity recovery at the center of its development policy. The Commission now asks local planners to consider both environmental protection and biodiversity recovery as they review drafts for housing developments and new roads. No other U.S. city can boast of such a policy.

During 2000, the Commission’s Dennis Dreher worked full time to broaden official thinking in the region. “Community leaders are often business people,” he explains, “so we approach them pragmatically. We demonstrate that preserving open space today means higher property values tomorrow, more tax revenues and a better life. We show them successful programs from this area—things they can do.”

The Chicago region, comprising six counties in Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana, is blessed with 1,500 native plant species and 200,000-plus acres of protected conservation land. But much of this habitat is fragmented, polluted or invaded by alien plants.

In 1996, 34 government agencies, conservation groups and educational organizations joined forces to create a plan for restoring regional biodiversity. This coalition—called Chicago Wilderness—wrote a 192-page Biodiversity Recovery Plan, which describes the threats to natural communities and explains how to deal with them.

The Plan recommends restoring the ecological health of existing preserves; acquiring more land, especially greenways to connect habitat fragments; managing water resources for conservation; intensifying research; and officially endorsing biodiversity recovery. It specifies 141 actions that government, developers and landowners can take to protect natural communities and restore them to health. Today’s Chicago Wilderness is 124 organizations strong.

“Because we have the Plan, Chicago Wilderness is now a partner in regional discussions about sensible growth, clean air and similar issues,” says Tim Sullivan, deputy director of the Brookfield Zoo and a member of the task force that wrote the document. “We have a blueprint for priorities now, a roadmap to follow.”

Laurel Ross, Chicago-area director of The Nature Conservancy, chairs the coordinating group that does day-to-day work at Chicago Wilderness. “Everyone here put organizational and personal agendas aside to pursue the goal of biodiversity recovery. Instead of competing for members and grants, conservation groups are cooperating. We’ve made a larger pie and everybody shares in the glory.”