Why does Cook County have a bigger, better-distributed array of preserves than does any other U.S. metropolis?
In part because indefatigable visionaries (1) projected metro Chicago to someday grow to 10 million people, (2) figured that property development would devour unprotected plots of land, and (3) staged their own land grab so greenery forever would punctuate urban sprawl. As public health pioneer Dr. John Rauch said after the Civil War in his much-cited push for a Chicago parks district, “we want not alone a place for business, but also one in which we can live.”
But the key stroke of brilliance came in 1904 from architect Dwight H. Perkins and landscape architect Jens Jensen. They studied Cook County’s still open lands and concluded: “Instead of acquiring space only, the opportunity exists for preserving country naturally beautiful. … Another reason for acquiring these outer areas is the necessity of providing for future generations …” The upshot was a state law that created the district and its mission statement — overwhelmingly tipped toward preserving and protecting lands, plants and animals rather than toward ball fields, playgrounds and other park-like recreation…
In January a blue-ribbon panel of outsiders set that 25-year agenda, including: Acquire another 20,000 prime acres selected by naturalists, rehab 30,000 acres overrun by invasive plants, and build a huge network of volunteers and members of a new Civilian Conservation Corps. We’re counting on a new policy council of volunteers with excellent conservation cred to ride herd on the plan. Distinguished groups such as Openlands and Metropolis Strategies also are on the case.
For those concerned about sprawl, efforts like those of the Cook County Forest Preserve, the DuPage County Forest Preserve, and other bodies have helped retain some open land amidst 9+ million residents in the Chicago region. These spaces are often more “natural” than sculpted parks even if I’ve heard hundreds of jokes about the lack of nature in northeastern Illinois (nature seems to equal hills or mountains for many). Chicago may be a world leader in regards to its lakefront parks but the collection of Forest Preserves across the region is also pretty unique.
On the other hand, it would be interesting to note how many Chicago area residents utilize these Forest Preserves that are within an easy drive for many. I drive past several DuPage Forest Preserve properties each day and yet I don’t think I visited any during this calendar year. (In contrast, I’ve used the Prairie Path dozens of times. This trail was started by citizens and today is maintained by a number of groups.) The Forest Preservers are supported with tax dollars so if people want a return on that money, they should utilize these spaces. (However, if everyone did, I suspect these places wouldn’t seem very natural.)