Each day on the way to and from work I drive past multiple Forest Preserve properties. They are generally green and open, providing a relaxing scene under the rising sun or after a long day. Yet, how much are they really about preserving or protecting nature as opposed to improving the quality of life of suburbanites? Are these two goals antithetical to each other?
The DuPage County Forest Preserve – alongside others in the Chicago metropolitan region – has been aggressive over the decades in purchasing land. The pace of acquisition picked up after World War II in the era of mass suburbanization where development eventually spread throughout all of Cook, DuPage, and Lake County. See an animation here of the land acquired by the DuPage County Forest Preserve since 1920.
The mission of the organization is stated here:
As mandated by the Illinois Downstate Forest Preserve Act, our mission is “to acquire and hold lands containing forests, prairies, wetlands, and associated plant communities or lands capable of being restored to such natural conditions for the purpose of protecting and preserving the flora, fauna and scenic beauty for the education, pleasure and recreation of its citizens.”
The mission mentions both nature and citizens. But, one way to look at the acquisitions is that they enhance the quality of life of wealthier residents by providing green and/or open space that will not be developed, offering recreational opportunities, and raising property values for nearby housing and not just for those that border the properties but for numerous developments who don’t have to contend with more nearby developments. Of course, forest preserves and parks can be used by residents of all class backgrounds. Yet, taking away all of the land from possible development means that affordable housing – already limited in wealthier places like DuPage County – may be even less possible. Property values are always lurking in the background of development decisions in the suburbs and I suspect it is relevant here.
Additionally, “protecting and preserving” nature is a tricky business. It is not exactly in a “natural state” as human beings have been in the area for at least hundreds of years going back to the first white settlers in the 1830s and Native American groups as least a few decades before that. These Forest Preserves present a particular kind of nature, one that this is never too far from busy roads, housing developments, tricky water run-off situations, and pollution. This is made more clear in the term sometimes used of “open space” where concerned suburbanites want empty land.
In the end, do suburbanites really desire Forest Preserves for the mediated nature they provide or the enhanced quality of life they bring? The answer might be both but we rarely discuss the implications of the second reason.