Removing a tree that predated Chicago

Before Chicago, there stood at least one oak tree:

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For almost three hours, crews from Fernandez Tree Service hacked away at one of Chicago’s oldest trees, a centuries-old, sprawling bur oak that had reached the end of its life span. The nearly 70-foot giant was here long before the zoo was built in 1868, when the area was just a lakeshore covered with tall grass, and possibly even predating the incorporation of the city of Chicago.

Director of horticulture at Lincoln Park Zoo Katrina Quint said the tree is 250 to 300 years old. The caramel cross-sections of the trunk have diameters of 60 inches…

Scott said that in northeastern Illinois, about 1 million acres of land used to be oak forests. There are only 17% of those oak ecosystems left, and 70% are in private ownership, meaning that they’re not in protected status, she said…

Morton Arboretum’s Robert Fahey wrote about this native species loss in the 2015 Oak Ecosystems Recovery Plan, led by the Chicago Wilderness and the Oak Ecosystems Recovery Working Group. Fahey overlaid 1830s public land survey data with 1939 aerial photography and 2010 analysis to see where oak ecosystems used to exist and where they exist now.

The Chicago area now has many trees, but losing one of its oldest trees both harms the ecosystem and severs a connection to the past. Trees are an important part of the landscape and can outlive development and people.

One thing that cities and suburbs tend to do is level the landscape, plop buildings, roads, and more on the ground, and place all sorts of infrastructure underground. It is hard to imagine that prior to the Chicago region, there existed sand dunes, waterways that operated differently (the Chicago River, in particular), groves of trees, swamps, and prairie spaces. The growth of Chicago was bad news for these natural settings as the city consumed land and resources, produced much pollution, and recreated “nature” along the lakefront and in parks.

I hope more people can see what areas looked like before mass development in the United States. This can help prompt thinking and action about what we might do with land beyond building houses and providing pathways for vehicles.

Want to see adults attached to their phones? Go to a local park

I am at neighborhood parks quite a bit with my kids. I have noticed that while kids are playing, the adults there with them are often on their phones.

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I get why. It is indeed tempting. The kids are running around and occupied. Their activity means that parents might have a few moments to themselves. The park often has benches or places to relax. Why not catch up on some texts or social media activity?

Even without kids around, parks feature plenty of phone use. Walk the dog and read the phone along the way. Try biking and phone use together. Lots of walking with earbuds in or headphones on.

However, parks can be inherently interesting places without phones. Kids are learning and developing skills. There are often hints of nature around, birds to spot, bodies of water to observe. There is plenty of people-watching to be done. If the park is a lively one, perhaps one envisioned by Jane Jacobs where people are using it in multiple ways and it is situated among other interesting uses, there is plenty to see and do.

Additionally, if people are concerned with phone and social media use for kids and adults, could parks be phone free zones or at least spaces where we work to use them less? It is not because it is immediately dangerous in parks – at least, not at the level where I consistently look around and spot drivers around me with their heads tilted down to their phones – but because good parks offer the potential for a respite from other parts of life. If parks, preserves, and green spaces can help restore our minds and bodies, are smartphones part of that equation?

(To be fair, adults are on their phones all over the place. I have just noticed it recently in parks amid my own efforts to use my phone less in this setting.)

The suburbs as the perfect places for drone deliveries

Where might drones make deliveries? One project in Texas suggests the suburbs make a lot of sense for such deliveries:

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Flytrex, which specializes in on-demand, ultrafast delivery for food and retail, is bringing food and grocery orders via drone to front and backyards.

According to a release, the service will be based in Granbury, in a partnership with restaurant chain Brinker International, home of Chili’s Grill & Bar, Maggiano’s Little Italy, and two virtual brands: It’s Just Wings and Maggiano’s Italian Classics.

The service is operating in cooperation with longtime partner Causey Aviation Unmanned under a newly granted Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) waiver allowing a delivery radius of one nautical mile – reaching thousands of potential homes. Eligible households can order food via the Flytrex app.

Their focus is on the suburbs, where on-demand delivery has previously been viewed as commercially unviable, since traditional couriers can make only two deliveries per hour in such areas. They have a video showing a drone at work on YouTube.

Granbury is a small town of just over 11,000 residents roughly 30 miles southwest of Fort Worth and on the edge of the Dallas metropolitan area.

More broadly, it is interesting to note that the population densities of Granbury and the suburbs are what might make delivery by drone viable. Americans tend to like suburbs and driving. But, this is not as good for delivering food or other items. The same kind of space Americans like for their suburban homes does not work well with quick deliveries.

How many deliveries can drones make in an hour compared to vehicles? Are there also advantages to suburban deliveries from not having to encounter many tall buildings or obstacles?

If drones are better for suburban deliveries, are suburbanites open to drones flying above their homes to bring them things they have ordered? Suburbanites also like a connection to nature and drones may not provide that if they are flying or they can be heard above homes. The same drones that enable a consumer lifestyle do not necessarily fit with an image of quiet suburban properties.

The marketing pitch in Chicago’s motto “Urbs in Horto”

Chicago’s official motto helped sell the city in the mid-1800s:

But as European descendants forcibly settled the region, and began turning land over to agriculture and then urbanization, the trees that remained were sparse holdovers from pre-settlement times. Many of the new trees they planted were non-native species for landscaping purposes, while animals distributed invasive tree species.

So the idea that Chicago was a “City in a Garden” when the motto Urbs in Horto was adopted by the city government in the 1830s is a bit of a misnomer, said Julia Bachrach, former historian for the Chicago Park District.

Bachrach said the 1830s brought a flurry of land speculation in the Chicago area, which city officials encouraged by enticing East Coast developers to buy up stretches of land. But first they had to convince developers the land was valuable.

“It was a bit of a PR move to call this marshy, windswept, ‘smelly onion’ city the ‘City in a Garden’,” Bachrach explained.

As this article goes on to describe in more detail, many of the trees, parks, and boulevards came later to Chicago. And many of the things Chicago later became known for – including “the city of broad shoulders,” skyscrapers, meatpacking, and divides – have few clear links to gardens and trees.

I recall reading Ann Durkin Keating’s Rising Up From Indian Country and being surprised by the presence of sand dunes along the shores of Lake Michigan in the early days of white settlement. As a kid reading and hearing about Chicago, the story always seemed to go the other way: filling in land along the lake with refuse from the great fire, reversing the flow of the Chicago River, and building a booming metropolis over whatever was there before. Chicago conquered nature to become what it was and then thought of parks, trees, gardens, and a lakefront. That it could feature nature in particular ways was a product of this mechanical and human progress.

Bonus facts: the motto is featured at the bottom of Chicago’s seal and is represented by one of the points of the fourth star on the Chicago flag.

Three responses to whether suburbanites can successfully steward land and nature

In unveiling a proposed development on a 700+ acre parcel in Lake County, one of the family members who currently own the land said this:

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“We are committed to providing long-term stewardship that will allow future generations to enjoy the amenities and natural beauty of this ground-breaking residential community”

Is it possible for this to happen in the suburbs? Here are three possible answers:

  1. Suburbanites cannot steward land and natural beauty. By virtue of being suburbia, the land is used poorly, roads and houses are put everywhere, habitats and ecosystems are disturbed, and the land and nature become just echoes of what they once were.
  2. On the opposite end of the spectrum: humans have tended land and nature for millennia. Suburbia can enhance land and nature for human use. Suburbia can even be beautiful if careful attention is paid to ensuring open space, lawns, parks, gardens, trees, and natural features.
  3. A somewhere in the middle position: suburbia can treat land and nature better or worse, depending on decisions about development and how everyday life looks when completed. There are features of suburban nature that are laughable – such as so-called “nature band-aids” in sprawling parking lots – and others that are more admirable – plots of natural plants, preserved trees, and Forest Preserves (to name a few).

I have heard/read all three positions. If the development goes forward as planned or in a similar format, future residents and visitors might find it difficult to envision what was there in a less-developed state. On the other hand, they might see a version of suburban nature that residents and the community see as helpful and worth preserving in the land of single-family homes and driving.

The spread of suburban chickens in the Chicago region

Are suburban chickens different than chickens living in other places? Residents of more Chicago area suburbs now have an opportunity to find out:

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Once a novel concept, more and more suburbs are permitting residents to raise backyard chickens. Among the latest is Rolling Meadows, which enacted regulations in 2019 allowing them, after rejecting the idea in 2014 and 2018. Others include Bartlett, Deerfield, Des Plaines, Evanston, Glencoe, Grayslake, Highland Park, Schaumburg and Wheeling,

American suburbs have an interesting relationship with nature, or “nature.” Are chickens part of the natural realm or part of the human transformation of land into sprawling subdivisions dominated by single-family homes and cars?

There are clearly ideas in suburbs about acceptable wildlife and animals that are not as accepted. Dogs and cats are in. Coyotes are present but are viewed as a threat. Canadian geese are generally disliked. Bison are rare so therefore interesting when roaming suburbia. Chickens are somewhere in the middle. Here is how the same article describes the different opinions:

Suburban proponents of backyard hens laud their benefits, such as a source of healthy eggs and an affordable food option.

Opponents, however, worry about the possible impact on neighbors, from the noise and odors to concerns about attracting coyotes.

Are chickens enhancing the suburban experience or detracting from it? More Chicago area communities are coming down on the positive. How long until the majority of suburbs allow chickens or are there significant barriers facing suburban chicken expansion?

Good for preserving suburban green space…but is it also contributing to inequality?

A group in the northwest suburbs of Chicago announced an agreement to buy and preserve nearly 250 acres of land:

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In a watershed moment for suburban land preservation efforts, a Barrington-based conservation group announced Monday it is buying the Richard Duchossois family’s 246.5-acre Hill ‘N Dale Farm South, long considered one of the most important and desirable tracts of open space in northern Illinois.

Citizens for Conservation’s acquisition of the land near Barrington Hills will ensure it remains protected open space and provide a critical wildlife corridor with the 4,000-acre Spring Creek Forest Preserve next door…

All told, the acquisition and restoration carries an estimated $10 million price tag, according to the organization. Citizens for Conservation received nearly half that through a $4.9 million grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, the largest such grant awarded for a single-parcel purchase…

Although not within Barrington Hills’ corporate limits, the property is surrounded by the village. Village President Brian Cecola was enthused by Citizens for Conservation’s acquisition of the land.

“Citizens for Conservation’s dedication to land preservation aligns with our village’s objectives of preserving open spaces and maintaining our 5-acre zoning. It’s a win-win for everyone involved,” he said.

With all of the concerns about land use and environmental degradation due to suburban sprawl, isn’t preserving space for animals, plants, and nature a win?

Here is another possible way to read this: the purchase of this land continues patterns of uneven development and inequality in metropolitan regions. How this might happen:

-Who has this kind of money to purchase the land? In this particular case, a non-profit secured a sizable grant – not an easy task in itself – and found other money. This group purchased and maintains property on its own and has contributed to Forest Preserve acquisitions.

-This green space is in a wealthier suburban setting. According to 2020 Census data, Barrington Hills has a median household income of over $157,000.

-As described above, Barrington Hills has a guideline involving 5-acre zoning. Such zoning practices mean properties are larger and both the land and housing is more expensive. This limits who can live in the community.

Hopefully, there is some consideration given to who benefits from using this green space and how all people in metropolitan regions could benefit from proximity to and access to nature and green spaces.

What is gained and lost in trading a grass lawn for artificial turf?

Prompted by climate change and other factors, more property owners around the world are switching to artificial turf. What is gained in the trade?

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A couple of decades ago, artificial turf was often a thin carpet atop a hard surface—rough on the knees as well as the eyes. Athletes playing on it complained that it wore their legs out. But as the product improved, so did homeowners’ interest. From the US to the UK, artificial grass retailers have seen sales tick up during pandemic lockdowns, when housebound property owners put their money toward home improvements. Indeed, Google Trends shows a worldwide surge in searches for “artificial grass” during the middle of 2020.

Even the most famous grass enthusiasts like the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club are open to the idea. The organization behind the Wimbledon championship is trialing hybrid court surfaces—real grass weaved with plastic fibers—to promote lawn tennis in climates worldwide and extend the season in the UK.

Still, all of this fake grass sprouting across the planet has sparked backlash. Some of the biggest protests have been in Australia, where synthetic turf installations became more common in home gardens and playing fields during the Millennium Drought—a roughly 12-year dry spell that ended in 2009. Many cities and regions faced extreme water restrictions that included a total ban on lawn watering in some areas…

The most obvious environmental problem with artificial grass is it’s rooted in the biggest climate nemesis of all: fossil fuel. Synthetic turf is made from a stew of petroleum-based components, making it nearly impossible to recycle. At the end of an artificial lawn’s useful life, which is about 15 years, it will likely go to a landfill or be incinerated…

Yet, even if artificial turf becomes easy to recycle, real grass will still in some ways be greener. Grass naturally absorbs carbon dioxide. Its soil supports wildlife from worms to birds. There are varieties for almost any kind of climate. Unless, of course, that climate doesn’t have enough water.

The legacy of the suburban lawn will be long indeed if the manicured green grass is replaced by green artificial turfs for decades. If it is no longer grass, is the desirable part the color or the nostalgia?

As noted elsewhere in the article, the artificial turf is not the only option. In places like Las Vegas, a rockscape or desert setting is more appropriate. Elsewhere, a yard may be filled with native plants or a garden. If the purpose of the lawn is to provide a connection to nature for the residents, these options can fit the bill in a way that artificial lawns cannot.

The real trick would seem to be creating an artificial turf that better mimics a grass lawn in look and feel without negative environmental impact. A soft and lush lawn that does not need watering, does not rely heavily on fossil fuels, and is similar to the image many Americans have of the proper yard of a single-family home? That may be the lawn worth keeping in yards across the country.

Alphabet’s proposed Toronto “smart city” project vs. a new development more about nature and people

A new Toronto development is in the works where Alphabet once had plans for a “smart city” project:

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In every way, Quayside 2.0 promotes the notion that an urban neighborhood can be a hybrid of the natural and the manmade. The project boldly suggests that we now want our cities to be green, both metaphorically and literally—the renderings are so loaded with trees that they suggest foliage is a new form of architectural ornament. In the promotional video for the project, Adjaye, known for his design of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History, cites the “importance of human life, plant life, and the natural world.” The pendulum has swung back toward Howard’s garden city: Quayside 2022 is a conspicuous disavowal not only of the 2017 proposal but of the smart city concept itself.

To some extent, this retreat to nature reflects the changing times, as society has gone from a place of techno-optimism (think: Steve Jobs introducing the iPhone) to a place of skepticism, scarred by data collection scandals, misinformation, online harassment, and outright techno-fraud. Sure, the tech industry has made life more productive over the past two decades, but has it made it better? Sidewalk never had an answer to this…

Indeed, the philosophical shift signaled by the new plan, with its emphasis on wind and rain and birds and bees rather than data and more data, seems like a pragmatic response to the demands of the present moment and the near future. The question is whether this new urban Eden truly offers a scenario that will rein in global warming or whether it’s “green” the way a smart city is “smart.” How many pocket forests and neighborhood farms will it take to cool the planet?

Whatever its practical impact, renderings of the new version of Quayside suggest a more livable place. The development promises something incredibly obvious that the purveyors of the smart city missed: a potential for daily life to be pleasurable. As MaRS Discovery District CEO and tech entrepreneur Yung Wu puts it: “What is the vision that inspires people to want to live here, to work here, to raise their families and children and grandchildren here? What is it that inspires that?”

“It’s not a smart city,” he concludes. “It’s a city that’s smart.”

I wrote about the earlier project here and it is interesting to see this update. I would guess the “smart city” will still come but perhaps through different forms including more incremental changes, smaller and less high-profile projects that test the concepts first, and perhaps through examples in other countries where guidelines and regulations are different.

Additionally, does this mean Alphabet and similar companies will no longer pursue such projects or will they seek more favorable conditions? Or, what happens if tech companies provide a more convincing argument that tech and nature can go together in urban forms?

At this point, it is hard to imagine tech retreating much but how exactly it continues to develop and merge with urban and built spaces remains to be seen. It is one thing to push technology through individuals or private actors but it is another level to build it in into the infrastructure from the beginning.

A shopping mall with protected wetlands

I recently shopped at a mall with protected wetlands:

The first thought I had upon seeing this was of “nature band-aids” that can often be found in suburbia as described by James Howard Kunstler. Shopping malls are known for many things but nature is not one of them.

Or, perhaps these are real wetlands that make contributions to the local ecosystem? This outlet mall has a location similar to many other malls: in the suburbs along a major roadway. I could imagine a need for land for animals and water amid development in the recent decades.

It would be interesting to know how these areas came about. Was part of the development of the land contingent on setting land aside for wetlands? Was a discovery made later about local nature? Is there some precedent among shopping malls for this?