Chicago’s Unexpected Landscape

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #12 in August 2012]

The sun peaks through the woodland canopy as I gaze upward and see a red-tailed hawk soaring just above the trees. As I walk through the woods the lack of car alarms and police sirens make it almost seem quiet except for the occasional falling dead tree branch and the cacophony of woodland birds and frogs: cat birds mewing and spring peepers shrilling. In just a few minutes this serene site will become temporary habitat for some of nature’s noisiest creatures: fifth graders. These students are walking from their nearby school for an all day field trip at Eggers Grove on Chicago’s far south side and I am savoring an early sunlit morning before it begins. As I wait for them to arrive, I spot a bright yellow warbler jumping from branch to branch and looking slightly further I notice, in the distance through the trees, a zooming rust red semi-truck as it passes through on the Skyway to Indiana. Here, at 112th and Ave E, I temporarily feel immersed in the wild and am struck by the intersection of city and nature and the students that get to traverse both of these seemingly disparate places on this warm spring day.

These pictures aim to show spaces where nature and city intersect, overlap, and coexist on Chicago’s south side. They reflect ways that Chicagoans enjoy and restore one of the world’s largest urban natural area systems: the Forest Preserve District of Cook County’s 68,000 plus acres of forest, prairie, wetlands, and recreational areas. These pictures also highlight how many Chicagoans are creatively adapting and creatively approaching the region’s industrial past and speak to our rich social, cultural, and ecological history in the region.

According to Raymond Williams, the use of the word “city” proliferated during the Industrial Revolution and rose up as a way to define specifically what it was not: the countryside, which at that time referred to an “unspoiled place” where nature was present. Wilderness and metropolis are often thought of as at odds, separate and distinct, however cities and nature are intricately related and shape each other. Chicago grew into an urban hub because merchants, traders, and industrialists found the glacier-created landscape provided a spot where goods and raw materials can be easily transported and Chicago’s today is shaped by the confluence of people that flocked to southern Lake Michigan’s flat, soggy shores in search of livelihoods.

Chicago’s Natural and Social Histories

Regional natural history has shaped Chicago’s social and cultural landscape and people in turn have modified the natural environmental over time. As the glaciers ebbed and expanded some 26,000 -13,000 years ago they crafted a network of wetlands, prairies, and ridges along the shores of what is now Lake Michigan. Miami and Potowatami Native American tribes navigated the region on those ridges as well as in canoes, which they used when they sought out reeds to make peace pipes, which the French fur traders understood as “Calumet” and would later name what is now southern Chicago and northwestern Indiana. Native Americans fundamentally shaped the region’s landscape for thousands of years. In addition to agricultural modifications to the landscape (they were farmers in addition to hunters), they regularly burned the area, so much so that our local natural communities adapted to be fire-dependent. Today, natural areas are often the sites of prescribed burns to sustain fire-dependent ecosystems.

Chicago’s days teeming with plants and animals began to come to a close when the first French explorers and fur traders arrived in the area in the 1670s. Farms began to speckle the landscape as primarily European settlers arrived over the next few centuries. Illinois’ vast prairies provided rich agricultural soil and their demolition was said to create a ripping noise that sounded like fast rounds of bullets being shot in battle as the intense webs of prairie plant roots were torn.
Chicago’s was officially founded in 1833, and by 1890 southern Chicago and northwestern Indiana was one of the largest steel producing regions in the world. Industrial investors were drawn to the area due to its immense network of wetlands – bogs, fens, marshes, and swamps – that characterized the Calumet region. To them, these wetlands were ideal wastelands to dump their slag and toxic waste due to their expansiveness and low-price tag.  They were also both close to intermodal transportation and thought to be far enough away from Chicago’s center to thwart possible labor organizing. Industry brought major changes to the soggy landscape as ridges were leveled, wetlands were filled and waterways were dredged. By the end of the 19th century over 1 million people had flocked to the region from all over the globe in search of work in the booming steel and other industries and over 400 languages were spoken in Chicago.

Chicago residents have a variety of responses of Chicago’s industrial legacy. The loss of 20,000 steel-industry jobs in the region in the 1980s has set the current Chicago stage, one similar to other rust belt cities that are dealing with poverty, unemployment, pollution, and violence when the boom is over. Examples of creative responses to current economic circumstances and repurposing former industrial sites are many; here Pullman beekeepers and gardeners that are actively using the historic Pullman rail car factory on 111th and Cottage Grove to produce food and honey.


“Are we going to see wolves?” a sixth grade student asks me earnestly as he enters Eggers Grove with the field trip group. I quickly assure him (with complete seriousness) that wolves and other predators to worry about no longer live in the region. Despite the fragmentation and destruction of the natural habitats that led to the loss of larger, scarier mammals like wolves, Chicago today has remaining pockets of critical natural habitat and significant natural areas, some of which are quite unique and rare.

Biodiversity refers to the combination of variety of genes, species, and ecosystems in a given place. Illinois contains important biodiversity with some of the world’s most endangered and least conserved habitats such as the tallgrass prairies and their ecological buddy: oak savannas. Today very little prairie is left; only 0.01% of Illinois original prairies remain, however many people are working to restore and improve this endangered habitat. The Chicago region is fortunate to have over 700 plant species, 85 of which are considered rare at state or global levels, as well as more than 300 birds, including 18 rare ones.

Nodding wild onion in a Pullman neighborhood yard.


“Ewww! You ate THAT!?” Is the response I receive after nibbling a Garlic Mustard leaf to demonstrate why this intruder plant was brought over by German settlers in the 1800s. After some students decide to bravely taste a plant that came from the ground in front of them, we begin to pull, and pull and pull garlic mustard in order to let a little light and space reach the remaining native plants. Restoration efforts, such as these, are important ways that Chicago students and residents are enjoying and protecting their natural spaces.


In order to protect Chicago’s unique regional biodiversity, residents must first know and enjoy them in order to be able to protect them. As more than half of the world’s population now inhabits urban areas, the nooks where city and wild intersect become increasingly special. These pockets of wild become havens both for flora and fauna of woodlands, prairies, and wetlands, but also the two-footed mammals that often crave a nature getaway, which, turns out, are just steps from their front door.

Want to enjoy some of Chicago’s urban and wild intersections? Check out for a list of places to visit in Cook County. Interested in getting involved in local restoration efforts and recreational activities? Check out The Field Museum for a list of regional restoration activities:

Birds of the Windy City: Discover Over 300 Species Right Here in Chicago
Biodiversity Recovery Plan, Chicago Wilderness
An Atlas of Biodiversity, Chicago Wilderness
Sustaining Our Natural Heritage: Ten (Suggested) Conservation Commandments, Douglas Ladd, The Nature Conservancy
Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society by Raymond Williams
The City and the Natural Environment by Joel A. Tarr, Carnegie Mellon University
A Mirror Cracked: Ten Keys to the Landscape of the Calumet Region by Mark J. Bouman, Journal of Geography, 100:104-110, copyright 2001 National Council for Geographic Education



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