Exploring the Nature of Diversity in Chicago

by Eoin O’Neill

Author details: Dr. Eoin O’Neill is a tenured Lecturer in Environmental Policy at University College Dublin and is visiting at DePaul University for the Autumn Quarter, hosted by the Department of Environmental Science and Studies.

Whilst visiting at DePaul and as an urban dweller in Chicago, I’m somewhat unusual; I don’t have a car and can be seen with my wife walking the streets at all hours pushing a large red buggy, which we have been told is a rather ‘awesome stroller’ and ‘like a red Cadillac’. While it takes us longer to get everywhere, walking allows for an intimate acquaintance with hidden nooks of Chicago that I may otherwise never have seen. It also allows for time to reflect and appreciate the diversity to be found within and between its neighbourhoods.

As I walk (or sometimes travel elevated on the ‘L’), I often wonder whether the difference in the types of ‘nature’, crudely assessed in terms of observable trees/vegetation, experienced by people in various neighbourhoods is in anyway attributable to some form of interplay between environment and cultural factors. On one of our walks, for example, one moves across an invisible boundary and the intensely green and manicured grass verges, the street trees, shrubs and flowers in a highly maintained urban setting give way to a relatively un-manicured urban environment, and a different cultural influence clearly apparent along the streetscape.  Whilst the type of ‘nature’ on the street is visibly different, seemingly limited to occasional window boxes and less well maintained street planting (with different biodiversity potential), I wonder whether the influence of culture is a significant factor influencing how communities express environmental preferences or appreciate nature; or whether the manner in which nature is revealed locally is predominantly resource driven? Or maybe they are inextricably linked with both having an influence in combination.

To my untrained eye, culture does not seem to be a hugely significant factor; however, the impact of the distribution of financial resources is visibly a significant influencing factor on the type of nature evident in parts of Chicago.  Some neighbourhoods look like they are entering into a period of significant transition (or transformation).  Extreme examples include extensive areas of abandoned or derelict homes and lots etc. with a less structured nature re-emerging apparent in some neighborhoods (see http://57thandnormal.com/ – although this is a drastic case).  I imagine that neighhorhoods losing their sense of urbanity might generate negative feelings and a sense of uncertainty for residents in an otherwise regulated urban setting.  Such feelings may come from recollections of experiences attached to the place as it was; and perhaps from efforts to exclude, and avoid, risky aspects of ‘authentic’ nature from the regulated environment.  Moreover, the emergence of multi-generations of urban dwellers (a global phenomenon) has probably increased the level of disconnect between people and nature.

These ‘abandoned’ parts of the Chicago urban landscapes (see also, for example, http://abandonedchicago.tumblr.com/) are in a state of flux – sufficiently managed to avoid emergence of much of a sense of wilderness; but at the opposite end of a spectrum that might be signified by Grove at al. ‘ecology of prestige’.  However, it seems that some new ideas are emerging within the policy community about using this change to bring about prospects for a more purposeful yet beneficial experience of such nature for affected residents.  Whilst thinking about Green Infrastructure solutions (such as rain gardens, urban agriculture, parks etc.) is not unusual, with some examples apparent as I walk around, perhaps the systemic thinking being applied by participants in the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative, to (amongst other efforts) strategically coordinate repurposing of parcels of vacant land to better manage stormwater is innovative.  (I recently attended a meeting of this group, in an observer capacity.  The collaborative model in this case comprising c. 30 stakeholder agencies and non-profits looks like it may be worthy of replication beyond Chicago.)

 Pilsen

An improved ‘vacant’ lot in Pilsen generating ecosystem services.

From a policy perspective such circumstances present opportunities for such innovations; however, the period during which an individual’s neighborhood becomes re-defined is at least socially disruptive and a ‘messy’ experience for residents who have to live through the transition.  But perhaps other places can learn from these experiences.

Sticking to the water-related theme, the newly developed (and developing) riverside walk along the Chicago River provides a pleasant break from the immediate hazard walking alongside city traffic and the stop-start of pedestrian crossings, generating feelings of relaxation as noise levels are abated at the lower level of the water.  Similarly the walk alongside the lakeshore gives an even greater access to an unbroken, authentic, and sometimes wild vista.  Alternatively, the recently opened Bloomingdale Trail, developed on a former rail line, provides an enjoyable elevated perspective within the urban environment.  However its appearance differs from my expectations with the trail being a concrete pavement rather than a beaten path.

Trail

A section of the Bloomingdale Trail passing Bucktown

More generally, and apparent to me no matter where I walk, is the extensive amount of street-trees, bringing with them various environmental benefits in addition to well-established wellbeing and stress-reduction benefits, which must surely be welcomed by most city residents.  On the other hand, and as a consequence, the lack of any green planting on most back-alleys and laneways off main streets provides a harsh setting, especially against the backdrop of tall buildings with limited direct sunlight.

I must admit that my reflections are influenced by my background, where there is a much more homogenous society (predominantly white and of Irish and European origin), and limited evidence of any significant contemporary non-European cultural influences imprinting itself on the Irish landscape so far, of which I am aware.  The pie chart below portrays the ethnic or cultural background of all people (Irish and non-Irish) resident in Ireland at the time of the most recent census (2011).

Chart

Source: Central Statistics Office 2011. Available from www.cso.ie  Accessed 10/29/2015.

Maybe the scale of the City of Chicago, being just under three times larger (by population) than Dublin, and with a far more extensive and vastly more culturally diverse and populous metropolitan region, means the landscape in all its guises is reflective of the environmental preferences of its various constituent communities.  Somewhat contrary to my elementary musings here, some recent findings from New York (Grove et al. 2014), suggest that socio-economic factors alone are not sufficient to explain which neighborhoods have the most exposure to nature (assessed by vegetative cover measured by tree canopy and lawns).  Perhaps this type of analysis may be an important consideration when advocating for green infrastructure and ecological restoration initiatives more widely across Chicago in the future.  Indeed the Great Rivers Chicago initiative (GreatRiversChicago.com) seems to be a good example of engaging with communities to establish their preferences for a better relationship with, and improved access to, an aspect of nature.

meeting

Attendees and facilitators at the Great Rivers Chicago public open-house meeting at the Ping Tom Memorial Park Fieldhouse in Chinatown (10/28/2015).

 

Meanwhile, I’ll continue to enjoy my walks around the city and its neighborhoods.

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Filed under Climate Change, commons, ecologies, economicss, environmental justice, Equity, Policy, politics, Uncategorized

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