Some of our nice, newly landscaped parks — in particular Barry, Maple and Euclid Square — are what I call "faux green spaces." Sure, they look green. They have plenty of grass and trees, and from a human standpoint, are admirably designed for all kinds of recreation. However, for nonhuman residents of our community, such as birds and pollinators, they function as "landscapes of death."
Many bird species, both resident and migratory, need more than trees and grass to survive. They need bushes that provide cover and food, in particular native, flowering, fruit-bearing bushes such as chokeberries, coralberries, spicebushes and native viburnums, to name a few. These kinds of shrubs serve birds' habitat needs and also attract the kinds of insects that birds need to feed their young. Almost everyone knows that pollinators such as bees and butterflies are in decline. Besides native flowering bushes, native flowers and grasses would help provide refuge, and the nectar and pollen they need. Finally, rain gardens planted with natives would not only help birds and pollinators, but also would help our community practice wise rainwater management.
In addition, these parks' simplified plantings, seemingly modeled on suburban corporate campuses, are hardly worthy of our prairie-style design heritage. Incomplete and unsatisfying, they detract from the park user's experience. Maple Park, in particular, needs something more than an open fence to shelter the park from the noisy, distracting traffic on Harlem. A naturalistic, mixed border of native shrubs would do the trick. One fears what the great prairie-style landscape designer Jens Jensen would think of the present arrangement. He, by combining sensitivity to the real Illinois landscape with brilliant planning, managed to fuse human-use requirements with naturalistic plantings in his complex, beautiful park designs. We should do the same.
As an Oak Park resident committed to community sustainability and ecosystem health, I did take part in the park district's community-input process; I'm not sure who was responsible for the final plant selections. The results are disappointing to those of us who care about creating and improving green infrastructure. I find it painful to walk in these parks because their functionality is so one-dimensional, rendering them so much less than they could be.
Oak Park's evolving commitment to green infrastructure and truly sustainable design should extend to these parks. We can do much, much better. Appropriate shrubs, pollinator plantings and rain gardens, strategically placed along fences and in other low-use areas, would do a great deal to reintegrate these faux green spaces into the real ecosystem — without at all hindering human use. In fact, these additions would enhance the recreational experience while making these open spaces genuinely green — and more beautiful.
Adrian Ayres Fisher serves on the Triton College Green Committee and the Oak Park-River Forest Interfaith Green Network, and volunteers with the Thatcher Woods Savanna Restoration Project. She blogs at www.ecologicalgardening.net.