In the wide-ranging conversation that is currently happening around the future of Oak Park Village Hall and the police station, a small contingent of commentary has centered on a desire to protect the current expanse of green space south of the current building. Some have called it a “Village Green” or a “Public Plaza” — generous descriptions of what is currently a vast expanse of low value, under-programmed turf grass.
While it is true that the current giant lawn is certainly preferable to a paved parking lot (that honor is reserved for the space to its north), its current state offers limited value to our climate or our community. Turf grass consumes a lot of resources in the name of maintenance, while contributing virtually nothing in terms of carbon sequestration, biodiversity, heat island reduction, and storm water management when compared to native plants and grasses.
Meanwhile, nearby Longfellow Park provides many more options for play and outdoor activity for children and families. If this property is ultimately determined to be the best location for a new police station, it could be an opportunity to reimagine the space in a way that simultaneously advances Oak Park’s climate and biodiversity goals — especially since the building presumably wouldn’t require any new parking, the worst offender in terms of climate unfriendly land uses.
What could a true “public plaza” look like in the time of climate crisis? How can native plants and trees, rain gardens, constructed wetlands, walking paths, educational signage and other more formal community spaces be integrated alongside a building to create a holistic, engaging and climate resilient community hub?
The opportunity to reimagine a higher and better use for this giant patch of grass is well-timed with news that the village is exploring an ordinance to formally allow and encourage native plantings in our other vast expanse of turf — Oak Park’s many miles of parkways.
Native plants not only attract pollinators and wildlife; their deep roots enable them to better withstand periods of drought and more efficiently soak up water from heavy rains, two extreme weather patterns that Oak Park has had the honor of experiencing in just one summer.
With unpredictability our new normal, every bit of turf grass in the village converted to native plants is a high-value investment in a more comfortable, engaging and climate-resilient community.