Friday, July 30, 2010

Paradise Preserved: The Magnificence of Chicago's Botanic Garden

Chicago's greatest urban planner, Daniel Burnham, is famous for saying "make no little plans." And on a recent trip back to the city where I was born and a visit to its world renowned botanic gardens, I realized exactly what he meant.

Located about 20 minutes outside the city, in the north shore suburb of Glencoe, Illinois, the Chicago Botanic Garden is a 385-acre living plant museum situated on nine islands featuring 23 display gardens surrounded by lakes, as well as a prairie and woodlands.

And while Burnham had no connection with its origin, the garden is by no means a "little plan." In fact it is one of the United States' most visited public gardens and a center for learning and scientific research. Each year it has 760,000 visitors. The membership, currently at 50,000, the largest of any U.S. public garden. More than 1,000 volunteers assist with all aspects of the Garden’s mission, from planting and propagating natural areas, to teaching educational programs and staffing public programs and exhibitions. The Chicago Botanic Garden is only one of 10 public gardens accredited by the American Association of Museums, recognizing its living collection of 2.4 million plants.

Chicago's 1893 World Columbian Exhibition.
Owned by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County and managed by the Chicago Horticultural Society, the Chicago Botanic Garden opened to the public in 1972 and is home to the Joseph Regenstein, Jr. School of the Chicago Botanic Garden, offering a classes in plant science, landscape design and gardening arts. The Center for Teaching and Learning brings information on nature and plants to children, teens and teachers. Horticultural Therapy and Community Gardening provide community outreach and service programs. Through the Institutes of Plant Conservation and Ornamental Plant Research, Garden scientists work on plant conservation, research and environmental initiatives.

Specifically, 200 such scientists address threats to endangered flora, train plant conservation leaders and research plant conservation policy. Programs and research focus on the collection, evaluation, introduction and preservation of plants within the context of threats such as climate change, global warming and human impacts.

In 2007, the Chicago Botanic Garden announced plans for a three-phased initiative that would create a 15-acre science campus located at the south end of the Garden. In 2008, the Garden broke ground for a 38,000-square-foot Plant Conservation Science Center, named for Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice. The Rice Center has a sustainable design, with certification at the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold level.

The Center includes a green roof-top garden, seven research labs, an expanded herbarium, a new seed bank area, new classrooms and seminar rooms, twenty offices for research scientists and a public gallery that allows visitors to see behind-the-scenes conservation science at work. A bridge from Evening Island connects the main garden to this new campus.

Fountain alongside a lake.

Visitors are able to see scientists at work in labs, walk to the green roof top garden, and observe the Tall Grass Prairie millennium seed bank. The Rice Plant Conservation Science Center opened in Fall of 2009.

Likewise, the Chicago Botanic Garden was chosen by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) as the sole North American host for World Environment Day 2008 with the theme, "CO2 - Kick the Habit! Towards a Low Carbon Economy."

The English Garden.
Japanese House on the Japanese garden's grounds.

On June 5 of each year the Garden and other venues around the world, highlight resources and initiatives that promote low carbon economies and lifestyles, such as improved energy efficiency, alternative energy sources, forest conservation, and eco-friendly consumption.

Art at the Garden
Over thirty non-profit, academic, cultural and environmental organizations participated in the Knowledge and Action Marketplace on the Garden's Esplanade. Displays and representatives discussed products to help green homes, local carpools, volunteer and community conservation programs, classes on green gardening, the use of CFL light bulbs, vehicles that run on used vegetable oil and even appliances that pop popcorn using solar energy.

Organizations participating in the event included the Center for Neighborhood Technology, offering car-sharing information; CNT Energy, working with ComEd to provide information about Watt Spot, a program to assist homeowners who want to pay market price for electricity. Northern Illinois Energy Project, provided free CFL bulbs. Chicago Wilderness and Openlands, provided information about local conservation and restoration programs and Horrigan Urban Forest Products highlighted the best uses for reclaimed wood from urban trees.

Make no little plans? Indeed!--D.A. DeMers


Images credits: CBG images by Douglas A. DeMers, free to use under CC license 1.0. Other CBG images via Wikipedia share alike license. Columbian Exhibition image via share alike public domain license.

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