Northerly Island is Going Public

Northerly Island is Going Public

The city of Chicago is preparing to open Northerly Island, formerly Meigs Field airport, to the public for the first time in more than 60 years, and the Lake Michigan Federation’s volunteer-driven natural area plan will help guide usage of the urban site. “We are interested in the Federation leading [the Northerly Island] broad-based planning and outreach efforts in cooperation with the Chicago Park District,” said Mary Ann Smith, Chicago 48th ward alderman and chair of the city’s Committee on Parks and Recreation.

The Federation first presented its recommendations for the conversion of Meigs Field into a nature preserve to the Chicago Park District in 2001. Now, with the permanent closure of the airport, Chicago citizens are anticipating a natural open space on the shores of the largest city in the Great Lakes Basin.

“What’s good for fish and wildlife is good for people,”says Joel Brammeier, Federation habitat coordinator. “With the right plan and assistance from local and regional stakeholders, this site will offer an experience found nowhere else in the Great Lakes.”

The Federation’s plan for the peninsula will introduce ecosystems familiar to the lakefront that existed before Chicago was settled, including small protected harbors, dunes, and woodlands. The plan builds on the 1909 Plan of Chicago, which called for the Lake Michigan shore to be “a haven – an urban sanctuary – for people and nature.” “Chicago can show the world that nature can thrive in a world-class city” says Gary Wilson, chair of the Lakefront Task Force, the Federation volunteer group that has worked more than two years to develop and support the Federation’s plan. “We’re building on Mayor Daley’s 1996 plan to establish Chicago’s prominence as the leading waterfront nature city on the globe.”

With the Mayor’s signing of the Urban Conservation Treaty for Migratory Birds and the Chicago Park District’s endorsement of the 1999 Chicago Wilderness Biodiversity Recovery Plan, the city has become more focused on its need to protect and enhance our natural environment. The Federation plan offers some important new innovations that address these needs by calling for an outdoor nature museum, with a shoreline prairie and wetland habitat that attracts fish, birds, and other wildlife to spawn, nest, and forage, but requires little maintenance.The plan also will make the point a key stopover along the international migratory bird flyway that runs through the Chicago region.

The city intends to “green” Northerly Island by the end of 2003. This simply entails removal of the airport tarmac and demolition of several small buildings. Once the site passes inspection for any remaining contamination, it will be planted with a mix of grasses and native plants to facilitate public access to the site. By next spring, the planning process should be in full swing with the Federation working with other local community groups to move towards a naturalized landscape on Northerly Island.


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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.