The Wild Mile is an improvement project that is turning a mile-long section of the polluted Chicago River into a wildlife sanctuary. Josh Yellin, a former canoe instructor in Alaska, came up with the idea after trying to canoe the Chicago River.
“You shouldn’t have to go to the backcountry of Alaska to have this type of experience with nature. We can have it with thoughtful design in cities,” he said in a blog post on the Wharton School website.
“Adding wildlife into a city is the next step in a revolution that’s been transforming sites into places that are inhabitable, vital and spur economic development,” wrote Blair Kamin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning architectural critic of the Chicago Tribune.
As a testament to Yellin’s determination, all of the new landscape and ecological plantings are built on a system of floating islands, since decades ago parts of the river were walled for factories and industrial uses.
The project is an example of a larger phenomenon that is sweeping the world: rewilding.
For over 10 years, the Rewilding Europe agency has pushed a continental initiative to heighten biodiversity.
Rewild Britain is a national campaign led by Rebecca Wrigley and Alistair Driver, who report to the prime minister, so important is the initiative to their country. Since 2013, the Republic of Ireland initiated a campaign to rewild its national rivers, and Dublin announced in March plans to rewild Phoenix Park, the largest urban park in Europe.
And if you’re wondering why China is spending $3.2 billion dollars to rewild the open areas in Beijing, it’s to rectify their life-threatening air pollution and heighten tourist revenue.
When I was trying to figure out what the Chinese had discovered to justify a multibillion-dollar investment in nature, Google took me to a 2001 economic study by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. According to the 20-year-old study, more than a million people travel to Texas to observe wildlife each year, spending, at the time, more than a quarter of a billion dollars on travel. The 3 million Texans who claimed wildlife watching as their primary form of outdoor recreation, according to the study, added another $1.2 billion for equipment and services to the Texas economy.
Taken together, $11 billion was generated annually for wildlife appreciation at that time, the majority of which stayed in Texas. The 2020 figures are surely higher. This was the unexpected revelation on my journey to rewilding that opened my eyes.
Architecture is a profession that artfully shelters the human condition. Before a line is drawn for a new building, a program of interior uses is carefully formed and written that quantitatively and qualitatively summarizes what purpose, how and for whom the building will serve. Buildings are tailored for the occupants they shelter.
For the entire history of the human condition, the same process has not been accorded to the nonhuman species, the occupants that inhabit the landscapes, parks, backyards, even the infrastructure and agricultural projects that the human condition builds for itself. The consequences are alarming.
According the U.S. Nature Conservancy, less than 1% of the original Blackland Prairie in North Texas remains. They consider it the most threatened ecology in North America for extinction.
Texas could be a national thought leader for how communities can change course.
Every project, even a modest backyard landscape, can rewild a portion that may be peripheral to human needs, but the rich and diverse array of rewilded plants would be greatly appreciated by the other species we often neglect: butterflies, hummingbirds, honeybees that pollinate our food sources, and other species that enable the recovery and success of the planetary environment.
With the bad news of devastated ecologies, increasing climate change, declines in bird populations, mass extinctions, etc., rewilding can be an important part of the solution. And you and I are the ones who can do it.
It can be as simple as starting to plant natives in your yard to provide food and larval sources for birds, mammals and insects or using your leaves as mulch instead of having them carted to the landfill. We can call and write to our government representatives. We can advocate for local rewilded areas in our creeks, parks and parking lots.
We are not helpless.
Kevin Sloan is a landscape architect in Dallas. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.