Urban nature on Museum Campus would make a healthier, more resilient Chicago

While Museum Campus is home to some of our city’s greatest institutions, the space that links them together is ready for revitalization.

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Young people from the Field Museum’s Summer Learning Center program work on the grounds outside the museum.

Young people from one of the Field Museum’s Summer Learning Center programs work on the grounds outside the museum.

Provided by Field Museum

Museum Campus is one of the vibrant threads in the rich cultural fabric of our city. Nowhere else in Chicago, and maybe in the world, can you feed a stingray, touch a dinosaur fossil, listen to a concert, cheer on a sports team, and gaze at the stars — all within steps of one another.

But while Museum Campus is home to some of our city’s greatest institutions, the space that links them together is ready for revitalization.

Each year, Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum, and Adler Planetarium welcome nearly 5 million guests to Museum Campus. Thousands more pass through on a bike ride or lakeside run, bring picnics for evening fireworks, or snap photos while taking in the stunning skyline views.

The recently released report findings, “Where Worlds Connect,” from the Museum Campus Working Group, proposes a reinvigorated Museum Campus that benefits all, adding hundreds of millions more dollars in economic activity to what is already generated annually and creating a greater sense of space and belonging for residents.

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The most impactful, exciting aspect of this vision is to transform this space into an urban nature retreat. The proposed expansion of campus green space would not only further position the city as a model of sustainability but also — and just as importantly — provide more equitable access to this oasis of nature. 

Replacing concrete and turf grass with native flowers, grasses, and trees will have an exponential effect on the city’s ability to sustain wildlife and weather climate change, as plants provide a buffer from the worst effects of extreme heat, flooding, and pollution. Adding native plants to Museum Campus will make it a much-needed haven for the bees, butterflies, and other pollinators essential to our food crops and ecosystems. It will also provide a safe rest stop for the five million birds, of 250 different species, that migrate along Chicago’s lakefront each year. Additionally, responsible lighting of these spaces will improve access to observation of the sky above.

But native plants won’t only help butterflies and birds. Ecosystem health is human health, and equitable opportunity and access to nature is critical in a dense, urban environment like Chicago.

A healthier, more inclusive future

Today, nature’s benefits are not readily accessible to all: a 2020 Center for American Progress study found that 74% of nonwhite U.S. residents live in nature-deprived areas; in Illinois, this number is 77%. In Chicago, according to a University of Illinois at Chicago study, higher-income, white residents are more likely to have access to trees and open space than lower-income residents of color. 

While our missions have long stretched into the dynamic network of parks, preserves, and waterways across Chicago, long-existing disparities in the distribution of natural areas, along with environmental injustices, mean those same natural resources that make our city so special are not shared equally. For this reason, we strongly support the long-term investments within this plan that will help nurture a healthier future for all.

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The plan presents recommendations that will create a place of greater welcome and inclusion, which our vibrant and diverse city deserves. Recommendations include expanding the rich biodiversity available on Museum Campus; breaking down barriers to access through newly-proposed and much-needed improved transportation options (an additional transit stop, shuttles, and improved wayfinding) to better connect the campus with neighborhoods; and co-authoring new programs, experiences, and learning engagements together with communities.

The institutions that we lead, which give Museum Campus its name, offer a world-class opportunity to experience land, water, and sky. Enhancing the spaces outside of our walls, to create greater and more equitable opportunities to connect with and celebrate nature and each other, is an important step forward in the continued recovery and healing of our city as well as in ensuring a sustainable, thriving, and resilient future. These proposed changes can take us there.

Bridget C. Coughlin, PhD, is president and CEO of the John G. Shedd Aquarium. Michelle B. Larson, PhD, is president & CEO of the Adler Planetarium. Julian Siggers, PhD, is president and CEO of the Field Museum.

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