We all know the Mag Mile, but you may not be as familiar with the Wild Mile, a planned floating eco-park that will be located on the North Branch Canal of the Chicago River and extend along the east side of Goose Island between Chicago Avenue and North Avenue. Originally approved by the Chicago Plan Commission in 2017, it’s poised to be the first ever mile-long floating eco-park in the world, and aims to create an accessible, thriving green space that will create a new environment with three goals: habitat, recreation and education. The Urban Rivers project, spearheaded by a team that includes scientists, conservationists, businessmen and women and has the support of institutions like the Shedd Aquarium and Chicago Botanic Garden as well as companies the likes of Microsoft and Google.
But the scope of the project is about more than ecology. Though the stated mission is to “transform city rivers into urban wildlife sanctuaries” there is an equal focus on student programming, with a desire to reach students of all ages and allow them to be involved in creating a healthier, more vital riverspace, and understanding what that looks like–and getting a chance to get hands-on with building and maintaining the garden.
The plan is to first build a framework, constructed of four long tubes made of coconut husks and stuffed with mulch. They then float them on the river, planted with native Illinois flora that will, in turn, attract native species as well as plants that can help to actively clean the river. This part of the project is already under way, but exactly how do you cover all your bases and create a traversable, accessible floating park fit for people, animals and native plantlife? Certainly there’s a lot more that goes into it than meets the eye.
Enter Urban Rivers’ podcast, which allows even more access to the people and processes involved in such a gargantuan gardening task. Currently, there are two available episodes, each covering very different aspects of the project and starring different collaborators with their own unique expertise.
One of the two features the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Peter Nagle, who is the Woman’s Board Curator of Aquatics at the Chicago Botanic Garden and whose research heavily focuses on managing the encroachment of invasive species and water quality as well as creating artificial floating wetlands and incorporating native species into urban landscapes. When working the botanic gardens, he’s in charge of all of the garden’s lakes and ponds and the numerous plants which grow there.
On the Urban Rivers project, Nagle helps decide what the floating gardens will contain, checks in on plant health and helps to overcome some of the obstacles presented by the Chicago River in its current state–like the lack of continuous, sloping shorelines. As Nagle is quick to point out, “the most artificial thing we’ve done to the shoreline is to make it disappear.” This is a problem for plants and animals alike, and with a proper shoreline–even an engineered one such as the ones at the Botanic Garden, there would be more habitat.
As the framework of the garden is floated out on the Wild Mile, Nagle says, they’re seeing the impacts of this lack of shoreline. For example, animals like rabbits and muskrats get trapped on the floating islands, as the islands that make up the gardens don’t yet connect to the shore, and one of the main issues at hand to solve is how to connect the islands up to the seawall–something that may potentially be solved with trees, both for connectivity and biodiversity.
Plant selection on the floating islands is crucial–both for attraction of native wildlife and in making sure the islands are sustainable. Towards the base, more dense, fibrous plants are needed, and root systems must be considered too, as plants with taproots can be disturbed and ultimately not thrive due to waves. Timing must be considered too, so that native plants like jewel weed that grow quickly don’t drown out others. Other considerations include species meant to draw pollinators and ability to thrive in moss and water rather than soil.
This means a lot of testing, and a lot of trial and error, but Nagle never seems downtrodden. Rather, he’s excited to educate and attract people to the native plants of Illinois and create a beautiful environment that will house amazing plants, animals and eventually, a thriving thoroughfare of citygoers looking for a beautiful greenspace to engage with. Nagle’s passion and knowledge make us confident they’ll be up to the task, and we recommend checking out this episode of the podcast to learn more about the many challenges of a unique project like this one as well as to learn more about Illinois’ biodiversity, and the importance of each and every plant in laying the groundwork for what’s to come for the Wild Mile.
Urban Rivers’ second podcast was equally interesting, and this time focused more on the wildlife. More specifically, bats! In this episode, hosts Brette and Phil chatted up Claudia Boothe bat conservationist who really brought to light the importance and plight of bats in Chicago and Illinois at large.
The first thing we noticed about Boothe is that she’s not shy about loving the animals she studies so diligently. Her excitement and passion for bats is both evident and infectious, and she launched right in with some amazing bat facts.
As it turns out, we owe an awful lot to bats, even in an urban environment like the city of Chicago. On top of that, Chicago has a lot of bats, with 5 to 7 species living amongst us. Bats take care of a lot of the city’s insects, and without them, Claudia says, we’d be using twice as many river polluting pesticides. “Bats are awesome,” Claudia says emphatically, “and we need to support their habitat.”
We’ve got quite a variety, and while some species stick to the outskirts of the city and the forest preserves, others, like the silver hair bats love water, and so the Wild Mile can present them an even bigger environment to thrive in.
But just like the plants of the Wild Mile, the bats face their own challenges, from “mean birds” like gulls and bluejays that are natural predators to the bats to disease and urban specific issues like running into glass building facades. In fact, some species of bats native to Illinois have suffered a pandemic of their own in recent years, called White Nose Syndrome–a nasty fungus that’s incredibly infectious, and has wiped out 95% of the little brown bats and tricolor bats that used to thrive here. Adding weight to that problem, these species of bats only have one baby a year, so repopulation happens very slowly.
The rest of the city’s bats must fight to survive too, and here Nagle’s work marries with hers, as some insects the bats rely on to survive are plant-specific, and planting exotic species can literally starve them.
With the help of people like Claudia, the Urban Rivers team is tackling the problem head on, by planting the right types of plants on the islands, working to mitigate light pollution, which can negatively affect bats and encouraging the right types of bug populations to feed them. As for what you can do to help, too? Boothe highly recommends checking out the Lincoln Park Zoo’s Urban Wildlife Institute, who she works with and who are doing extensive research on the bats that live among us.
There was a lot of interesting information about these furry little denizens of the night we won’t spoiler you on, but we encourage you to check out the podcast for more information on bats themselves and the ways the Wild Mile will shape up to help them thrive.
You can find out more about Urban Rivers by visiting their website, follow progress on Twitter, and listen to the podcasts straight from your browser. You can also donate to the project or volunteer to help yourself. We’re excited for the beauty and biodiversity the Wild Mile might provide and hope you will be too, so we highly recommend you check out the podcast and consider what your role could be in shaping the future of a cleaner Chicago River and greener “City in a Garden.”