With a population of 2.7 million, Chicago is the largest city in the US Midwest and the third largest in the United States. The greater Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) to which Chicago belongs has a population of almost 9.5 million. The radical and rapid transformation of the landscape that has occurred over the past century and a half in order to accommodate a burgeoning population might suggest that Chicago is not a promising place to undertake large-scale conservation efforts. However, the region supports conservation programs that have received widespread local, national and international recognition. That significant biodiversity protection occurs in Chicago is, in part, a consequence of the region’s climate and its evolutionary and ecological history. It is also the result of decisions made by people both before and after the settlement of the region by European and other non-indigenous populations (hereafter referred to as the “settlement” period). These decisions resulted in land protected from development and/or maintained to preserve the characteristic biodiversity of the area.
When the contemporary situation in Chicago is compared against the description of the natural heritage of the region immediately prior to European settlement the differences are stark and from a conservation perspective seem somewhat discouraging. One can barely walk for a mile across tallgrass prairie in Illinois compared to the possibility of a one hundred and fifty mile trek along the Grand Prairie back in 19th Century. That being said, the landscapes of both eras each represent social-ecological systems – in the pre-settlement case the human agents involved being primarily indigenous Native American populations, more recently high populous and diverse urban population dominate. Thus, both then and now human decision-making played a role in shaping natural components of the region.
Journalist Charles Mann in his assessment of the impact of Native American peoples on the America found in 1491:New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus concluded: "Native Americans ran the continent as they saw fit. Modern nations must do the same.” Now, we might quibble with the rather enormous license that this offers, nevertheless, the statement underscores the role of human agency in shaping ecological landscapes (second nature, in William Cronon's terms), both before and after the emergence of the great urban centers. The emergence of a conservation ethic, one that contrasts with the more cavalier attitude of early settler population in the Chicago region, and one that informs the work of present day biodiversity conservationists and that inspires the work of Chicago Wilderness should be seem as a remarkably positive development. Though we may not recoup the losses of species, communities and ecological processes that have largely been lost from the region, nonetheless it may be that we develop quite new social ecological systems - in some cases, with highly cyborgian landscape emerging, mixtures of technology and forces beyond the immediate ken of humans – that are hopeful, biodiverse, and resilient in the face of ongoing anthropogenic disturbances. We may be betting our lives on it.