By Mike Bryson
Wherefore Schaumburg? What does the future foretell for Sarah’s Grove? These are the fundamental yet far from simple questions this website hopes to address in the process of generating dialogue about the Village’s sustainable future.
For some, the physical form of Schaumburg represents the definitive embodiment of late 20th century sprawl — interstate highways and multi-lane streets; shopping malls, strip malls, and corporate offices; massive parking lots; suburban housing subdivisions. The transformation of Schaumburg’s landscape is made all the more poignant when one considers what came here before, as depicted on the federal land survey maps and pre-settlement vegetation data from the early 18th century: prairie, woodland groves, and wetlands — some of the native Illinois ecosystems that have greatly diminished in nearly two centuries of subsequent settlement and development.
But from another perspective, Schaumburg’s successes and challenges, its strengths and shortcomings, epitomize the future of suburban sustainability. Given the suburbanization of the American landscape around major cities and on the periphery of former small towns, places like Schaumburg represent one of the great frontiers of American environmentalism. To wit: if we can make “edge city” auto-dependent suburbs more sustainable, we will go a long way toward improving the energy/resource efficiency, as well as livability, of our metropolitan areas. This is no small endeavor, given the fact that a large proportion of the American population now resides in cities and suburbs. Back in 1956, when the Village formerly incorporated, North America was about 67% urban; in 2011, it’s a little over 80% urban. Large and medium-sized cities such as New York, Chicago, and Portland are striving to become more sustainable, and have efficiencies of scale aiding their efforts; but we cannot forget about the need to address the same issues in the suburbs, as well.
Such a prospect requires more than just technical know-how, scientific knowledge, and political will, critical as these elements are. Fundamentally, what is required is an ethical revolution: a new way of envisioning the human relationship to the landscape and, by extension, within the human community itself. This website project has been informed and inspired by Aldo Leopold’s land ethic concept as a foundational idea. “The Land Ethic” is the last selection in Aldo Leopold’s landmark book, A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There, published posthumously in 1949 and one of the most important and influential environmental texts in American history. Here Leopold introduces us to scientific concepts, demonstrates the roots of contemporary sustainability in American conservation science and philosophy, and argues that an ecological worldview is just as much an ethical stance as it is a scientific method. Leopold is also a brilliant example of a skilled scientist-writer: someone with the knowledge of a practicing environmental scientist and the fluency of a poet. His synthesis of art and science foretells the kind of interdisciplinary thinking and flexible problem-solving that must be applied to the great challenges of making our suburban communities more sustainable.
Despite its astonishingly rapid development from a small agricultural community to a bustling edge city of more than 70,000 — a population that is more and more diverse with each decennial census — Schaumburg has demonstrated significant leadership in crafting a vision for a sustainable future. This is evident in the high quality park district system, the long-established bike pathways (which will be comprehensively re-assessed starting in May of 2011 through the Village’s planning commission), and the development of key planning environmental documents — the Biodiversity Recovery Plan (2004) and the Comprehensive Green Action Plan (2008).
In the second decade of the 21st century, though, it is necessary to move beyond these laudable plans to implementing progressive action on a variety of fronts. Our preliminary research suggests the following recommendations, with the caveat that as more students work on the Schaumburg’s Sustainable Future Project, these ideas will be amended and, likely, expanded:
- Invest in and develop green infrastructure
- Improve public transportation and bike path networks
- Require sustainable landscaping with native plants on public property and encourage it on private property through an incentive system
- Invest in and improve public environmental education through the park district, the schools, and other venues
- Leverage CSR efforts by area companies to fund worthy sustainability projects
- Preserve and restore remaining open space, whether public or private, especially those areas of high ecological quality
- Develop partnerships with area educational institutions and grassroots environmental groups
Roosevelt University is one such potential partner, and the institution is poised to carve out a new role in the northwest suburbs as a place where environmental ideas can take root, flourish, and spread to other areas of the community. With the debut of its Sustainability Studies undergraduate program in 2010, Roosevelt aims to train ecologically literate citizens and potential leaders. And in the planned re-development of the landscape of its Schaumburg Campus — a gradual process initiated in the 2011-11 academic year — Roosevelt hopes to serve as sustainability innovator, change agent for environmental policy, and place of community dialogue where people from the northwest Chicago region can gather to explore and debate important environmental issues of the day.
Let the conversation begin.
This essay was published here in commemoration of Earth Day 2011 and the launching of the Schaumburg’s Sustainable Future project (updated Oct. 2012).