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Chicago: "The Greenest City in the World"

It is always interesting to get a sense of what the attitude of a place is towards horticulture, if and how it engages with ecology and nature, especially cities, and then to see what those influencers are. Chicago’s reputation has always stood out as being a bit of a pro-green city, with the city (our equivalent of a local council) striving to make it the greenest and most sustainable city in the world. It boasts the most green roofs in the country (over 400 according to some claims), with the City Hall setting an example by establishing one of the first ones on their own roof to reflect their motto 'City in the Garden'. All of this was strongly advocated by a mayor called Richard Daley who served for six terms from 1989 to 2011, which current mayor Rahm Emanuel seems to be happy to carry on in the vein of. A bit like what mayor Michael Bloomberg did for art and horticulture in New York. Key figures like architect Frank Lloyd Wright who came to Chicago after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and landscape architect Jens Jensen, who were both interested in nature and working closely with it, I'm sure left their impression on the place.

Piet Oudolf's planting at Lurie Garden in Millenium, full of different perennial plants
Photo 1: Piet Oudolf's planting at Lurie Garden in Millenium Park

Chicagoans have proudly conserved the vista of their Lake Michigan, preventing high rises from being built directly around it, and the Millenium Park situated above parking garages, a rail station and a theatre, is essentially a huge rooftop garden, and with its phenomenal Lurie Garden designed by Piet Oudolf and Maggie’s Daley Park - a children’s garden smack bang in the middle of the city centre, makes a statement to what could have easily been all grey concrete but now it made the city seem more densely populated by greenery.

Lake Michigan and one of its beaches
Photo 2: Lake Michigan in Chicago one of the Great Lakes is so big, one feels like you are actually looking out at the sea. The lake and surrounding areas have unique ecosystems specific to this region and environment, and is particularly vulnerable because of the high population density. But it is worth preserving carefully as it is also serves as an important recreation and escape area for human beings and is good for health and well-being.

Rooftop view of Chicago city centre
Photo 3: A rooftop view of Chicago city centre, taking in Millenium Park on the left.

A grey concrete area in Chicago with a railway
Photo 4: A grey concrete area also in the middle of Chicago - what it could have dominantly been if it wasn't for the green initiatives.

When we see sites like Garfield Park we see the important legacy of green infrastructure that was laid down and is even more precious today. In the middle of an unexpected area stands a grand conservatory that is free to the public - Jens Jensen was part of designing it. The shape of the conservatory is intended to emulate haystacks and the concept inside is of a series of naturalistic landscapes including a palm house and a fernery - which the layout of now seems pretty standard, but it was ahead of its time when it was created.

Outside Garfield Park Conservatory with a field of wild carrot Daucus carota
Photo 5: Outside of Garfield Park Conservatory. It is a shame that the dominant European wild carrot Daucus carota seen here is actually an invasive plant in the US, because it gives a nice display. 

One of the display houses in Garfield Park Conservatory with lots of tropical plants and a big rectangle black pool
Photo 6: One of the display houses in Garfield Park Conservatory

I had the opportunity to stay in the historic Swedish neighbourhood Andersonville some of the time I was there, that had some older houses with front gardens and it was great to see many people make an effort with them, and even those without made the most of what they could of hanging baskets, containers and patches next to the sidewalk/ pavement, including on the distinctive wooden fire escape and porch structures found on many apartments. It might have had something to do with having access to Gethsemane - one of the best independent garden centres that I have ever come across right in the middle of an urban environment.

Gethsemane garden centre with train and VW campervan models as display features and lots of herbaceous perennial plants for sale
Photo 7: Gethsemane garden centre

They sold an amazing range and quantities of plants and related sundries, including a fantastic collection of houseplants and lots of trees and shrubs mainly bought in from nurseries in the Northwest some of quite substantial size.

Gethsemane garden centre's tree and shrubs section
Photo 8: Gethsemane garden centre's tree and shrub section

The loud planting statements they made nearby may also have had its influence; and to think that it was a business that started out only doing the seasonal sales of Christmas trees and Halloween pumpkins.

Gethsemane garden centre's loud public display with lots of bright coloured plants
Photo 9: Gethsemane garden centre's loud public display

I had the opportunity to see a prairie with sidewalks on the edge of the city! An area of land that had been cleared before the 1930s but the construction project fell through when the Great Depression happened and they had gotten no further than installing some sidewalks. The plants that recolonised the area were native prairie ones like Silphium, Liatris, Eryngium yuccifolium, Euphorbia corollata, Vernonia, Echinacea pallida and much more, and it had that wonderful spread that nature does well where it spaces out different plant species more sparingly but still manages to give an effective display. It was less like the pink Echinacea dominated recreation of prairies and native plants inspired plantings and more diverse. Now the side walk was flanked on both sides by prairie growth and it was possible for the full feeling of immersion in it - prairie meadows are so much taller in comparison to the British traditional meadows. One felt transported and could have easily been deceived of being out in the wild if it wasn’t for the give away buildings far in the background and the noise of the road nearby.

A prairie on the edge of a city with a side walk
Photo 10: Wolf Road Prairie - a prairie with a side walk

What was interesting though was that only walking through could you get the full sense of the varieties of plants, colours and textures that exists. When you view the meadow from above it looks like one mass of green.  The site was recognised for its significance and actions were made to conserve it as a nature reserve and it is now known as Wolf Road Prairie.

A view of Wolf Road Prairie, looking down from a platform. It looks predominantly green.
Photo 11: Looking down on Wolf Road Prairie from a viewing platform.

Not having seen prairies prior to my fellowship in the States, I have always wondered how closely Piet Oudolf’s designs resembled actual ones. Now having visited Wolf Road Prairie and some other prairie sites, I looked at his design in Lurie Garden and realised they were not worlds apart and that they were just enhanced versions of the real thing. Not just visually but I felt he had been to somewhere like Wolf Road Prairie, stood exactly where I had stood in the middle of it and captured the essence and atmosphere of it all; the feeling of seeing these really special and rare plants in this unlikely setting and being taken away by the beauty of them.

A plant combination of Eryngium yuccifolium and a red leaved cultivar of grass Panicum virgatum in Lurie Garden, with the city of Chicago as a backdrop
Photo 12: Lurie Garden in Millenium Park. A combination of Eryngium yuccifolium and a cultivar of switch grass Panicum virgatum, possibly 'Shenandoah'

One definitely had that feeling in Lurie, like you were privied to an idyll in the middle of the city. The whole of Millenium Park works as a public space, tons of children are laughing and giggling interacting with a video art display that spits out water periodically, and people look at their reflections and the city reflected in the Cloud Gate sculpture. In the area of the Lurie Garden there is so much attention to detail and accents of things made in Oudolf’s design, that even people sitting next to some stately hostas look intentional, the planting is incredibly photogenic and pretty young girls pose and take pictures of themselves amongst it all, and people dip their toes in a shallow water ravine feature.

A flower bed in Lurie Garden with a matrix of perennial plants
Photo 13: Lurie Garden. A sample of the plants are: at the front the tall formerly white spikes are Liatris spicata, the dark brown orbs are Echinacea that have pass, the low lying purple froth is sea lavender Limonium latifolium.

Photo 14: Lurie Garden with predominantly Phlox 'Blue Paradise' and tall Eupatoriadelphus maculatus ‘Purple Bush’ formerly known as Eupatorium. The really tall grass in the back and the middle is Molinia litoralis ‘Transparent'

Photo 15: A woodland like area with Persicaria 'Firedance', Anemone hupehensis var. japonica ‘Splendens’ (light pink of the right), and Persicaria polymorpha behind that.

On the periphery of the city there is Morton Arboretum, educating people about the conservation of trees with their 1700 acres of grounds and trails to escape in. I particularly liked their Hemlock and Spruce Hill area probably because it provided shade in the height of summer, and considering the arboretum was next to a busy highway, one still felt transported within it because of an effective sound barrier that they had in the form of a very high man-made bank. Chicago Botanic Garden as well as helping to uphold the status of high horticultural standards with its outstanding gardens, is actively involved in the active community gardening scene - they helped create the largest ‘farm to fork’ rooftop garden McCormick Place West and runs a great program and farm called Windy City Harvest Youth Farm. I unfortunately did not get a chance this time to explore this aspect of the city more, but I did get to go to a community projects meal and gathering at Big Delicious Planet - a four star certified green restaurant that grow some of their produce on site organically.

Photo 16: Me and Jacob Burns, Curator of Herbaceous Perennial Plants at CBG who kindly hosted me, gave me a tour around CBG and took me to this community projects dinner.

This was part of my August 2017 trip to Chicago. I have written more about Chicago Botanic Garden, their research on green roofs and prairie plants in another post here

Thanks again to GCA member Celine Lillie for taking me to most of these amazing sites, especially Wolf Road Prairie, and to Kim Shearer - Tree and Shrub Breeder and Manager of New Plant Development Program for Morton Arboretum for taking the time to show me around the arboretum.

There is often good public information on the plants used in Piet Oudolf's designs for public spaces. Here is a link to some of the plants used in Lurie Garden.


  1. So beautiful and informative. Thanks Maggie!❤️

    1. Thanks Laurie! Memories of autumn in Vermont with you Helen, Morgan and Helen still holds strong for me! x


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