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1993 Proceedings of the Midwest Oak Savanna Conferences1993 Proceedings of the Midwest Oak Savanna Conferences



William L. Howenstine
Northeastern Illinois University
5500 North St. Louis Avenue
Chicago, IL 60625
Tel: (815) 385-0258

A small white oak (Quercus bicolor) savanna in an urban neighborhood of Chicago has been designated by Northeastern Illinois University as an experimental urban natural area to be used for research in Q. bicolor savanna ecology and restoration, and for education of students and the surrounding community. 

Aesthetic appreciation of the savanna has increased along with the education and research uses. An examination of the history of the establishment of this one-acre restoration unit illustrates the growing recognition and appreciation of natural areas and biological diversity. The significance of such urban areas is increased by the visible contrast between them and the surrounding community, and by their proximity to large numbers of people. From the perspective of this oak savanna, urban biodiversity is seen as a pivotal factor in sustaining global biodiversity.

On the campus of Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) is a small, degraded, swamp white oak savanna (Quercus bicolor). It is only an acre in size, has no endangered or threatened species, and on the face of it, seems very insignificant compared to some of the Midwest's larger savannas. In fact, this small savanna is representative of a string of urban savannas (and prairies) being restored throughout the watershed of the Chicago River's North Branch by volunteers working with the North Branch Prairie Project, the North Park Village Nature Center, and the university. 

These small urban savannas are like a lens that projects the significance of the ecological restoration movement as a whole. Urban restoration efforts are pivotal points in the solution of one of our most pressing global problems -- the preservation of biodiversity.

How can something seemingly so insignificant be so truly significant? The keys to answering this question are, first, the urban location of these oak savanna sites, and second, the sharp contrast between them and their urban surroundings

We can envision the setting and the contrast of between tiny sites and the urban landscape. What are some of the specific benefits of preserving or restoring such small sites in urban communities? There are at least nine such benefits.

  1. The first benefit is biological, the preservation of biological diversity on the site itself in terms of both the ecosystem and the populations of species comprising it. A surprising number of rare, threatened or endangered species live in the natural ecosystems found within metropolitan urban areas. For example, of the 144 threatened and endangered faunal species of Illinois, 20, or 14%, have been recorded in recent times in Cook County, the most urbanized county of the Chicago Metropolitan area. (1) A significantly greater percentage of endangered plants have been found in the county. By 1991, the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board had listed 356 species of plants as endangered or threatened, of which 130 are listed for Cook County. (2) Finally, as of 1991, 57 Illinois Nature Preserves, 31% of the total statewide system, were found in the Chicago Metropolitan Area.

  2. A second benefit is climatologically. Any part of the total urban forest helps to ameliorate the more brutal elements of the urban climate -- cooling the urban heat island, slowing the wind, reducing air pollution, etc.

  3. The climatologically benefits bear additional fruit in terms of energy conservation. Houses close to natural groves are cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. Additionally, fossil fuels are conserved when lawns do not have to be mowed, fertilized, or herbicided.

  4. A fourth benefit is educational. People of all ages and walks of life can learn from the oak savanna. The interpretive leaflet describing Northeastern's oak savanna is illustrative. It enlightens visitors and the preparation of it was an educational project for one of our interpretive students. 

  5. research. This is illustrated by the unpublished M.A. thesis of Robyn Flakne (1991), Examination of Tree Reproduction in Remnant Quercus bicolor WILLD Savannas in Cook County, Illinois with Implications for Restoration

  6. Another benefit is aesthetic. To most people an open grove of trees represents a beautiful scene; when that grove has a floor of attractive native grasses and flowers, it is all the more striking. 

  7. From passive nature observations to active restoration, a natural area offers recreational opportunities to a growing number of people. For example, while preserving biological diversity, the 5000 volunteers in the Nature Conservancy's volunteer network are engaging in recreation of the best sort. 

  8. As a result of the above benefits, urban trees like Northeastern's swamp white oaks provide an added, and very tangible, economic benefit to urban communities. Real estate values are enhanced. Taxpayers are willing to pay for the planting and maintenance of street trees. Nurseries and tree service companies also benefit. 

  9. Living close to a savanna and accepting some responsibility for its care, can change our view of the world and our place in it. Some speak of this as a spiritual relationship. Others see it as the "community" of Aldo Leopold's "land ethic." (5) 

Like a whirlpool, all of these benefits converge on one point, one over-riding principle: the recognition, appreciation, and support of diversity. In this relationship to diversity, our small, urban, oak savannas achieve their greatest significance. They not only are accessible to urban populations; they simply cannot be avoided as people go to and from their work, schools, and friends. More people pass by Northeastern's little oak savanna in a week, than go to many more rural sites in a year. 

In addition, these passersby can't fail to notice something new on the scene. Our swamp white oak savanna appears very different from the mowed lawn it once was, different from the standard yards that surround it. Because of this, it commands immediate attention, and forces some kind of reaction, either positive or negative. Let's see what some of those reactions are.

In a recent survey of neighbors and of people walking by the oak savanna, Henning (1993) found that 73% of the passersby either "liked" or "loved" the swamp white oak savanna. Only 13% said they "disliked" it (the remainder had "no opinion".) Of the residents who lived across the street from the savanna, Henning found that 100% either "liked" or "loved" the savanna.

The significance of urban savannas (and other urban natural areas) now becomes apparent. Urban residents make up the majority of our national electorate. They choose the president, who appoints the heads of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Departments of Interior and Agriculture. Urban citizens put crucial political pressure, if it exists, on our representatives to do something about the loss of the tropical rain forests or of our own ancient forests in the Northwest. Global treaties on biodiversity will depend upon educated urban support for their ratification. Each day that urban dwellers have contact with an oak savanna or a restored prairie, they absorb more and more of an understanding and appreciation of the universal diversity of which they are part.

In conclusion, to maximize the values discussed here it seems that two strategies could be of special importance. First, build a network, or system, of ecological restoration sites in metropolitan areas, with special emphasis on the central cities. Second, continue to build a network of volunteers to work on sites close to them, as The Nature Conservancy has done so well in our Chicago Metropolitan Area. 

Is there any reason why each urban resident should not have a natural area within walking distance? Once in unity with that natural area, is there any reason to doubt the probability of a transfer of his/her appreciation, to biodiversity in general?


1. Herkert, James R. (ed.) 1992. Endangered and threatened species of Illinois: status and distribution, vol 2: animals. Springfield, IL: Endangered Species Protection Board.

2. Herkert, James R. (ed.) 1991. Endangered and threatened species of Illinois: status and distribution, vol 1: plants. Springfield, IL: Endangered Species Protection Board.

3. McFall, Don, (ed.), 1991. A directory of Illinois nature preserves. Springfield, IL: Illinois Department of Conservation.

4. Flakne, Robyn, 1991. Examination of tree reproduction in remnant Quercus bicolor WILLD savannas in Cook County, Illinois, with implications for restoration, Unpublished M.A. Thesis. Chicago: Northeastern Illinois University.

5. Leopold, Aldo, 1949. A sand county almanac. New York: Oxford University Press.

6. Henning, Marcia, 1993. Unpublished manuscript. Chicago: Northeastern Illinois University.


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