Pursuit of the Softer Path
Photo: Chip Williams
The Chicago Wilderness region is expected to grow by more than 1.5 million people in the next 20 years. With this issue, we begin a four-part series of supplements to the magazine supported by a grant from the Grand Victoria Foundation examining topics of special concern to our region. Where will these new residents live, for instance? What will new highways do to our precious natural communities, many of which are hanging on to health by a fraying thread? Will we have an adequate water supply for people, nature, and industry? And how will a populace increasingly disconnected from nature develop the capacity to care for any creatures other than those under our control?
These are a few of the topics we will examine — in greater depth than our format usually allows — over the next year. We will post these supplements on our Web site and publish them as a booklet when we’re done.
In “Roads: The Great Divide,” the first installment of this series, Christopher Hayes looks at roads and biodiversity. It is not a pretty picture. The rationale given for building new roads, especially highways, Hayes explains, is to reduce traffic congestion. Yet, as has been thoroughly documented, roads attract traffic, they don’t reduce it.
So if roads don't reduce traffic congestion and have a demonstrably negative impact on natural communities, what are the alternatives?
One alternative would be to locate roads in already developed areas. In Indiana, for instance, the Environmental Law and Policy Center found that upgrading existing roadways, rather than building a new highway, would save taxpayers almost $1 billion — and would take only ten minutes more driving time over a 150-mile trip.
Another approach is to promote other forms of transit — high-speed rail, trains, buses, bikes. Chicago Wilderness, in concert with several regional planning groups, has developed a map of critically sensitive environmental areas. These are the places where larger complexes of wetlands and grasslands remain and can be preserved and restored, whether in public or private ownership. To ensure groundwater recharge, to reduce pollution and improve water and air quality, to provide recreational opportunities and preserve habitat, and to enhance our quality of life, we must protect nature in our region. Thus, for a myriad of practical and moral reasons, future development must be steered away from these environmentally sensitive areas and clustered, instead, along existing transit corridors.
When we obliterate nature under the heavy thumb (and foot and wheel) of our human desires for immediate gratification, when we fragment other creatures’ habitats, we make it impossible for many animals and plants to live and reproduce. It would be like forcing a human being to live in a shoebox (when our own habitat requirements are roughly 500 times as large). It can’t be done.
This, then, is the burden of our primacy — and our singular challenge. Can we live in such a way as to protect the common good? Can we make the tough decisions, as almost all our future decisions will be, in a way that is better for people and nature?
I firmly believe we can do this if we resolve to act collectively on behalf of our public interest in protecting the environment. Let’s face it: we depend upon water and air for our survival. These are not, after all, private products. They are part of our “commons,” our shared public resources, and it is in our consummate self-interest to protect them.
Here, then, is your charge: read the Roads supplement, compose your own thoughts, and share them with decision-makers in your community. One place to start is with the new Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. For Indiana, go to the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission, and for Wisconsin, see the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission. Let’s host our own road show, rallying for nature instead of for pavement. There is a softer path.