Wild in the City: Chicagoland's Urban Ecology

Growing a Path from the Grass Roots - Introduction

In the years after World War II, Chicago and its suburbs changed significantly. New houses and shopping districts sprang up seemingly overnight. Soldiers returning home from the war were eager to start families, and everyone was ready to spend money and effort on creature comforts after the austerity of the war years. The rise of the interstate highway system also meant that the once-bustling network of railroads in the Chicago area was vanishing, leaving abandoned rights of way that seemed ideal for a variety of purposes. Amid the clamor for new subdivisions and shopping malls, a public footpath spanning three counties seemed like the least likely thing to emerge. But emerge it did.

The Illinois Prairie Path, or IPP, was the brainchild of May Thielgaard Watts, a naturalist, writer, and educator. Watts wrote a letter to the editor of the Chicago Tribune published in its September 25, 1963 edition. In it, Watts envisioned a public footpath on the now-defunct Chicago, Aurora, and Elgin Electric (CA&E) railroad right of way, which was used and maintained by a variety of civic organizations, from the Boy Scouts to garden clubs to college biology students. But first, she pointed out, “Right now the right of way lies waiting, and many hands are itching for it. Many bulldozers are drooling."Watts was in a unique position to propose and advocate for a large-scale footpath. She had spent most of her life learning about the natural environment around Chicago, and using her considerable skills as a writer and educator to advocate for it. As a naturalist and the first Director of Education at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois, Watts built a community of men and women who were not ecologists by training, but who knew the value of Chicagoland’s natural world, and appreciated how the rapid pace of suburbanization was threatening what little remained of it. In 1964, the Illinois Prairie Path project, one of the first rails-to-trails conversion projects in the United States, began.
Use the cards at the bottom of each page to explore various parts of the "Growing a Path from the Grass Roots" chapter. There will always be a card to take you back to the chapter introduction or you can go back to the Wild in the City overview.

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