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The Field Museum’s Rice Nature Center

Bringing Nature Back:

The Field Museum’s Rice Native Gardens

By Heather Prince

The lakefront of Chicago has a long and

storied history of human usage and as we learn more about the impacts of landscaping on the built environment as well as wildlife populations, many of our local institutions are pivoting to embrace sustainable practices and native plantings. The Field Museum of Natural History has taken some ambitious steps toward these goals.

In 1998, Lake Shore Drive was moved west of the Museum to create a park-like campus for the Field, Shedd Aquarium, and Adler Planetarium. Rolling lawn, walkways, trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals were installed and Chicagoans flocked to this new green space on Lake Michigan.

However, traditional landscaping required high inputs of resources like water and fertilizers. As the Field Museum re-examined its green spaces, new goals were created. To achieve and keep LEED Gold status and to better connect the campus to the regional Midwest landscape, the Field, in partnership with its sister museums and the Chicago Park District, launched a Landscape Masterplan. They hired site design group ltd. to develop a plan that “envisions a Field Museum property and Museum campus that participates in larger ecological systems and landscape patterns — a networking that has the potential to improve the overall ecological health of the City of Chicago’s lakefront, catalyze additional sustainable landscape design and management at the regional level, and furnish new interpretive and exhibit opportunities that will bolster the museum’s mission.” In 2017, site design group won the Illinois ASLA Honor Award for their visionary masterplan for the Field, and the Rice Native Gardens have flourished since installation.

Due to complex land-leasing agreements with the

The Field Museum’s Rice Native Gardens

Chicago Park District, the Field Museum elected to target the spaces directly adjacent to the building where it could develop plantings under their complete control. “We wanted to show that even the most formal building — it’s modeled after the Erechtheum temple of ancient Greece — can make native plants work aesthetically,” explains Carter O’Brien, Sustainability Officer at the Keller Science Action Center within the museum. “We wanted to prove that you can create native gardens here, at a school, or around any Chicago vernacular architectural style.

The planting plan from site design group layers tall plants in the back, short plants in the front, but with natives. We balance the blooming, as having something attractive for people to see and wildlife to use in each season is really important.” The imposing facades of the Field Museum can be intimidating. “What we really wanted to do in many ways (continued on page 34) Early construction 1916-18; note the soil conditions.

Photos courtesy of: The Field Museum

Illustration courtesy of: site design group, ltd.

(continued from page 31) was to soften the exterior of the building and have it more welcoming. The plants are perfect. They give us inside/outside opportunities to connect the exhibitions with the science. We’re putting in some purple martin houses. We have staff who do wildlife monitoring all over the city, and now they can go right outside the front door and engage guests.”

Starting in 2014, the museum conducted a baseline inventory of the grounds to record which plants and animals existed before the gardens were installed. Each year, staff captures and records how wildlife is using the gardens, and it’s been surprising how quickly nature has moved in. “They found about 70 species of native flies alone!” says O’Brien. “We found a fly they think is new to science. They don’t think it’s unique to the Field Museum, but that it represents a shift in habitat for the flies. It probably occurs in a larger area of the Midwest, but we just happened to have our collecting traps out at the right time and caught one.” Birds, butterflies, bats, and more have been attracted to the gardens. The museum has also implemented a monarch butterfly monitoring program.

Not only has wildlife flocked to the new gardens, but people have also. A key element to the masterplan is interpretive signage, community engagement, events, and staff participation. “We had some really fabulous content advisors for the signage tucked around. They provided some absolutely irreplaceable insight into how these plants had coexisted with people for thousands of years,” observes O’Brien. The Field has partnered with the American Indian Center of Chicago for cultural insights and events, among them stewardship, seed collecting, and redistribution back into the community. In its first year, 300 seed packets were given away to some of Chicago’s most nature-deprived communities. The children’s summer camps have used the gardens, including raising a bat house to attract little brown bats. The public is also enjoying the garden spaces, especially during the pandemic. “What we see now on the grounds is folks using it after hours to picnic. Families come in and enjoy the garden for an hour or two,” notes O’Brien.

Not without challenges

The Rice Native Gardens initiative is not without its challenges. The site’s physical features include an unusual soil profile, stormwater management, high winds, reflected heat, and drought conditions. Culturally, sustainable landscaping is a monumental shift in the Field’s institutional systems and thinking. People are another large, multi-faceted challenge from regular visitors to special-event crowds to many thousands of Bears fans from adjacent Soldier Field. (continued on page 36)

Photo courtesy of: Scott Shigley for site design group, ltd.

Photo courtesy of: Serio Photography for site design group,

(continued from page 34)

Because the Field Museum is built on a manmade peninsula that was created with a huge array of spoils, fill, and dumping, the soil profile is an intriguing mix. “I have a soil core we use for education purposes,” O’Brien points out. “We have about two feet of pretty good soil. Based on a variety of known timelines and historical reference, it seems possible that our site was topped off with soil scooped out when various parts of the Chicago River system were dredged and straightened. After that you have crumbly rubble with burnt coal ash, clay, cinders, gravel, and all kinds of construction debris. The Field Museum received its own extension of the freight tunnel system that runs below the subway downtown, and train carloads of spoil, burnt coal and other material were delivered and dumped into the lake. Depending on where you dig, it’s very different.”

So far, the prairie plants are adapting readily to the planting areas, although they are gradually moving into their preferred ecological niches. “We’re curious to see how the prairie plants will actually interact with city soils,” O’Brien explains. We feel pretty good that the roots will go down. Burnt coal might actually be good for them. We’re hoping to see measurable carbon sequestration, and we can also put some metrics on the stormwater retention.”

Because of the sustainable nature of the masterplan, the goal is to use no pesticides other than those strictly necessary for treating truly aggressive weeds. This is a major shift from maintaining pristine panels of turf. “In many ways, the maintenance challenge for us has been to toe the line on using chemicals only when absolutely necessary,” comments O’Brien. “We really want to stick to the idea that what we’re doing is good for the ecological health of the area, and one of the initial things we were thinking is that we’ll meet some LEED goals by putting some cisterns, bioswales, etc., in place. Then we found out that our water goes straight through and drains into Burnham Harbor. We really doubled down on the idea that we don’t want to add anything you don’t want to drink to the hydrology, even though it gets filtered.”

A Shifting Paradigm

The addition of the Rice Native Gardens has caused significant shifts in the institutional mindset of landscaping the grounds. “I think the primary challenge is that the original landscape design was based on more of a ‘look but don’t touch’ aesthetic,” observes O’Brien. “Ironically enough, some of the push-back we initially got was that people who won’t have lawns to use. We pointed out that people aren’t using them anyway because they cook in the sun. There’s no shade. On a hot, 92-degree day, I measured the temperature of the pavement, turf, permeable pathways, and the gardens. The native plants dropped it by at least 5 degrees.”

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome has been altering the institutional systems, specifically buildings and grounds, to respond to the needs of native plants. “We’ve learned that (continued on page 38)

Photo courtesy of: Scott Shigley for site design group, ltd.

(continued from page 36) maintenance isn’t a regular cycle like you have with turf. You’re doing more on the front end when you’re getting everything established,” notes O’Brien. “Before we planted so much as a single milkweed, the project won an ASLA award, which was great! Our facilities staff were then understandably concerned about any further revisions that strayed from the award-winning design. However, the plants move, so it’s been a process of getting everyone comfortable with that reality.”

Another mindset shift had to happen within the museum from treating landscaping as a static exhibit to embracing a living, breathing, changing, vibrant ecosystem. “We typically affix things on a wall or put things in a case, and they don’t really change. There’s a permanence to putting things on exhibit in a museum,” explains O’Brien. “The native plantings have a more organic approach where you have to recognize it looks different each time of year. Plants change and evolve through a season and through time. We’re all getting more comfortable with that reality. We make sure we always feed our facility guys positive feedback. We don’t expect them to keep it like a painting frozen in time.”

New landscaping also could connect the museum campus to the rest of the lakefront and the city. “What we really thought was an appealing part of the masterplan was that it could create a unified, on-mission identity for the museum and the campus. You could come down Lake Shore Drive and see this lush, beautiful landscape and maybe it could be a day trip all by itself. The campus itself is a very lovely place to walk around or ride a bike.”

Finally Just Add visitors

People have been another factor, and the museum campus is a beloved place to visit. “People don’t just come to the Field Museum. They come through the Field Museum to get to these other spaces,” comments O’Brien. “Let’s give them pathways that are inviting but keep them on a path. So far, that has worked fantastically! You don’t really need fences — you just need spaces that are welcoming and take people where they want to go.”

With people, however, comes litter. “The bigger concern we had was litter and trash. The look is very important to a place like the Field Museum and its reputation. With lawns, trash just blows right over it. When you have plant material, litter catches. You have to be more active in terms of that element of the maintenance. Following a concert or a Bears game, there’s litter that needs to be picked up. So we’re trying to get people rethinking and pivoting to the idea of a proactive approach. Make the space so nice as people walk through it, they want to keep it that way. You wouldn’t do it inside the museum, so why would you do it outside? It’s really worked well. One of the best parts of the whole thing is that the response we’ve gotten so far has been staggeringly positive.”

As the Rice Native Gardens continue to grow and evolve, the Field Museum is studying the effects of native landscaping on wildlife, cultivating stewards of the land, and examining the relationship between people and public spaces. “We’re unlearning how we took care of it for 100 years and baking a new approach into the building management. So far, so good,” enthuses O’Brien.