Plan for Montrose Beach Dunes & Lakeshore

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We believe architecture and good design can enhance interactions with nature and should be accessible to all. Our proposal expands the natural areas to increase wildlife habitat, and the addition of a nature center and viewing towers offers unobstructed views of wildlife activity at Montrose Beach Dunes and surrounding bird sanctuary.

Nature center and wildlife viewing tower
Wildlife viewing tower with accessibility access

Endangered Piping Plover

The Piping Plover is a small, migratory bird sized somewhere between a sparrow and a robin. There are only about 67 pairs of the Piping Plover in the Great Lakes region; due to habitat loss, these charming birds with soft, fluttering calls have become among the poster chicks for local conservationists. Now a federally-protected endangered species, the Piping Plover had not successfully nested in Chicago for over 50 years, until this May, when a pair were spotted at Montrose Beach.

Conservation & Volunteer Efforts

Bird conservationists immediately sprang into action to protect the birds from harm: around 200 birding enthusiasts volunteered to closely monitor the duo’s nesting site, cordoned off from beach goers from dawn till dusk, hoping this would be the year that the small bird family would successfully start their brood. Birders affectionately dubbed the daring twosome Monty and Rose (in English anyway) and hoped that if they felt safe enough, they could encourage other Piping Plovers to make Chicago’s sandy shores their home, too. 

Monty near nest (photo cred: Gordon Garcia)
Rose inside protective enclosure guarding her eggs (photo cred: Gordon Garcia)
Monty guarding over of his chicks

Monty and Rose are shorebirds, meaning that they make their home on open beach habitats. Instead of being secluded deep in the forest, or relatively out of harm’s way in a city Oak or Willow, shorebirds are incredibly vulnerable to human activity given their lack of cover. While the Piping Plover may be the most well-known at present, they are actually among 20 species of shorebirds that stop over in the Great Lakes region, says Judy Pollock, Bird Conservation Consultant and President of the Chicago Audubon Society—among them the Solitary Sandpiper, the Ruddy Turnstone, and the Hudsonian Godwit. As a studio, we are deeply invested in maintaining a permeable boundary between our projects and the natural world, so we were similarly interested in how design could improve the interface between wildlife habitats and nearby citizens.

HABITAT LOSS AND RISKS FOR SHOREBIRDS

The Piping Plover was once hunted for sport some 200 years ago, but after that fell out of fashion, the birds were still at risk, and their populations dwindled to a paltry sub-20 in the mid-80s. To put their plight into a broad context: habitat loss doesn’t just have to mean razed rainforests and dusty, dried-out lakes. It can also mean habitats that are still intact, but which simply have too much human activity (and the accompanying noise, light, litter, or, interaction) to continue to be viable for world-weary native species. “All lights attract birds,” says Pollock. “The more lights, the more it’s going to draw birds off their migratory path. Bright lights in the birds’ flight path, whether at the level of the tallest buildings on cloudy nights when birds fly low or at lakefront at dawn as birds land, are the most dangerous. The Lights Out Chicago program was started to get the most dangerous city lights turned off during this crucial time,” she explains. 

This summer, the rare Piping Plover’s presence at Montrose Beach coincided with a planned music festival (Mamby on the Beach), much to the concern of many impassioned Plover advocates. Although ultimately cancelled due to rising tides, the festival was just a component of the continued friction between the different groups of beachgoers, some of them human, and some of them feathered. Between all manner of human activity, including other concerts and events, there is also significant concern about off-leash dogs and the effect these could have on tentative native species that have been slowly returning to healthy levels over the years. In the case of the Piping Plover, the fragility of its habitation in Chicago proper, at a public beach no less, captured the hearts of many passionate birders, who couldn’t help but envision even more hospitable urban environments for all manner of native birds. 

Fall migration captured from the edge of the dunes

One such birder is Bob Dolgan, a local documentarian, who, with the help of Kickstarter, has recently completed a documentary about the Plover events of this summer called Monty and Rose: The Endangered Piping Plovers of Montrose Point,” which is nicknamed “the Magic Hedge” for its abundance of bird species. Some may not guess it of our fair city, but given its location along the artery of a major migration route, Montrose Point is actually a national destination for birders from all over the country. In the height of annual pre-winter migration, some 350 species can be observed as they stop to rest their wings during a long flight across the Lake Michigan. Dolgan recalls that whenever he visits, he sees out-of-state and suburban license plates clustered near the Hedge, meaning that people are traveling to the country’s third biggest city—for birdwatching. 

“The upside of protecting these natural areas is much higher than those short-term financial gains. And arguably there is a longer-term financial benefit to conservation, education and eco-tourism as well. When I see all those cars with out-of-state plates, or suburban city stickers at Montrose, those are a lot of people coming in to the city to watch birds. And that’s without doing almost anything to market to that audience,” Dolgan says. 

Dolgan urges policy-makers to consider the big picture when thinking about expanding conservation areas that hug urban centers, like Montrose Point. The aforementioned bird tourists willing to take I-90 to visit this birding area says something about not only the sum of the restoration efforts put forth by local stewardship and conservation groups (“Montrose Point looks nothing like it did 30 years ago,” says Pollock. “Chicago doesn’t get enough credit for being at the forefront of urban habitat conservation”) or the permanency of Chicago’s location, which will always be on a migratory route (unless everyone really does move to Hawaii this winter)—but about the success that protected areas can have in big cities, not just despite the cars, and the noise, and the pollution; but because they are home to hundreds of thousands of people who crave genuine experiences with the natural world. “I think that is the great thing about birds,” says Pollock. “They can provide a connection to nature no matter where you are, especially if you don’t have a lot of chances in cities.“

BIRDS: INDICATOR SPECIES

A recent study released by the Audubon Society warned that two-thirds of North American birds are at risk of extinction. Birds are among what ecologists and climate scientists call an “indicator species,” meaning that the health of these populations have a lot to tell us about the corresponding health of their native ecosystems. Lest we forget, we humans too, occupy ecosystems, and the health of our water, air, and food supply cannot be staunchly divided between nature and civilization with an invisible barrier. 

One of the world’s best-known conservationists, Rachel Carson, amplified public awareness about environmental issues and the impacts of synthetic pesticides on bird populations in the early 1960s (hint: it was not good). Her work, Silent Spring, asked that the reader imagine a world without singing birds punctuating dawn and dusk with their calls and chirps. This chilling, almost post-apocalyptic scenario, captured the spirits of Americans, ultimately leading to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1972, nearly a decade after Carson’s death. The passing of the act is often credited for the repopulation of American icon, the Bald Eagle, and the soaring Peregrine Falcon. 

“I think [the return of the Plovers] shows that there is the potential for the expansion of the Great Lakes Piping Plover population,” says Dolgan. “We now know how to protect these plovers in a major urban area, and maybe that could be done elsewhere following a similar model.” Dolgan is a proponent of creating a wildlife refuge along Montrose Beach, expanding the square footage of the area that can provide suitable habitats for more animals, birds, and plants, creating additional opportunities for urban areas and wildlife to amicably share space and improving the health of local ecosystems. “My guess would be that if we doubled the amount of natural habitat in the parks, there would still be plenty of land to go around, for recreational use and for festivals too,” says Dolgan. “On top of the benefits to native species, there are the benefits of carbon sequestration, cleaner air, ameliorating the urban heat island and making the city a healthier place to live. Who wouldn’t want that?”

OUR PROPOSAL: MONTROSE BEACH DUNES

The commotion around the Plovers got us thinking about ways we could expand and protect the Montrose Beach habitat for shorebirds and other species. Our plan involves allowing parts of Montrose Beach to return to their natural state, adding a nature center, attracting visitors to the area with accessible observation towers, transforming paved areas in permeable pavement, relocating the sand volleyball courts, and more. Read more about our proposal, and see some renderings, below: 

Our proposal extends natural areas and includes a nature center and bird viewing towers
Arial image of existing conditions at Montrose Beach

ADD A NATURE CENTER

When asked about the Mamby on the Beach concert, Dolgan says it pointed to a general lack of knowledge about how we fit into the bird migratory pattern. “In August, we have shorebirds (Plovers and Sandpipers) utilizing Chicago beaches, including some going all the way from the Arctic tundra to southern South America. And yet at their one stopover along Lake Michigan, we were going to put a concert there to make it even harder for them on their journey,” Dolgan says. “It showed how much more we need to do to educate folks about birds.” A dedicated nature center could provide an enriching opportunity to teach kids and adults about the habitat and nesting/migrating birds. It could also be used to store restoration tools for volunteers and park staff. 

BIRDING OBSERVATION TOWERS

The organic shaped structures included in our plan would allow park visitors to observe wildlife, but in a way that is non-intrusive. Recognizing the sensitivity of the dune habitat, we propose that the structures tread lightly on the land. To that end, we’ve chosen to minimize new construction in favor of taking advantage of the existing Montrose Beach house. The nature center and regular planned wildlife viewing tours will be accessible to all, and blend in with the environment, creating a visual shield so birds and other wildlife won’t be able to see people in their space. Creating dedicated spaces for wildlife observation has the benefit of keeping foot traffic routed away from restored and delicate areas, and also making viewing wheel-chair accessible. 

REDUCE RAKING

Reduce raking interference near where the Piping Plover pair has nested (the first of many, we hope). Raking is done to create a smooth surface for volleyball players, but there should be ample opportunities (such as at the lakeshore), for volleyball games, while allowing this area to regrow many of its native grasses and other plants and host a variety of wildlife. 

REPLACE PAVED PARKING LOTS WITH TRAILS

In a previous post, we questioned the utility of taking up so much valuable beachfront real estate with parking lots. Parking lots tend to be sources of water pollution because of their extensive impervious surfaces. We again propose to nix the large, paved lots and let them revert to their natural states, providing guided trails and increased bird habitat. 

ADJUST DISRUPTIVE EVENTS

The beachfront has plenty of space, and there should be enough room for everyone, including the birds. It wouldn’t be city living if we didn’t have to make some compromises with our neighbors. “We need to recognize that the southern end of Lake Michigan existed long before us, and was once teeming with wildlife, dunes, prairies, savannas and wetlands”, says Dolgan. With good planning and communication, events that would occur in the heart of migration season could be thoughtfully relocated or could change dates, allowing endangered species to repopulate throughout the Great Lakes system. Dogs should be leashed or kept to the dog beach, as we all know what they like to do when they see a bird. 

RAISED WALKWAYS

Raised walkways are a simple elegant solution to being able to walk amongst natural sights without disturbing native plants, such as dunegrass. We propose adding walkways similar to Canada’s Point Pelee and Michigan’s Galien River County Park that allow observers to stroll around the area right to the water’s edge, and even past it. 

PERVIOUS PAVEMENTS

Impermeable pavement, like the kind in parking lots, streets and driveways, is responsible for a lot of the flooding issues that cities experience. Replacing paved areas with permeable pavements in conjunction with native grasses can help avoid flooding issues, such as the tide that drove out both the Plovers and Mamby on the Beach. With climate change, more severe storms are predicted, and with them, more potential flooding crises. Planning for these by restoring native grasses, which in some cases store water deep below the surface for lean times, is the most proactive thing we can do to protect restoration areas and our enjoyment of them. 

BOOST THE LOCAL ECONOMY

With Chicago already hosting a national bird destination, expanding Montrose Beach into a designated wildlife refuge would widen the draw of the area to encompass tourists and locals with a broad range of interests. Eco-tourism opportunities and expanded community events could pique public interest in the area even more, expanding nation-wide knowledge about native birds. What’s more, a University of Wisconsin study recently correlated each $1 spent on incorporating the Chicago River as a blue/green corridor with a $1.77 return to the economy. This potential boon would come from an environmentally sensitive design that treats the river as a passageway that links natural habitats, instead of as a feature in isolation. By encompassing wildlife havens, recreational areas, and a system to passively filter rainwater, the project is proposed to create over 1,500 jobs and rake in $192 million over a 15-year span, as well as boost surrounding property values. Translating this data to other multi-use, protected projects such as the extension of the Montrose Beach habitat, its easy to see how the benefits wouldn’t just be intangibles, but would help balance the city budget, too.

CONNECT THE DOTS

Why couldn’t a string of areas along the lakefront, all the way to Calumet, become united under the common goal of providing an incredible wildlife refuge for birders all over Illinois and beyond. The way projects are framed can create a lot of traction in terms of how they are treated, how funds to maintain them are allocated, and much more. Dolgan uses Indiana Dunes as an example, connecting its increase in visitors with its earning status as a National Park. What if the Montrose Beach Dunes and Montrose Point were a designated national wildlife refuge, and then off-shore cribs (nesting habitat), and vacant areas of the south lakefront like Park 566, Steelworkers Park and spots in Calumet, were included? Dolgan suggests gathering them under a shared umbrella: the Chicago Lakefront National Wildlife Refuge. 

“Now we’ve protected a vast area and kept it open to lighter recreational uses, “ says Dolgan. And we’ve begun changing perceptions of the city and having a possible tourism and business draw. There was a time when it felt like the city was more invested in natural areas and green space,” says Dolgan. “And of course our motto is City in a Garden. Thanks to Monty and Rose, maybe we can go back to that again.”

Sunrise at the dunes