Alex Palmer's Natural History Notes and Thoughts

Thoughts and reflections on various social and environmental issues, as well as naturalist observations from the great outdoors.

Urban Areas and the Environment: A Midwest county in distress

Tallgrass prairie collides with eastern deciduous forest to create an area of tension between these two dominating systems, which freely intermingle. Out of this unique interplay comes exceptional diversity of plant and animal life, including more than 350 species of bird that inhabit this region while nesting or migrating.  (The Nature Conservancy, 2010).

…The City Methodist Church –  [was] built in the 1920s with local stone. We stood on the once-sprung floor of the ballet studio in the Methodist School. We tramped through the remains of the post office, opened by Henry Morgenthau in 1936 as a New Deal reconstruction project, its wood-block floor coming apart; the peep-holes in the overhead walkway showing where Depression-era managers would check on the work-rate of the postal workers below.  (Mason, 2010).

“We are getting to the point now where we will probably at some point have problems delivering vital services that we’re required to deliver to citizens of Lake County,” Allen said. “It’s starting to affect public safety and courts, so it’s really problematic.”  (Kirk, 2010).

…And I almost got killed trying to cross the street just now.  There were no sidewalks or crosswalks in sight, so I just went for it.  And my feet kind of hurt from running on so much asphalt and pavement.

At this point, you probably want to know at least two things:  (1) What  the above quotes mean, and (2) how  they are related.   And yes, I am fine.  I did not get struck by the dozens of rushing cars and trucks.

Well, let me first tell you how those quotes are related.  I chose them because they are the words from one of the most unsustainable urban counties in the United States.  There are many interpretations of the meaning of sustainability, but in this context it refers to the existence of people, communities, natural habitats, and businesses that are in a positive balance in regards to their interactions.  To put it simply, they coexist and they coexist well (Figure 1).   Many communities are already well underway with moving towards a more econ-friendly atmosphere.  In fact, most people nowadays probably take for granted sidewalks, crosswalks, shopping centers with trees and landscaping, among other things.  This is because most areas have caught on to the idea of bridging the gap between nature and urban areas.  Consider the local nature park in your town, or how so many buildings are using “green design” like solar panels and natural indoor ventilation on their facilities.

Figure 1: A popular bumper sticker advocating peace and cooperation among various spiritualities. Much like religions and cultures, sustainability is geared towards coexistence among natural, social, economical, and political systems. This includes the actions of individual people such as you, the reader of this blog post.

Yet it seems that Lake County, Indiana, has fallen behind most urban areas in the United States.  How is this so?

Lack of thoughtful urban planning. Shopping centers and other commercial areas are often in the form of strip malls along busy highways with fast-paced traffic.  In addition, there are no sidewalks, crosswalks, or green space.  This in turn makes it dangerous for pedestrians, and the sterility of concrete and asphalt creates a hectic atmosphere that can have long-term health effects on people of all ages.

Overemphasis on short-term economic interests. Many of the shopping centers are built quickly with mostly chain stores whose profits do not stay in the region, and whose environmental and social practices are seedy (such as Walmart or Family Dollar).  While it does allow for a burst of businesses, at least for a while, there is little money going back into the infrastructure and people in the vicinity (Figure 2).

Unprecedented excess pollution. Air quality is poor, with high rates of cancer respiratory illnesses.  A drive on the Indiana Toll Road (I-90) can be quite foul, with smells of sulfur, manure, and burning rubber in the air.  In addition, much of the soils, sediments, and water along the Grand Calumet River contain voliotaile compounds that make this river corridor an Environmental Protection Agency “Superfund” site due to discharge, dumping and destructive hydrological modifications from nearby industries (Fenelon and Watson, 1993).

Damaged natural environment. Many remaining natural ecosystems are highly degraded and are overrun by a dangerous pollutant-tolerant reed called Phragmities (Phragmities austrulus).  Highways, factories, buildings, and landfills fragment the landscape, increasing the vulnerability of remaining lakes, streams, forests, meadows, and endangered plants and animals.

Figure 2: Economic decline in the NW Indiana region, due to inadequate planning and design, has discouraged people from living in the area which has perpetuated dozens of abandoned residential areas like this one in Gary.

Lake County, Indiana , therefore, has many challenges to face.   However,  because there are so many problems with different systems, there are “many ways into intervene”, as consumer analyst Annie Leonard has frequently said.

Allow me to offer some general suggestions, or solutions, to a seemingly impossible problem.

Short-term solutions

Initiate a billboard ban on all highways and interstates. Billboards are distracting and unattractive, which can lead to lower property values for the region and reduce its overall appeal.

Mandate local schools, government employees, and low-crime prison inmates to help pick up trash and debris resulting from illegal dumping. This will engage the community in making their neighborhoods better, as well as raise up close and personal awareness of the problems with illegal dumping.

Plant colorful trees and flowers around town. Plants such as pines, spruces, and red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea) are hardy and low-maintainence, and they add color to the area year-round (including winter).   Figure 3 shows how monotonous and bland things can get in the degraded urban areas when there is little landscaping performed.

Figure 3. Lack of trees and flowers along roads and businesses can give a desolate appearance to many cities.

Repave damaged roads. Filling in potholes with soft tar or asphalt will not work.  If a road or intersection is in poor shape, then it must be repaved.

Improve timing on traffic signals to keep traffic flow smoother and less confusing.

Place yield signs on busy pedestrian crossing areas, and ticket those who do not stop to let pedestrians cross.

Increase frequency and coverage of garbage and recycling pickup.

Have longer hours at the Gibson Woods Nature Preserve. This regional nature preserve showcases the diverse oak-savanna dune and swale habitat that dominated much of the region prior to industrialization.  This important and rare ecosystem has been nearly forgotten in the sea of urban blight in NW Indiana, and it is important to make remnant areas accessible to the public in order to educate them about environmental problems and solutions.

Long-term Solutions

Build sidewalks and crosswalks.

Form bus routes and other public transportation. Perhaps some of the abandoned railroads in the area could be converted into light rail systems.

Purchase or use immanent domain to acquire brown-fields and abandoned industrial lands for environmental restoration and biological remediation.

Enact rigorous zoning laws that keep traffic and congestion at a minimum, and allow for safe pedestrian access. Most of the strip malls and shopping centers in the region have too much traffic, few crosswalks, and have little or no landscaping.  Also, shopping centers should only be in a designated shopping complex, rather than tree-less strips of stores along busy highways.  Do not build shopping centers on wetlands or old land fills.

Form partnerships with local conservation and environmental education organisations. The ones that are most active in Lake County, Indiana are Lake County Parks, the Nature Conservancy, Shirley Heinz Land Trust, Save the Dunes, Indiana Department of Natural Resources, and the National Park Service.

These tasks will be met with much controversy and will cost a lot of money.  However, it is necessary for Lake County to make these improvements for its residents and for our country.


Fenelon, J.M., & Watson, L.R. U.S. Geological Survey, Earth Science Center. (1993). Geohydrology and water quality of the calumet aquifer in the vicinity of the grand calumet river/indiana harbor canal, northwestern indiana . Denver, CO.

Kirk, C.S. (2010, November 18). Lake county to sue over state’s income tax demand. Post-Tribune.

Mason, P. (Writer). (2010). Gary, indiana: unbroken spirit amid the ruins of the 20th century [Television series episode]. In Newsnight. Gary: BBC.

The Nature Conservancy.  (2010). Southern lake michigan rim project office. Retrieved from


2 responses to “Urban Areas and the Environment: A Midwest county in distress

  1. Dad December 10, 2010 at 11:38 pm

    Great essay–are you planning to publish this? Letter to editor in local newspaer?

  2. Pingback: Conservation work in NW Indiana: Some concluding sentiments | Alex Palmer's Natural History Notes and Thoughts

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: