Gateway Plan aims to attract more attention to the Forest Preserves of Cook County
Home of Chicago, Cook County is known more for being the third largest metropolitan area in the country rather than the location of the largest natural forest preserve in the U.S.
The Forest Preserves of Cook County (FPCC) is a 70,000-acre network of preserved natural lands consisting of forests, streams and lakes. The areas that meander throughout Cook County were set aside more than 100 years ago as green space for those who lived in the city. They provide a vast array of opportunities and amenities suited for recreational activities including boating, camping, hiking and biking as well as a number of programs and places to visit.
The FPCC's amenities are all but lost on many, though.
“I don’t think there are a lot of people that know about all the programs that are available in each of our preserve districts," Cook County Comissioner Timothy O. Schneider recently told the West Cook News, "We’ve got all kinds of wonderful nature centers [but] there’s an awful lot of people if you went out there and asked them right now, they wouldn’t even know what you were talking about.”
A program unveiled last month may change all that.
At the Jan. 25 board of commissioners meeting, FPCC General Superintendent Arnold Randall unveiled the Gateway Master Plan, which will create special “gateway” entry sites throughout the preserves. The plan was conceived as a means to increase the visibility of access points to the preserves, and to spur more people to utilize the health and recreational opportunities available to them.
“We want to create marquee, front-door welcome mats to the preserve so that in the sense that when you drive by at a key site, you know that it is a forest preserve entry point,” Lambrini Lukidis, FPCC director of communications, told the West Cook News. "Each of the gateway sites is meant to be a welcoming and inviting attraction to what is an existing activity hub in that area.”
Lukidis said 30 sites have been identified as gateways, with 12 prioritized.
“Some of these gateway sites might look a little bit different, but ultimately what we want is for them to have some sort of signature look so that wherever you are throughout the county, you recognize that that’s a forest preserve spot -- that there’s an attraction there whether you want to do something healthy, whether you want to visit a specific area for boating or fishing, or maybe its sledding -- to have basically a front door to the forest preserves throughout the county," Lukidis said.
Schneider wholeheartedly applauds the plan.
“I think the Forest Preserves of Cook County have been, for lack of a better word, a really long kept secret," he said. "This is an exciting idea that will create more visibility for county residents, and allow them to be able to understand how wonderful and beautiful [they are]. We have so many wonderful things we can do that will take kids away from their laptops and families can enjoy together in the outdoors.”
The gateway plan will require some erection of signs and billboards at the sites, but Schneider doesn’t see any downside.
“I applaud the effort because I think it’s a really good idea for people to see what’s available in our forest reserves, and to go out and enjoy nature," Schneider said. "They’re looking for high-profile areas to put some signage up; and I don’t see there being any real negative to that, especially when the whole project is going to have a hugely net positive for the people of the district throughout Cook County.
But the Gateway Plan will not come about overnight.
“This is a long-range vision, and it’s not something people are going to start seeing pop up in the next couple of years," Lukidis said. "This is a long-term plan, and it's part of our next century conservation plan. We’ve been through a lot of steps in this process and there are a lot of steps that [still] need to happen. But this is definitely the direction that we are moving and this is the overall vision that we have for the preserve.”