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Soil of Our Birth-The Consequences of Irresponsible Development

Soil of Our Birth, Land of our Growth (original content from the WSGSPC Board)

Naperville is a thriving city. Our community is strong enough and flexible enough to meet the challenges of rapid growth, while keeping the economy rolling. Walk a sidewalk in the city and chances are you are walking the same line as that of a furrow formerly plowed by a farmer. In the not too distant past, our farmers sowed their crops on the vast savannahs and prairies that developed after the retreat of the last ice age over 12,000 years ago. Pinch an inch of native soil, and you are holding a hundred years of soil history in your hand.

Naperville's soil is nutrient rich. In particular, scientists and farmers deemed our rich and productive, silty clay loam "Drummer soil ". Twelve thousand years of decomposing prairie plants working in tandem with soil microbes makes Naperville one of the best places in the country to grow crops. Drummer was named the official state soil of Illinois in 2001. State Representative Ropp, who introduced the bill recognizing Drummer as the official state soil remarked, "Soil has made our state great in terms of its agricultural heritage."

The simple math of a growing population and stable land acreage says that available undeveloped land is shrinking. Naperville had a population of roughly 40,000 in 1980, but has seen more than a 300% increase since then. Acres formerly devoted to farming have eroded while the needs of more and more people must be provided for. Home ownership has long been considered "the American Dream", and with the US population now at more than 300 million, the division of land is inevitable, sometimes desirable.

Given the many difficulties rapid growth has challenged us with, it is important to remember how space rich we are in comparison with other cultures and countries. China's population reached 300 million about the time when John Hancock signed the Declaration of Independence. China is now home to a staggering 1.3 billion people! In the most populous country in the world open space is so limited that the following account is not atypical:

"There are no desks in their dorm rooms. The room is rectangular with one standard sized window to the outside. Beneath the window is a small table. Beneath the table are 8 large green tall plastic thermos bottles in which hot drinking water is kept. There are 8 bunks; primitive wooden structures painted a faded sort of blue. The walls are barely long enough to be visible, with one small wardrobe and a communal chest of drawers the only minimalist amenities."

With modern medical and technological advances population growth is taking place more quickly than at any other juncture in human history. Well-planned growth most certainly is not. In Jared Diamond's most recent book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005), Diamond examines what caused some of the great civilizations of the past to collapse into ruin and what contemporary societies can learn from their fates. His focus is not on typical historical considerations such as war and civil disorder, but rather on ecological factors. He pays particular attention to the Norse settlements in Greenland, which vanished as the climate got colder, while the surrounding Inuit culture thrived. Additional attention is given to the Maya, Anasazi, and Easter Island civilizations citing five factors that contributed to collapse in each case. The one factor in common was the mismanagement of natural resources.

Naperville's development means that we are no longer one of the best places in the country to grow crops, but are now according to Money magazine, one of the best places to grow a family. However, all around town links to our heritage are disappearing. Naperville's historic downtown district, dating back as long as 175 years, is the envy of many younger communities, and yet when more suitable higher intensity uses are proposed historical buildings are too often deemed expendable. Small affordable homes where generations have been raised yield to "McMansions" so large their neighbors can no longer cultivate a garden due to a lack of sunlight. What will be done when they too fall into disrepair? Entire blocks of quaint and unique small businesses are displaced and torn down in favor of large national retailers indistinguishable from strip malls found in "Anywhere USA." Oak, maple, ash and hackberry that have shaded homesteads for decades are removed in a day to make way for homes that will shelter those who will never know what was once there. We lose our farms, we lose our homes, we lose our past, we lose our history, and we lose a bit of our very own heart and soul.

We began as a farming town, and some of those farming sensibilities live on in a few cherished traditions such as the weekly summertime Farmers Market, Naper Settlement, the Community Garden Plots, Springbrook Prairie, and the annual Wheatland Plowing Association Pig Roast. However these are mere vestiges of what once was and will never be again. The reality is that the land we live on now no longer sees the plow and probably never will again. We are "citified" now, and despite our rich soil and rich agricultural heritage we must rely on the world economy for food when we were once self-sufficient. The challenge going forward is to protect what remains of the past and develop what is unavoidable in a responsible way. There are consequences to our choices in how we citify, and if we do not make our concerns known to the powers that be the sign at the fork in that gravel road by the old winding creek will soon read "dead end".