Every spring, summer and fall, colorful displays of flowers and plants fill the medians and the sidewalk planters that line North Michigan Avenue, and then disappear during the winter.
The vibrant landscaping of the Mag Mile began during the Richard M. Daley administration as part of an effort to beautify downtown and draw more tourists and shoppers. In 2016, Chicago won the prestigious Landmark award from the American Society of Landscape Architects for these landscaping designs, and over the years other cities like Des Moines, Detroit and Washington, D.C. have incorporated similar streetscape designs into high visibility areas.
Joe Swedorski, who works nearby at Northwestern Medicine, has admired these plants and flowers for years as he commutes to and from work. But he said when he thinks about their wintertime fate, he starts to worry.
“I have the feeling they get thrown away, which kills me,” he said.
Joe said he hopes that’s not the case. So he asked Curious City: What exactly happens to the plants and flowers along North Michigan Avenue after the fall?
The Chicago Department of Transportation manages the planters on the medians while individual property owners are responsible for the sidewalk planters. And depending on where they’re located, it turns out there’s some good — and bad — news when it comes to the plants’ fates.
What happens to plants and flowers in the sidewalk planters?
Though individual property owners are responsible for these planters, businesses along Michigan Avenue hire landscapers to handle the rotation of the sidewalk displays. The landscapers reuse, compost, donate and throw out some of the plants.
“Ultimately the goal is to balance sustainability, the environment and the incredible beauty that the Magnificent Mile demands,” said Jenny Ricciardi, president of IGS Plantscaping Group, which does landscaping for five Michigan Avenue properties.
Ricciardi said businesses and property owners used to throw away the summer flowers once temperatures started to drop. But now, because of environmental concerns, companies really want to reuse the plants.
She says IGS Plantscaping Group is able to reuse 95% of their foliage. If the tropical foliage, like palms and ferns, are in good condition, they re-pot them and give them to other clients for interior design. Or, if plants can be reused the following season but won’t survive the winter outside, like ivy, they will tend to them in their facility and replant them outside come warmer weather. IGS also composts seasonal flowers that won’t survive and can’t be tended through the winter.Allie Corbett, a landscape architect with Clarence Davids, which manages nine properties on the Magnificent Mile, says when they pull up plants during seasonal rotations, they also offer some of them to business tenants in the buildings they manage.
But on a larger scale, she said it’s more difficult to reuse and donate plants.
“Of course we want to save plants, but [to do so] you have to be cautious with the root system, and as a contractor you have to balance how much time it takes to save a plant with be[ing] careful [about] how many hours you bid,” she said.
Corbett said that clients can request reusing and saving plants, and in these situations the extra labor hours would be accounted for in the contract. She said one of the properties they landscape at 625 N. Michigan has requested this.
“So we use boxwoods and hydrangeas, which come back every year,” she said.
Corbett said like IGS Plantscaping Group, they also compost some plants as well.
What about the plants and flowers in the medians?
These displays are managed by the Chicago Department Of Transportation, or CDOT. And CDOT handles annuals, a plant that won’t grow back from season to season, and perennials, which will, differently.
Annuals are pulled out, disposed of and are not composted, according to Michael Claffey, a spokesperson for CDOT. As for the perennials, every year the city contracts with A Safe Haven — a nonprofit that offers job opportunities and training to veterans and people experiencing homelessness — to plant thousands of tulip bulbs in the medians. Even though these flowers will grow back, CDOT digs them up each year, plants new ones and then donates the old bulbs.
“We think the public appreciates variety and would not want to see the same colors year after year,” Claffey said.
In 2020, because of the pandemic, CDOT said the bulbs were donated to hospitals and veterans facilities. In pre-pandemic times, the city donated the bulbs to the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance.
Mattie Wilson has been managing the conservatory’s program that receives bulbs from CDOT for the past 10 years. She says they’ve given away up to 25,000 bulbs each year to individuals eager to put a splash of color in their gardens.
“Usually it’s a 9 a.m. giveaway and there’s people in line two or three hours before we open the gates, which just blows my mind,” Wilson said.
She said most people are home gardeners, though some are teachers wanting to plant with their students.
“It’s really fascinating how people get so excited about the tulips and whether or not they’re going to bloom next year,” she said.
But is it wasteful?
Whether all these plants end up being donated, composted or thrown out, this seasonal rotation costs energy, time and tax-payer dollars.
According to Suzanne Malec-McKenna, former Commissioner of the Environment for the City of Chicago, there are environmental and economic costs to repeatedly digging up and replanting the city’s displays.
“By having to go in three or four times a year to pull things or put things back in, you have labor, emissions, and dumping costs,” she said.
And Malec-McKenna said there are issues with soil as well.
“When you’re pulling out soil often it has to be put back in, which often comes from farms and it’s not good to remove soil from anywhere,” she said.
CDOT’s 2021 projected budget for the citywide Streetscape and Sustainable Design Program is $24.7 million. And in 2020, CDOT spent $173,470 just on the tulip bulbs alone.
Malec-McKenna said that she’s not opposed to planting some annuals — the plants that won’t grow back from season to season. Annuals do provide food and habitat for some migratory birds and butterflies.
And as for digging up tulip bulbs after they bloom every spring, Malec-McKenna says as long as they aren’t being thrown away, and if they are dug up properly and donated, then “it’s a huge gift to communities.”
And while some plants are discarded, the landscaping that is done each year also provides job training, said Neli Vazquez Rowland, founder and president of A Safe Haven. The nonprofit contracts with CDOT to landscape the medians, and since the landscaping program began in the early ‘90s, more than 2,000 people have received job training.
“Sometimes we think, ‘Wow, do we really need those flowers?’ In my opinion, we absolutely need them for so many reasons,” she said. “Not only are we a world class city, but what people don’t realize is that it’s creating a path to self sufficiency and independence.”
More about our question asker
Joe Swedorski is a communications specialist at Northwestern Medicine. He’s been taking the bus from Uptown to Streeterville for years, so he’s spent a lot of time admiring the planters along Michigan Avenue.
He considers himself to be a plant enthusiast and said that we have a lot to learn from plants.
“Plants aren’t perfect. A lot of people get a houseplant and don’t want to see a yellow leaf, but that’s nature,” he said. “Plants go through life cycles just like we do, so it’s about pulling yourself back and not freaking out about a yellow leaf.”
He recently participated in the Underground Plant Trade that thinks about reparation in plant form.
“I found a neighbor who was looking for plants and I gave her some of mine, so it’s about sharing your passion,” he said.
Joe was happy to hear that many of the plants along the sidewalks are rehabbed and reused and that the seasonal annuals are composted. And he’s glad that the tulip bulbs get donated.
“I don’t have to worry anymore,” he said.
Lynnea Domienik is a former intern for Curious City.