By Bob Uphues
The banks above the Des Plaines River following Riverside Road between Olmsted Road and the start of Miller Woods are lush with milkweed, native sedges, wild rye and wildflowers. The top of the bank looks like the edge of a prairie, across a broad swath of lawn dotted with oaks.
It's an area of the riverbank that those who laid out early Riverside clearly wanted people to enjoy. A sidewalk, a century old, at least, still lines the edge of the bank, affording lovely views of the river.
The wide lawn itself is an indication of how important the space was to Frederick Law Olmsted, one of several other small park-like meadows dotting this stretch of riverbank from the Swinging Bridge eastward.
"It's just so beautiful here," said Riverside resident and Frederick Law Olmsted Society member Holly Machina, whose diligence, along with a battalion of volunteers and buy-in from the village, helped transform this stretch of riverbank into a showpiece of landscape restoration over a decade.
"They put a sidewalk in here. Even the grassy area, this was all planned by Olmsted,' Machina added. "He put this greenspace next to the river. The street could have come right here [nearer the riverbank], but it didn't."
About a decade ago, you would have been hard pressed to even see the sidewalk along the riverbank, and you certainly would not have seen much of the river itself. While the riverbank, with its riot of native plants, might appear to be the result of nature taking its course, that's not exactly true.
Nature has certainly responded in the past decade, but that response is the result of a private-civic partnership that spent years removing invasive species like buckthorn, planting native species and initiating controlled burns to clear out invasive species and stimulate native species renewal.
In addition to the sweat of the volunteers, restoring the riverbank cost well over $20,000 – and will continue to cost money in the future – in the form of donations from organizations like the Olmsted Society and the village.
"This, to me, is a great example of a partnership between a municipality and a civic organization and the good that can come from it," said Riverside's forester, Michael Collins. "I give Holly a lot of credit, because really a lot of it was her persistence."
Collins called this particular stretch of riverbank "probably one of the least disturbed, [with the] most potential for ecological restoration."
Even though the river rises and falls with rainfall and snow melt, the bank is high enough that the area doesn't flood, like upstream locations near Indian Gardens or Swan Pond Park.
As a result, there's less weed seed dumped along the upper part of the riverbank, which has a lot of desirable native species like oak trees, milkweed, rattlesnake master (perennial plant with orb-like blooms) and wafer ash, which, if given a chance, will prosper.
"All of these are naturally regenerating by just getting these invasives out of the way and doing controlled burning every year," Collins said.
The plants, especially the common and swamp milkweed, draw pollinators like Monarch butterflies to the area.
And, visually, the removal of the tall stands of buckthorn, an invasive shrub brought to the United States from Europe in the 19th century, has made a dramatic difference in opening up views of the river.
Buckthorn removal along this stretch of riverbank took years and was the result of both volunteer workdays organized by the Olmstead Society beginning in 2009 and clearing efforts by the village of Riverside.
In 2014 alone, according to Collins, the village expended about $10,000 to clear buckthorn from the riverbank here.
Work continues along the riverbank between Olmsted Road and Miller Woods. Volunteers weeded the area in late July and have another workday planned on Sept. 21 from 9 to noon. In October, they'll plant more plugs and collect seeds from native species.
"Olmsted saw this river and basically said, 'I'm going to design curvilinear streets throughout your entire town," Collins said. "As stewards of the land, why would we want to block the river from people? It's so much more important to have it open."