Beloved Botany Pond getting sustainable upgrades

Inviting space on campus being restored to original glory as ‘wonder of biodiversity,’ with sustainability, faculty expertise central to effort

Botany Pond, a popular and peaceful oasis just southeast of Cobb Gate in Hull Court, is undergoing an extensive restoration designed to keep it flourishing and beautiful for another 100 years.

The recently expanded restoration project is intended to enhance the pond’s habitat so that a diverse ecosystem can thrive there, with improved spaces for human visitors. A full reopening is planned for 2024 in time for Convocation.

History combines biology, beauty

The pond began as the vision of Prof. John Merle Coulter, a renowned botanist whose private plant collection and herbarium were virtually unrivaled at the close of the 19th century.

Coulter started working with the Olmsted Brothers landscape architects in 1897 on the design for a pond, envisioning it as an outdoor research laboratory for students and a step toward creating an extensive botanical garden on campus.

Construction of the pond was finished in 1903, and almost a century later, in 1997, President Hugo Sonnenschein completed the initiative to designate the entire 217-acre Hyde Park campus a Botanic Garden.

Harmoniously set against stately Gothic revival structures in the Biology Quadrangle, the pond became a landmark of respite and beauty for the students, faculty, staff and visitors who walked its footbridge and enjoyed the view it offered of changing seasons.

Campus lore holds that those who kiss on the footbridge will get married. Graduates and their proud families often cluster before and after Convocation to capture photo memories there.

Biodiversity at its heart

The original design for Botany Pond championed biodiversity and featured an extensive plant list with more than 400 plant species selected by Coulter. Though plantings of his full list were never realized, Coulter used the pond as his outdoor classroom and planted global specimens.

“Biologists would plant examples of what they got on their sojourns, so it was a wonder of biodiversity,” said Michael C. LaBarbera, Emeritus Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy. “It was meant to be a living memoir of the botanists in particular and their trips around the world investigating plants.”

As Botany Pond matured into a balanced ecosystem, myriad species flourished. Students could marvel at turtles, mostly red-eared sliders, painted turtles and map turtles, as well as a popular spiny softshell turtle that took up residency for many years. In late spring, the pond produced hundreds of dragonflies and attracted birds, including mallards, black-crowned night herons and Cooper’s hawks. Koi and other fish spawned or were stocked by the faculty.

To modern biologists, the pond is a treasure. LaBarbera has emphasized over the years that the pond is the perfect place for meaningful field work; he spent two summers taking high-speed video of dragonflies in flight.

Chair of Ecology and Evolution Stefano Allesina said the pond is a centerpiece to his departmental events, a gathering place for lunches and always advantageous for recruiting efforts.

Building sustainable future

But time took its toll on parts of the pond, especially during the pandemic.

Kathleen Golomb, the manager of campus environment, regularly monitors the pond. “I noticed there was a lack of balance in the pond ecosystem. I saw only two fish where there should be many more,” she said. There were not enough aquatic and plant species to provide balance with the pond’s beloved ducks.

Over two years, beginning in 2019, Golomb tracked changes in its water levels and clarity. “The water quality data showed deterioration. We discovered significant water leakage was also occurring, which had been difficult to detect because a pump was automatically replenishing levels,” she said.

Campus Planning + Sustainability within Facilities Services, along with the Office of the President, began convening with sustainability, wildlife and faculty experts to plan current and future solutions. The University determined major action would be required to rebalance the ecosystem so the pond could serve the University community in the way it was intended.

The campus environment team, led by Associate Director of Campus Environment Katie Martin Peck, was charged with providing a better habitat for the aquatic life, as well as improving the areas surrounding the pond for universal access, views of the pond and resiliency.

This past winter, the University drained the pond to assess the state of underlying structures and sediment and to repair multiple leaks.

“We needed an approach that would more carefully manage the chemistry and biology of the pond as a body of water,” said Prof. LaBarbera, one of six faculty members who advised the project. “Nitrogen loading and deep sediment impacted by ducks, as well as a number of cyanobacteria that have become common in Chicago in recent years, needed to be removed from the pond.”

Keeping pond stable for years

The environment team devised a natural filtration system to mitigate long-term buildup of sediment, improve water quality and support biological diversity for many years to come.

“We came up with a clever design for sustainable filtration that uses what we have learned in the last 20 years or so about developing very large fresh and saltwater systems that we can maintain,” said LaBarbera. The system uses varying sizes of rocks and micro-organisms to clean the water, so it is more energy efficient and requires less maintenance.

“It is a good design that should be able to keep the pond stable over the long term, though we can expect it will need tweaking as it matures,” he said.

The plan notably calls for incorporating more natives among the exotic, foreign plants. “It will be exemplar of plants native to the Midwest that will thrive here. It’s not ignoring the local flora but showing it off to good advantage. I think it’s going to be pretty spectacular,” said LaBarbera.

According to Martin Peck, the new Botany Pond will have spaces designed for ducks, turtles and other wildlife, including boulders and plantings to provide refuge; a ramp for access in and out of the water, which is particularly important for ducklings; and fish habitat and terrestrial areas strategically located with specific plantings.

Allesina noted that the middle of the pond has been restored to 5 feet deep, “which is going to be really good to the wildlife and more pleasant to the eye.”

Additional spaces have been designed for people to enjoy the pond, with special consideration for the many children who visit. Signs will educate visitors on the role they play in stewardship, including not feeding the animals or entering animal-only locales.

Because the project had to be expanded after the pond was drained, the timeline was extended. A partial opening of the pond is expected this winter, with a full reopening planned in 2024 in time for Convocation.

“The University community will have a thriving Botany Pond to study and to enjoy for generations more,” said Michele Rasmussen of the Office of the President and Dean of Students in the University. “It is deeply satisfying that the project team is rising to the opportunity to bring ecology, sustainability, inclusion, tradition and design together harmoniously.”

To help support Botany Pond with a donation, please click here. Check the box to enter your own designation and type “Botany Pond Restoration.”