Blueprints shared by the Urbana Park District in June show plans to build over the prairie at Weaver Park to make room for six soccer fields and various courts for other sports — sparking outrage from Urbana residents who say it would be a loss of wild, natural land.
Urbana Park District’s website said the prairie at Weaver Park serves as a wetland and retention basin that collects stormwater to protect residential areas from flooding. The U.S. Forest Service website said that despite being known as the Prairie State, less than 0.01% of Illinois’s original 21 million acres of prairie remains.
Urbana resident Kristi Emilsson posted in the Historic East Urbana Neighborhood Facebook group in August, writing that she was deeply opposed to the plans to remove the prairie at Weaver Park:
“Sports are fine, but to remove valuable prairie is not fine. Most residents of Urbana already have limited access to wild natural spaces, so the loss of Weaver Park prairie would be sad. Most of us have no use for 12 new sports fields, they would serve a fairly narrow group of Urbana residents,” she wrote.
Mark Shultz, public information and marketing manager at the Urbana Park District, said the district is still in the process of reviewing the demand for sports fields following the removal of the two softball fields at Prairie Park.
“No project costs are available until we have a final plan,” he said. “We are taking more time to review and develop this plan with extended community input.”
Until there is a consensus with the park district and the community, there will be no definite plans put in place. The district has a park planning web page where community members can review the proposals and sign up for email updates on the project.
A petition titled “Save Weaver Park” was created in September on change.org, a free-to-use petition website. Over 1,300 signatures have been signed so far. The petition calls on members of the Urbana Park District to reconsider their plans. It was started by Laura Haber, an Urbana resident.
The petition echoes other concerns, including flooding and biodiversity.
“We are concerned that this development could lead to increased flooding for nearby neighborhoods and higher stormwater management costs for the city and taxpayers,” she wrote in the petition.
It also said preserving biodiverse habitats is of “paramount importance” to protect the habitats that already risk extinction due to habitat destruction.
George Hardebeck, a member of the steering committee to save Weaver Park, said he feels there are holistic benefits to being out in nature, and to lose part of the park would be a loss for the community and the creatures that inhabit the prairie.
“We are all seeking balancing solutions, while keeping in mind what are the healthiest approaches … at the same time growing an approach where the public have the right to take some leadership in discerning all this,” Hardebeck said.
Hardebeck also said some species have had a home at Weaver Park for decades and there is a need to enhance the restoration.
Tomas Delgado, program manager at the National Farm to School Network, serves on the community advisory board at the Urbana Park District. Delgado said he believes most communities want all amenities, including access to sports, as well as access to nature.
“I believe that whatever the future of Weaver has in store should be led by the people that live in its immediate vicinity,” Delgado said. “That may be turning it into soccer fields … Obviously I think there’s potential for a win-win solution.”
Delgado emphasized how the park district commits to racial justice, which he said is a component of this issue.
“It is innately human to connect with nature and communities of color within urban settings are often denied that right,” he said.
According to Delgado, the park district has implemented focus groups with respective communities within Urbana to hear residents’ thoughts on what should be done with the space at Weaver Park.