CHICAGO — It’s that time of year again, when flashes of the monarch butterfly’s orange and black wings delight people across the upper Midwest. The iconic species is on its northward journey, looking for milkweed to lay its eggs. We see these butterflies feeding on nectar near agricultural fields, in community parks and in our backyards. We even see them deep in urban settings, among vibrant plantings of coneflowers, coreopsis and milkweed near distribution depots and business headquarters.

Small but mighty urban habitats play a powerful role in supporting monarchs. And corporate campuses can be star contributors.

The precipitous decline in the monarch population over the past 20 years has garnered much attention. While many factors contribute to the decline, experts believe that loss of milkweed and nectar sources across the Midwest breeding range is a main culprit. An additional 1.8 billion stems of milkweed are needed to stabilize the monarch population, and cities are an unexpected avenue to achieve this goal.

A common perception is that cities are devoid of green space. But monarch butterflies have a different view. And so do researchers at the Field Museum in Chicago. Recent work by Field scientists reveals urban landscapes can contribute nearly one-third of the additional milkweed stems needed to support monarchs. Enormous opportunities exist region to transform low-performing lawns into high-quality homes for monarchs.

Corporate campuses account for more than 10,000 acres across the Chicago region; if every corporate campus took up the challenge to plant milkweed for monarchs, nearly 200,000 stems of milkweed could be added to the landscape. A great example is Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin, which boasts 23 acres of native habitat, including over 4,000 stems of milkweed, on its property.

Planting milkweed and native flowers that monarchs need to survive comes with a suite of benefits for people and business. Monarch habitat requires less energy-intensive management than do traditional manicured landscapes, lowering water use and maintenance costs over time. Landscaping that includes monarch habitat counts toward LEED certification and sustainability plans because the deep-rooted plants reduce flooding and store carbon.

These lively green spaces are a welcome asset for people, offering opportunities to breathe cleaner air, restore attention and focus and connect with the natural world.

One of us is a scientist who specializes in conservation ecology and climate change at the Field Museum, where we’ve planted native gardens and see these benefits in real-time. The other has spent a career in sustainability, higher education and philanthropy. We both see the potential for cities to be leaders in climate change and increasing quality of life through nature-based solutions.

The collective impact of small-scale plantings adds up to giant gains for monarchs and other wildlife. Corporations can champion this effort by creating highly visible landscapes that directly benefit the monarch recovery and inspire people to take their own actions to support pollinators. We encourage corporations to be a leader and transform their green spaces with native plants and milkweed to save monarchs, lower maintenance costs and provide healthier habitats for people and wildlife.

 

Lewis is director of the Conservation Tools Program at the Field Museum and project lead on the Urban Monarch Conservation Design multicity effort. Simmons is president of Global Philanthropy Partnership.