How some suburban parks have parted ways with pesticides

While most municipalities and park districts in the area use synthetic pesticides and fertilizers to maintain their recreational parks and natural areas, a few are going organic.

Following in the footsteps of Elgin, Naperville and Park Ridge, Lake Forest has launched a pesticide-free pilot program at Everett Park this year, using natural methods such as compost top dressing and overseeding to combat weeds without herbicide.

The city is working with nonprofit sustainable landscaping initiative Midwest Grows Green to implement a three-year management plan to build up the soil at Everett Park. Superintendent of Parks and Forestry Chuck Myers said city officials hope to expand the practice if the initiative shows success.

"Our goal is to provide parks that are managed in a responsible way, and we want to provide something for the residents that meets their expectations in Lake Forest," Myers said. "If we can push toward pesticide-free rather than just reducing pesticides, we're all for it. We're very committed to it."

The city chose Everett Park partly because it's next door to Everett Elementary School, representing an age group whose parents particularly might be concerned about pesticide exposure.

"The schools are also on board with it. I'm sure they would rather not use pesticides as well, so we thought that was a good fit," Myers said.

Pesticides - including insecticides, herbicides and fungicides - are a point of concern for many groups because of the environmental and human health effects. While some experts and the federal Environmental Protection Agency say registered pesticides are safe when used according to their labels, correct application doesn't always happen. For some products, such as Roundup Quik Pro, the debate about whether the chemicals used could be carcinogenic continues.

Putting aside the scientific debate, however, Arlington Heights resident Kit DiViesti said that at the end of the day, "we don't need to use these chemicals."

DiViesti, a 32-year village resident, is a research fellow at Amcor. Spurred by her family's proximity to Greenbrier Park, where she witnesses pesticides being sprayed, DiViesti has been urging the Arlington Heights Park District to go organic for more than a decade.

"We need to lower the chemical burden on the kids," she said. "If we can do that by going organic and having a few weeds, let's do it. Let's not fight about whether it's cancer-causing or not cancer-causing. Let's just not use chemicals where we can. It's all about taking care of the kids and taking care of nature."

DiViesti added that large municipalities like Naperville and Chicago have eliminated or reduced their use of pesticides - nearly 90% of Chicago parks are pesticide-free.

Following a stalled first attempt to pilot a pesticide-free natural area at Windsor Park in 2019, the Arlington Heights Park District is researching natural maintenance practices to test on a new park site. The staff is working on a pilot plan that will be completed by late fall for implementation in spring 2024. The pilot will run a minimum of one year.

"In the past, the district has tried utilizing natural/organic products and found them to be ineffective but are open to trying new products on the market," park district officials wrote in an email response. "As part of our environmental and conservation efforts, we actively seek information from other public entities, conservation, and advocacy groups to better promote sound environmental procedures and practices to preserve our parks for this and future generations."

The district added that it "judiciously" uses EPA-regulated chemicals, such as Roundup, commonly used by public agencies. Staff members and contractors who apply treatments are licensed through the Illinois Department of Agriculture, are trained how to use the products, and wear appropriate personal protective equipment as needed, the district said.

Homeowners apply up to three times more chemical pesticides to their lawn turf grass per acre than farmers do on crops, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

"We are very concerned about residents and their lack of education around how to manage lawns and just landscapes overall," said Ryan Anderson, sustainable communities manager at Integrated Pest Management Institute of North America, which runs Midwest Grows Green.

"There's this whole ideology to have these weed-free green lawns, and so that's applying pesticides and what we call broadcasts, which is just spreading (the chemicals) all across the place. If you're going to use a pesticide, you want to use it as a last resort, and you want to use the least amount of the least toxic or harmful product."

In Elgin, there are 12 pesticide-free park areas. The city designated eight additional green spaces as "Pesticide Free Zones" last year, using organic and natural applications on more than 26 acres citywide. A site map is available at

In 2019, the Lisle Park District launched a pesticide-free program with Midwest Grows Green in four of its parks - Abbeywood, Oak Hill, Leask Lane and Connelly Memorial. The lawns provide "alternative recreational space for those concerned about the impacts of pesticides on people and pets," according to its website.

A map of Chicago-area parks that are pesticide-free through Midwest Grows Green can be found at

Scientists continue to debate the potential harms caused by various herbicides.

One of the most commonly used herbicides, glyphosate, found in products such as Roundup, has been designated a "probable" carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, while the U.S. EPA considers glyphosate as "not likely to be carcinogenic to humans."

For Joel Coats, professor emeritus at Iowa State University's Department of Entomology, a pesticide's registration for household use by the EPA is an acceptable safety standard.

"They've all been through EPA scrutiny to the extent that I'm satisfied," Coats said. "All of the ones that are registered for domestic yards or for municipal parks have been thoroughly tested. If the EPA registered them, that convinces me that they are safe enough to use - if the directions are followed."

For others, it's not as black and white. Two of the most common herbicides used for maintaining broad-leaved weeds like dandelion - 2,4-D and Roundup - remain a point of concern.

Roundup has been at the center of tens of thousands of cancer lawsuits, for which the brand's parent company, Monsanto, has paid about $11 billion as of last May. Many of the lawsuits have been filed by farmers, landscapers and horticulturalists.

"There's a lot of variability in what people think is correct, but certainly you don't want to use either of these in areas that kids are going to be playing," said Peter Orris, a professor and attending physician of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System. "You have to weigh the toxic, therapeutic benefits in each of these situations, which is different. If you're using (pesticides) just for cosmetics, I think you're at a burden to prove that it's not causing problems."

• Jenny Whidden is a climate change and environment writer working with the Daily Herald through a partnership with Report For America supported by The Nature Conservancy. To help support her work with a tax-deductible donation, see

  A portion of Lords Park is pesticide-free. Rick West/
  Elgin has numerous pesticide-free parks, including the NENA Butterfly Garden at Douglas/Ann Park. Rick West/
Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.