Natural Areas Project Manager
Chicago Park District
Restoring Native Urban Landscapes
Cassi Saari’s favorite plant is the Bouteloua curtipendula, a native grass that is found throughout North America and has adapted to the Illinois climate. As a project manager for the Chicago Park District Natural Areas, the botanist and ecological restoration practitioner is keenly aware of such native Chicago-area plants. Much of her time is spent working to restore them in the city’s designated natural areas—spaces within the parks that prioritize the growth of native plants to facilitate habitat restoration.
Saari began building her knowledge of habitat restoration at Northwestern, where her interdisciplinary studies included courses from the Program in Plant Biology and Conservation. She graduated from Northwestern's Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences in 2011 with a degree from the Program in Environmental Sciences. Saari says that the problem solving and structural learning skills she developed during her time as a student set the stage for her continued learning after graduation.
Initially, Saari put her boots on the ground at the Chicago Botanic Garden as a Prairie and River Management Technician in 2011. The position stemmed from contacts she made as a student, and served to launch her career. For the 8 years that followed, she worked as an ecological consultant. In this role, she had the opportunity to monitor plants and sustainable land development in Illinois. Being able to contribute to the restoration of an initially barren and abandoned site was an encouraging opportunity that continues to be a source of motivation for Saari.
Now, her work involves project planning, mapping, assessing, and monitoring the plants growing in Chicago parks and the progress of restoration projects. “We have areas with lots of native plants that have been planted intentionally for restoring habitat, for the plants themselves, and also for the wildlife that is native to the Chicago area,” she says. “We’re constantly creating new natural areas... So that’s a really nice place to be with the rebuilding effort.”
Saari highly values public outreach and interaction to help build future nature advocates. “Although our acreages may be small compared to a typical land manager, we are affecting so many more people with them,” she says. “The ‘people side’ is typically underrecognized in ecological restoration.”
She continues such work with a number of additional organizations. One of her favorite projects is her involvement with iNaturalist, an international community science platform where citizen scientists can upload pictures of plants, animals, and other organisms to a network of users who help with species identification. Originally started as a volunteering venture, Saari incorporates this into her job by helping new observers identify plant and animal species located in the Chicago parks. She also hosts workshops on iNaturalist with an emphasis on community science and teaches plant identification classes. In her spare time, the plant enthusiast also serves as the president of the Northeast chapter of the Illinois Native Plant Society.
“I’m really happy. I feel like I have my dream job.”