The transformation of Brookfield Zoo from a traditional 20th-century institution to one more centrally focused on access to the natural world and conservation took another turn earlier this fall with the opening of the Hamill Family Nature Plaza.

The 1.5-acre nature area replaced Monkey Island, a man-made “rock” outcropping built in 1936 that for decades housed a colony of Guinea baboons and closed in 2013. 

The island was demolished earlier this year to make way for the nature plaza, a combination education/programming/gathering/event space made possible by a sizable donation from the Hamill Family Foundation, which has funded several other major recent exhibits, including the Hamill Family Play Zoo and Wild Encounters exhibit, which replaced the old Children’s Zoo in 2015.

In place of the island are planting areas reminiscent of a woodland edge, featuring native plants connected by a winding path dotted with opportunities to sit and relax or to interact with and learn about elements of the design.

“We firmly believe that nature is the foundation of well-being,” said Andre Copeland, interpretive programs manager for the Chicago Zoological Society, which operates Brookfield Zoo. “It plays right into our mission to inspire conservation leadership by engaging people in communities with wildlife and nature.”

According to zoo officials, more than 650 trees and shrubs and more than 10,000 perennial plants and vines comprise the plantings within the nature plaza, framed on three sides by The Swamp, Tropic World and the Conservation Leadership Center.

And while gardens have always been an important feature at Brookfield Zoo, the nature plaza’s layouts are more naturalistic, less formal and include native grasses and sedges in addition to flowering perennial plants, trees and shrubs.

“Plants are the staples of terrestrial life,” said Copeland. “Without [native] plants animals are going to be hard-pressed to find anything to eat. That’s why we wanted to make sure people understood how important they are.

“In formal gardens, a lot of times, you don’t see the plants that are needed by our insect friend, and this is what we want to focus on now … embracing the beauty of our native flora and understanding how you can use that native flora to bring beauty to your own backyard while supporting the wildlife.”

One section of the nature plaza focuses on the landscape design philosophy and legacy of Jens Jensen, who was responsible for designing some of Chicago’s great urban parks, including Columbus Park in Austin, which also features a stone “council ring,” an interactive space recreated in the zoo’s nature plaza.

“One of the things [Jensen] is most noted for, especially here in Illinois, is being an inspiration for being the start of the Forest Preserves of Cook County,” Copeland said. 

Brookfield Zoo sits on land owned by the Cook County Forest Preserve District.

Other areas of the plaza highlight other aspects of the benefits of native plants, like milkweed to aid in the survival of Monarch butterflies and to serve as attractions to birds and other wildlife that are dependent on such plantings.

“Each of the areas we wanted to make sure are focused on bringing home the birds, but also providing food for pollinators,” Copeland said.

Another area of the plaza highlight the benefits of wetlands plants and the use of design features like rain gardens and bioswales to manage storm water and attract wildlife. One area of the plaza, which can be closed off to provide a more private space for special programs is fully accessible to those in wheelchairs, with raised planting beds that are within easy reach.

The Hamill Family Nature Plaza provides one of the only naturalistic environments outside of the Swan Lake nature trail, which is another good quarter of a mile or more to the west.

“We’re finding out more and more that we have a segment of people who come to zoos that are called ‘rechargers,’ who specifically come for that purpose,” Copeland said. “We do have a certain segment of people that come simply because they want to engage in the space and people that come here that want to engage in nature.”

At the center of the nature plaza is a large open-air pavilion that can be used by zoo visitors during the day as a rest area or a place to eat. The new Peacock Café and Grill immediately south of plaza is open year round and during warmer months features an outdoor grilling station.

The pavilion can also be used to let visitors interact with the zoo’s animal ambassadors and it can also be rented after hours for special events.