Ideas are bubbling that can help Chicago fix the dismaying lack of open space away from its park-rich lakefront.
New York is closing lightly trafficked local streets and turning them into temporary playgrounds. San Francisco is taking parking spaces and transforming them into permanent mini-parks. In Chicago, transportation planners are quietly plotting how to weave abandoned railroad lines and disconnected strips of riverfront parks into a network of trails that would rival the city's heavily used lakefront bike path.
Residents of Chicago's most park-poor areas, meanwhile, haven't been waiting for City Hall to bring more green space to them. They've been holding rallies and marches. And they're starting to get results.
In spite of Chicago's massive budget deficit, such examples reveal that Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the people of his city have plenty of creative, cost-efficient weapons at their disposal as they seek to transform the city's "park deserts."
Those weapons include big pots of federal money that can create bike trails and make it easier to walk or bike to the city's existing parks. Designers also can be enlisted in the battle for better parkland, recognizing their ability to craft imaginative landscapes that make even the smallest parks powerful magnets.
The open space shortage is pervasive, with 32 of 77 community areas, home to half of Chicago's 2.7 million people, failing to meet the city's own modest requirement of two acres of open space for every 1,000 residents. And the stakes associated with relieving it are huge. Parks can help the city's neighborhoods attract and retain residents, promote public health, boost real estate values and draw together people from different walks of life.
"Open space is not just an amenity. It is one of the most vital institutions in enhancing urban life," said Sally Chappell, professor of art history at DePaul University.
Although Emanuel has thrown his support behind a grab bag of open space initiatives, such as boathouses on the Chicago River and a new park in an unused area of Rosehill Cemetery, he has yet to produce the visionary plan he promised in his transition report.
In the absence of such a vision, here are 10 ideas that show what architects and the architects of public policy can do to relieve Chicago's chronic open space shortage:
1. Make better use of existing parks
Chicagoans who want their parks to live up to the city's official motto, "City in a garden," might begin by acting on the city's unofficial slogan, "Where's mine?"
That's what residents of Brighton Park, the city's most park-poor neighborhood, did in August. More than 350 of them attended a public meeting that launched a campaign for better facilities at the area's lone large park, the 7-acre Kelly Park, a mile south of the Stevenson Expressway.
Public officials, including one of the area's two aldermen, George Cardenas, 12th, quickly got the message. They've promised to push for funds to back such improvements as an artificial-turf soccer field. Chicago Park District officials have also met with community leaders.
"Now that we have tackled the schools, because of overcrowding, now we come to the issue of park space," Cardenas said.
There's a broader lesson in this story: Rehabbing existing facilities won't add acreage, yet it will improve the quality — and capacity — of Chicago's parks. An artificial turf field, for example, won't turn into a mud puddle after it rains. And the best way for residents to ensure that existing parks get upgraded? It's to make their voices heard.
"Equity comes from the grass roots," said Patrick Brosnan, director of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, which organized the August meeting.
2. Improve access to open space
It's an asphalt jungle out there on Chicago's roads, with more traffic and less law enforcement than there were decades ago. Little wonder, then, that many parents are afraid to let their children walk or ride bikes to parks. "In general, there's that sense of incivility," said Luann Hamilton, a deputy commissioner at Chicago's Department of Transportation.
In response, members of 10 Chicago community organizations, many in park-poor areas, have been fanning out in recent weeks and asking questions: How fast do the cars and trucks drive? Do barriers protect pedestrians from vehicles? Are the sidewalks cracked?