I was just in Chicago, one of my favorite cities, for the American Planning Association (APA)’s National Planning Conference. Even though I was under the weather, I still enjoyed the conference and learned a great deal from the sessions I attended. On a personal note, it was wonderful to bring my 10-month old daughter to Millennium Park and see her marvel at amazing features like Cloud Gate and Crown Fountain. As usual, the conference offered a wide variety of sessions and mobile workshops. As a park planner, I naturally gravitated towards those related to parks and recreation. Summarized below are projects and initiatives I found most interesting and want to highlight in this article:
The Bloomingdale Trail
One of the projected discussed at the “Parks as Civic Space” session was The Bloomingdale Trail project. The Bloomingdale is a proposed 3-mile-long elevated linear park and trail running through the heart of Chicago, connecting neighborhoods, the river, and city’s great park system. Built from a former rail line, the Bloomingdale is intended to make Chicago residents healthier, get people to school and work faster, and provide communities with more opportunities to play and mingle. The project is on track for completion by fall of 2014. Phase I (engineering and preliminary design) is complete, with final Phase II development plans underway. The City of Chicago is in the final steps of taking possession of The Bloomingdale’s embankment and bridges which are currently owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway. Construction is expected to begin in late spring 2013. The concept of using the Bloomingdale rail line for recreation purposes dates back a decade, when city planners began a preliminary study of how the property might be developed, including whether the line should be retained or removed. In 2004, the project was listed in the City’s Logan Square Open Space Plan, and the project took on a higher priority. Since that time, the City and important community partners including The Trust for Public Land and the Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail have worked to secure support and funding for the project. City staff said that when completed, The Bloomingdale would be better than The High Line in New York City because it would allow for biking, and meet recreational and public health needs in park-poor neighborhoods.
Make Way for People
At the “Transforming Pavement into Parks” session, I found out about Chicago’s Make Way for People initiative. Run by the City’s Department of Transportation, this initiative aims to create public spaces that cultivate community and culture in Chicago’s neighborhoods through placemaking. Make Way for People supports innovation and creativity in the public way by opening Chicago’s streets, parking spots, plazas and alleys to new programming and market opportunities via public and private partnerships. In addition to improving street safety and promoting walkable communities, this initiative supports economic development for Chicago’s local businesses and Chicago’s neighborhoods. Make Way for People consists of four programs:
- People Spots: These are temporary platforms adjacent to sidewalks, typically within existing parking lanes. By expanding the sidewalks, they create seasonal space for outdoor seating and dining.
- People Streets: People Streets convert “excess” asphalt into year-round hardscape public spaces, by means of temporary measures such as paint and street furniture, with the purpose of creating safer intersections and additional open space in neighborhoods. People Streets are intended for dead end streets, cul-de-sacs, or areas of excess pavement.
- People Plazas: They activate existing Department of Transportation malls, plazas, and triangles with the introduction of new programming and retail opportunities with public and private partners.
- People Alleys: This involves the use of Chicago alleys for artwalks, seating, and other events that can activate these spaces for uses to support placemaking and economic development.
This effort is of particular interest to me because I have done some research and writing on alternative ways to meet recreational needs, including the temporary closure of streets and the creation of parklets to provide additional opportunities for recreation.
Northerly Island Park
Another project of note is the Northerly Island Park. Northerly Island is a 91-acre peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan at the heart of the Museum Campus. The majority of this space is dedicated to nature. The nature area at Northerly Island features beautiful strolling paths, casual play areas and a spectacular view of the Chicago skyline. In June 2005, a temporary, yet state-of-the-art concert venue was built at the northern end of the island. The 7,500 seat Pavilion hosts concerts from some of today’s most popular artists along with family matinée events. Park-goers can enjoy strolling paths, casual play areas and concerts at the facility. In December 2010, the Chicago Park District unveiled its framework plan for Northerly Island, to be completed over the next 20 to 30 years. The plan was developed with substantial public input. The overwhelming consensus was that Northerly Island should be an ecologically diverse park in which visitors could explore nature and experience peaceful solitude without leaving the city. Prominent among the responses were requests for ponds, meadows, forests, educational activities, integration with the Museum Campus, diverse water activities, links to the mainland, and environmentally sustainable design. Northerly Island Park will strengthen connection to the nearby Museum Campus through the addition of instructive ecosystems (living classrooms) and supportive community spaces. Building upon the year-round schedules of the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, and Adler Planetarium, Northerly Island Park will expand educational opportunities unique to these cultural and scientific institutions through its accessible aquatic and terrestrial habitats. The island will become an outdoor classroom with activity oriented programming. Northerly Island Park will be an example for sustainability through its financial viability, maintenance considerations, reduced energy use, and energy production. The design organizes human activity and natural habitat to attract revenue sources and protect the habitat. This is an ambitious and exciting project, and I look forward to it coming to fruition.
At the session on “Creative Youth Engagement,” a Girl Scouts representative shared about Journey World, which is located in downtown Chicago and is a unique, experiential programming space designed to inspire the next generation of civic and community leaders. Journey World’s dynamic curriculum is designed to appeal to both the 86,000 Girl Scouts who live in the greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana region, as well as to K-12th grade students across the area. This center for leadership and innovation challenges young people to think creatively about commerce, entrepreneurship, science, math, and the environment, then take action to make the world a better place. The sensory-stimulating center is uniquely designed as two separate floors that spotlight interrelated learning opportunities. On the It’s Your Planet – Love It! floor, a 10,000-square foot “Eco-Lab” transforms students into young scientists as they use state-of-the-art technologies and equipment in a realistic mini-city and cave, forest, prairie and lake ecosystems. On the It’s Your Future- Dream It! floor, a “mini-city” invites students to simulate real job responsibilities in offices that have been visually customized to resemble known institutions and businesses. The programs culminate with a full-day simulation at Journey World where students apply important concepts and skills as they take on real-life business, science, and government careers. The Girl Scouts are even developing a City Planner role in the city simulation and seeked planners’ advice on how to better integrate the natural and built environment areas of Journey World. During the conference, some planners toured the facility and provided feedback. Journey World sounds like a wonderful facility. Hopefully, we will soon have something similar for our youth in Los Angeles.
I also attended a session which featured David C. Rouse and Ignacio Bunster-Ossa, co-authors of a recently released report entitled “Green Infrastructure: A Landscape Approach.” They explained the concept of green infrastructure (GI) and highlighted various case studies in the book including GI efforts in Cleveland and Northeast Ohio, North Texas, and Philadelphia. According to Rouse and Bunster-Ossa, a landscape approach to green infrastructure entails “a design vision that translates planning strategy into physical reality while heeding the ecological and cultural characteristics of a particular locale.” I found this issue especially interesting because of my current work on a Master Plan for Sustainable Parks and Recreation in Los Angeles County as well as a previous infrastructure course I took at the University of Southern California taught by professor Richard Little, a well-known expert on infrastructure matters. The practice of green infrastructure falls under the purview of various related professions, including urban planning, parks and recreation, landscape architecture, civil engineering, and architecture. To successfully create green infrastructure at the local scale, all of us must work together and pursue an integrated approach to planning, design, and implementation. I enjoyed this session so much that I went on to buy the report. (If you are interested, it is available on Amazon.com.) One of the projects featured in the book is the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan which aims to transform 32 miles of concrete-lined river into public green space. It is a project focused on natural system restoration, treatment of stormwater runoff, and the reconnection of park-poor neighborhoods to green space along the river.
As a planner, it was very exciting to be in a place like Chicago which has such a rich history and tradition in city planning. It was also amazing to be in the midst of 5,000 other planners from around the country as well as dozens of countries. I agree with APA President Mitchell Silver completely when he encouraged us to plan big and plan with our hearts not just our minds. Just like last year’s event in Los Angeles, this year’s conference has both energized and challenged me to do my part to improve the communities I serve and plan with. I look forward to applying what I have learned this past week.
Note: All photos by author.