urbanite take

A Chicagoan opines on land use, transportation and the walkable city

Archive for October 2011

The problem of parks

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The future Bloomingdale Trail: creative park space in the city

I’m a little late, but I thought that Blair Kamin’s recent pieces on “park deserts” in Chicago brought well-deserved attention to the problem. The gist is that away from Chicago’s glitzy downtown and lakefront jewels, the city has a dearth of parkland, particularly as you go far into the Northwest and Southwest sides along the river and canal corridors.

An occasional trek out to the justifiably celebrated lakefront doesn’t replace the convenience and importance of a close neighborhood park. I live only three miles from Lake Michigan, in a neighborhood that isn’t afflicted with a particularly sever shortage of open space (although Logan Square to the northwest is), and I can take the train downtown or the bus to the lakefront very easily and be at either within half an hour. But none of these  replaces a neighborhood open space within closer proximity to me.

New York's High Line

This lack of urban space in Chicago relates to a criticism that I have of Gary Hustwit’s otherwise excellent Urbanized, which I saw at a special screening last week. Hustwit traces the familiar path of postwar suburbanization, arriving at one of the classic urbanist nightmares, Phoenix. He interviews a developer who argues that Phoenix shouldn’t be condemned as “sprawl,” but rather accepted as the prototype of postwar automobile-centered development. The developer ends with a defense of his love for his home, pool and 3/4-acre lot, but an unflattering close-up and lack of any mitigating commentary cast him in an unsympathetic light.

This portrayal of the developer, whether or not it was intentional is a weakness emblematic of a larger fault of the film. Not only does it provides fodder for anti-urbanists — “Look at those snobby urbanists, they have nothing but contempt for Joe Suburbanite, they can’t relate to ‘real’ Americans” — but it also dismisses American suburbanization and urban sprawl with a simplistic appeal to individualistic greed on the part of people who just want a big house, some land and some space.

There are many reasons for suburban allure, of course, with the germane reason here the offering of parkland. In theory, classic American suburbia offers  an unbeatable mix of urban and rural: live close to the city, but  surrounded by your own green grass. American suburbanization certainly can’t be attributed solely to a cultural yearning for green space — what with mortgage incentives, the interstates, redlining and other factors, it’d be a shock if the nation hadn’t suburbanized on a grand scale — but it’s undeniable that there is something in our cultural psyche.

While Hustwit does mention the Garden City movement and portray the slums of contemporary developing-world cities, I still wish that he had addressed the pull for suburbanization in more detail: the film paints a gorgeous picture of the appeal of city living, making it easy to dismiss the suburbs as a cultural wasteland; yet the majority of Americans are housed in them and our culture makes an easy contrast between the lush, green suburbs and the overcrowded, run-down inner cities. Not at all an accurate comparison, but certainly a compelling one, especially when so many cities do lack the open spaces that are (theoretically) an advantage that suburbs offer.

In a way, it’s telling that a comment on the Curbed Chicago blog entry that featured Kamin’s pieces dismissed the need for more parks in Chicago, what with the plentiful private green space and the forest preserves. While the forest preserves, and places like the Chicago Botanic Gardens, are indeed great green spaces, these types of locales are found largely in the suburbs and on the outskirts of the city. From the vantage point of lawn- and forest preserve-filled suburban Chicagoland, it’s easy to miss the need for green space in the city.

Lake Point Tower's park lies on top of the parking garage, with the residences above

And, of course, private green space doesn’t benefit the majority of city residents who don’t have access to these spaces. In this vein, I was lucky enough to visit Lake Point Tower’s private park during the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Open House Chicago event this past weekend. The condo/apartment building, the only one east of Lake Shore Drive, has a tower of residences built on top of a wide parking garage. Instead of the standard rooftop blacktop filled with mysterious blocks puffing out steam and hot air, there is a park. It’s a respite from the city — although never far from the din of Lake Shore Drive — with a pool, winding paths, playground and fairly impressively large trees, for being planted in topsoil above a parking garage.

The takeaway from the Lake Point Tower park is not that the private park should be made public, of course, but rather than when you build parks in cities, particularly old, densely-built-up cities that it’s often necessary to be creative in the way that you allot open space parkland. Parks in urban areas need to be accessible by a number of means, be designed with public safety in mind and often require creative use of space. The Lake Point Tower park, the Bloomingdale Trail, Chicago’s Riverwalk and New York’s High Line are all examples of this type of use.

Parks and well-designed open spaces are important. It is difficult to see from either the largely affluent lakefront or outer suburbs of Chicagoland, but many parts of the city away from the glitzy center are starved for open space (or, as Kamin notes, afflicted with too much open space, but that’s a separate but related problem). At their core, vibrant urban neighborhood require a mix of everything: mixed ages of people, mixed uses, mixed history of buildings and a mix between built-up and open spaces.

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Written by Andrew ACG

October 22, 2011 at 1:47 pm

Posted in Chicago, Land use

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Thoughts on trails and thoroughfares

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First off, I’d like to apologize for taking such a long break in between posts – September sort of got away from me, and it became much busier than I had anticipated, but I’ll be back regularly now.

I just wanted to put down some thoughts briefly on two different events that I experienced this weekend, Open Streets on State Street as well as the Bloomingdale Trail design charrette. Open Streets on State Street closed the street to vehicular traffic from Lake to Van Buren for six hours Saturday morning; Grid Chicago’s John Greenfield has an excellent rundown of various ciclovías and Open Street-like events.

The Bloomingdale Trail design charrette, held the same day, provided a forum for architects, planners, volunteers and community members to discuss form and function of the project, which hopes to convert the unused Bloomingdale rail viaduct on the city’s West Side to a trail, somewhat like the High Line. I unfortunately wasn’t able to make most of the design charrette, although there will be a meeting on Tuesday to present the design team recommendations for the trail’s Framework Plan, which I’m planning on attending.

Coincidentally, when I was in New York about a month and a half ago, I happened to visit during the city’s Summer Streets on Park Avenue, which was a similar project (and which I also posted about) as well as walked the entire open length of the High Line.

State at Adams

I did notice that when I emerged out of the subway onto the open street in New York, that there was a high percentage of bicyclists whizzing down the road, whereas my first impression on Open Streets was a sense that it was a larger version of Chicago’s numerous summer street fairs. Summer Streets gave me a sense of a car-free but moving cyclist and pedestrian thoroughfare, while Open Streets had a slower, more meandering atmosphere. I’d guess the difference stems from the various lengths of the street: Summer Streets closes down Park Avenue for over half the length of Manhattan, while Open Streets closes six or so blocks in the Loop. I’d hasten to add that there’s nothing wrong with either approach: they’re both ways of re-using street space in ways we don’t normally consider.

It did occur to me, very briefly, whether closing Michigan Ave, which I’d consider the other iconic Chicago boulevard and arguably visually more similar to Park Ave, for this type of event would have created a more stunning visual impact, as it’s a wider street and sees more foot traffic on weekends, especially in the section north of the river. But I think that the impact on both motorists and bus routes — it’s a major thoroughfare for both — would have rendered it a colossally difficult undertaking. (Park Ave doesn’t have a MTA bus line on it; the extremely busy Lexington Ave line is one block to the east, although Park does host the Metro-North viaduct in upper Manhattan.)

Concerns posted for near the eastern end of the trail (between Damen and Ashland)

As for the Bloomingdale Trail charrette, while I didn’t have a chance to go, I did take a look at the map on which users were encouraged to post their concerns, suggestions and other thoughts via post-it notes. I did notice a cluster of security concerns from residents, presumably those of condos that face right up to the river. While I don’t want to diminish their concerns, they do echo of those who are opposed to new light-rail or other transit lines presumably because of the crime that they would bring (I am very sympathetic to the concerns about lights, though — light pollution in places like Chicago is quite severe as is, so I’m hoping that there will be some thought put into the lighting design.)

Presumably, these residents who bought these condos were doing so under the assumption that the unused rail viaduct would stay as is, instead of being converted to an active thoroughfare. It’s sort of a greater philosophical problem beyond just a proposed rail trail — as city dwellers, what type of expectations can we have about our greater surroundings? Nobody wants to buy into a “good neighborhood” only to see it decline, or to be priced out of the area in which they have made an investment or have historic ties. Yet for the city as a whole, these developments are unquestionably positive (new parks, green space, less crumbling infrastructure).

Both Open Streets and the Bloomingdale Trail fundamentally are land-use and balance issues: identifying the best way to maximize the utility of the limited land that we have in our cities, and balancing the necessarily conflicted aims of all city denizens, whether those be downtown drivers, condo owners or park users. They’re not always easy, but I think asking these questions, instead of just leaving things at the status quo, ultimately help to make Chicago (and our other cities), better places to live.

Written by Andrew ACG

October 3, 2011 at 7:29 pm

Posted in Uncategorized