urbanite take

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

D&L 5: Sizing up Chicago’s Wicker and Lincoln parks

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Chapter 5. The uses of neighborhood parks

I’ve written about parks before — in fact, my last post before joining the book club was on an access park to the Bloomingdale Trail to be built at Milwaukee and Leavitt. But after reading chapter six of Death and Life, I felt like I’d like to take a fresh look at some other parks. So given the various design criteria that Jacobs uses to identify successful city parks, I thought I’d focus in on two fairly successful Chicago parks and their relation to these qualities.

Jacobs writes:

Intricacy that counts is mainly intricacy at eye level, change in the rise of ground, groupings of trees, openings leading to various focal points–in short, subtle expressions of difference.


Good small parks typically have a place somewhere within them commonly understood to be the center–at the very least a main crossroads and pausing point, a climax…People try hard to create centers and climaxes to a park, even against odds. Sometimes it is impossible. Long strip parks, like the dismally unsuccessful Sara Delano Roosevelt park in New York and many riverside parks, are frequently designed as if they were rolled out from a die stamper.

Wicker Park (roughly 600 x 650 x 850 ft)

I’ll start with my neighborhood park, Wicker Park. It’s fairly small at four acres, near the geographical center of the neighborhood it names. The triangular park boasts a playground, field-house and fountain in the western half, with a baseball field and a dog run in the southeast corner. In the summer and early fall, it hosts a farmer’s market.

I’ve found that usage of the park clusters near the western sidenear Damen Ave, even when the baseball diamond is not in use (and is thus free to other park users). It comes down to the intricacy criterion that Jacobs identifies: in the park’s western half, the playground, field house and fountain provide a sense of variety and diversity. And Chicago is known for being a resoundingly flat city (distressingly so to my Los Angeles-raised self), but the paths and stairs up to the fountain work to create a sense of elevation and difference.

As for centering, the fountain provides a fairly viable example — particularly on days with good weather, but even in the middle of winter, I see people reading, eating, chatting on the benches around the fountain and dozing or people-watching from the patches of grass within the circle encircling the fountain. Interestingly, in Jacobs’ discussion of Corlear Park, she notes that the ball field is among the “demand goods,” the most used part of that park. I’ve had the opposite experience in Wicker Park: aside from the days when I see a ball game being played, I usually see individuals clustering closer to the western edge.

Wicker Park is a good example of Jacobs’ neighborhood parks with good design: people instinctively surround the fountain as a centering element and cluster in those parts of the park that offer a varied and different landscape. It is also small enough and unique enough in the neighborhood that it is prized by the surrounding community as an area of green space.

Lincoln Park (about 5 1/4 mi long)

When I happened upon Jacobs’ mention of “long strip parks,” I immediately thought of Lincoln Park, the namesake of the affluent North Side neighborhood. Stretching from North Ave to Ardmore Ave — a distance of over five miles — the park is three hundred times larger than Wicker Park at 1,208 acres, stretched between Lake Michigan and a wall of buildings to the west.

On paper, Lincoln Park would seem to have some faults. It’s by definition a long strip park that doesn’t really have a center (about halfway up its length, the park is essentially bisected by Belmont Harbor). It’s separated from the lakefront by the quasi-expressway of Lake Shore Drive.

But Lincoln Park is indubitably one of the city’s most successful parks. It’s the second-most visited park (PDF: pg. 28) in the United States with 20 million visitors a year, which is particularly evident in the summer. The park certainly boasts many “demand goods” that Jacobs identifies at the end of the chapter — the zoo, marinas — but the park continues to see pretty heavy general use.

I think the key here is that the park isn’t just a long stretch of land along the lake but that in many ways it acts as a series of individual, smaller parks strung together. People certainly do use the Lakefront Trail (which stretches southward beyond this part of the city) from north to south; I’ve walked much of it myself.

But the park escapes the curse of those “long strip parks” that Jacobs mentions because it doesn’t feel like an endless unrolling identical pattern. While it’s difficult to identify a center for the whole park, different segments are delineated by elements such as the ponds, the zoo, the nature sanctuary and the marinas. And then within each o these sections, there’s a strong sense that it’s a coherent park.

The presence of the lake certainly helps, of course — but as we’ve seen in other lakefront and riverfront parks, the mere presence of water doesn’t guarantee a park’s success. I’ve certainly spent enough time on Manhattan forgetting that it’s an island, even when I’m very close to the water. At the same time, a large weakness of these types of lakeside parks is that by necessity they draw all traffic from one direction: in this case, largely from the park’s west (and from the north and south on either end), which could have doomed the foot traffic because there’s not really a compelling destination on the other side. Lincoln Park avoids this by not only being intricately designed, but by being “thin” enough that in most parts of the park one never feels too far and unsafe from the city and the lively sidewalk street life that helps sustain that feeling of safety.

Chicago’s motto is urbs in horto, or “city in a garden.” When those “gardens” are done right, as Jacobs points out, they can add much to the vitality of the place, as Wicker and Lincoln parks do. I hope that in its future plans, the city can continue to build on this legacy.

Written by Andrew ACG

February 16, 2012 at 8:00 am

5 Responses

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  1. […] A City Guy: Chapter 5 – Sizing up Chicago’s Wicker and Lincoln parks […]

  2. I’m not very familiar with Chicago, so I’m very curious about this waterfront park with a highway along it. Here in Toronto, the Gardiner Expressway tends to cut us off from the water — what is the experience of crossing Lake Shore Drive like? It’s rather impressive that it doesn’t discourage people from getting to the park.

    Heather Ann Kaldeway

    February 17, 2012 at 1:21 pm

    • Hi Heather Ann! So Lake Shore Drive is the road that runs along the lakeside within much of the city. It’s not technically to freeway standards throughout its whole length (there are stoplights and at-grade intersections downtown), but north and south of the Loop it feels more or less like an expressway (limited-access, on-ramps and off-ramps, grade separation from other roads). I think it’s 3 lanes in each direction for most of its length in the city.

      Crossing it usually involves going through an underpass, which to be honest are a little bit slimy and dark; there are a couple of pedestrian overpasses, I think especially on the South Side, but in the Lincoln Park area the majority of crossovers are under the road.

      Lake Shore isn’t extraordinarily wide, but I think the biggest reason it’s not super disruptive is that it generally runs on surface level. I’ve actually been to Toronto and seen the Gardiner Expressway, and Lake Shore doesn’t have those ugly highway supports like the Gardiner’s that people tend to be reluctant to cross under. Because Lake Shore runs through the park, there aren’t a lot of roads that have to intersect the highway — they run up to the road but not on the other side, since there’s a parkland. There’s underpasses about every half-mile, but elsewhere the road “nestles” into the park. (Chicago *does* have some ugly elevated highways, particularly parts of I-55 near Pilsen on the near west side).

      In some ways, I think it’s because Lake Shore feels more like an urban boulevard, albeit one that is limited-access, so it doesn’t disrupt the park as badly as one might expect. I still don’t like crossing through the underpasses, but what’s on the other side is often very appealing, especially in the summer: the beaches are heavily used, and I wonder if it’s a factor that usage of the beaches (North Ave beach in the summer is extremely crowded) is so set in in city culture.

      Andrew ACG

      February 17, 2012 at 4:49 pm

  3. Interesting. My partner’s theory about the Gardiner is that it’s not actually the barrier — Lake Shore Boulevard, which runs directly below the Gardiner, is the barrier. It’s fast and wide, and the pedestrian crossing signals are very short, so not only are you under the ugliness of the Gardiner, you’re trying to cross traffic that goes at breakneck speeds. If it was empty under there, maybe it would be more similar to your experience in Chicago!

  4. Also, the portion of LSD south of Belmont is actually east of most of the park, so it doesn’t require crossing under the expressway to get there.

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