So often, urbanists romance over the beauty and size of Central Park, or the magnificent creativity of The High Line, or even the quaint and approachable beauty of Bryant Park, all in the great urban paradise of New York City. Not quite as many people realize the strides that Chicago continues to make with regard to public space, park creation and beautification. A few weeks ago, I spent 11 hours in downtown Chicago in the hopes of capturing these brilliant additives. In the spirit of simplicity and traveling light, I left my pro camera at home and captured the day with my iPhone 7 Plus.
For starters, I was truly taken with just how wide the sidewalks were, almost more like Plazas than feeble pedestrian paths. Everywhere I looked and every street I traversed seemed to have some sort of greenery, with the occasional art installation. The blend of pedestrian comforts garnished by the vibrant life of trees and flowers, art, and the countless places to stop and sit made for a very inviting experience.
Then there was the River Walk, an evolving piece of pedestrian vibrancy and connectivity, giving Chicagoans a sort of “shortcut” around the loop and financial district away from the traffic congestion and noise. For tourists, the River Walk is simply a fantastic way to experience Chicago’s spectacular blend of old and new architecture while traipsing along the beautiful Chicago River.
Even when the sun dipped below the horizon, the riverwalk was still filled with beauty and light.
How about those elements of hometown feel and simple beauty in urban spaces built to bring people together? I stumbled upon a farmers market, smack in the middle of downtown.
And how about a park in the middle of the street? This is The Gateway on State Street.
Chicago has not only enriched daily life for the pedestrian, it has also taken an aggressive approach to promoting cycling culture. With a tremendous bike share program, over 200 miles of bike lanes (of which many are protected) and 1300 bike racks, as well as bike parking at many CTA rail stations, Chicago has risen to one of the top cycling cities in the nation.
Commuting to downtown on your bike? The McDonald’s Cycle Center near Millenium Park doesn’t just rent bikes for those touring the city, they offer commuters full service bike repair, lockers and even showers (which by the way I took full advantage of… hey, it was a hot day and I did a lot of walking/biking!)
Anyone who knows me knows I’ve been a Chicago Cubs fan my whole life. So per usual, I took the Red Line north to Wrigley Field, my Graceland. The truly amazing thing about Wrigley Field is that it is literally in the middle of a residential neighborhood called Wrigleyville. There is no parking. At all. If you want to attend a game (and they sell out nearly every game) you have to take public transit, and let me tell you, there’s nothing more exciting than traveling to see your team with other fans that share your love of Cubby Blue! Places like Wrigley Field clearly shows that when your city has adequate public transit, it opens up your neighborhoods to the possibility of creating beautiful, high density environments without the eyesores of surface parking lots.
While I wasn’t going to be able to catch the game that day, I did notice that the former small parking lot outside of Wrigley had been transformed into a small outdoor greenspace and concession area where I spotted a man playing catch with his son. This beautiful moment wouldn’t have happened just a few years ago.
The whole area around the park was also in the midst of a transformation, including The Park At Wrigley, an attractive, pedestrian-only walkway to several eateries, bars and merchandise shops.
After visiting Wrigleyville, I headed to the Northwest side of the city to visit a tremendous urban rail-to-trail project called The 606. Like New York’s High Line Park, the 606 was built on a former raised railroad bed that sits above the city streets. Lined with beautiful trees, grass and ground cover, the 606 has the elements of its east coast cousin. But the 606 differs from the High Line in that it is more of a neighborhood connector than a simple walking path. For starters, bikes are allowed on the 606, which is not the case on the High Line. It is built for higher speeds and different modes of movement… walkers, runners and cyclists. While beautiful, there was something a little more no-nonsense about the 606, a sort of form-following-function dynamic. For this reason, and the fact that it is located several miles from downtown Chicago, the 606 doesn’t have the wealth of tourism you see every day on the High Line. Rather, this stretch of former railbed turned park seemed more geared toward the neighborhoods it connects ( Humboldt Park, Bucktown and Wicker Park) and the residents that live there.
Finally, there was the crown jewel of public space in Chicago’s crown, the Millenium Park/Maggie Daley Park area. I could have literally spent an entire day in this place and not seen it all. A rarely realized expanse of urban park space, with amenities ranging from art installations to tree lined walkways, quiet grasslands and majestic fountains. You can rent a bike, or take a spin on the Skating Ribbon. While at the ribbon, check out the outdoor rock climbing wall, and then spin over to the gorgeous little mini-golf course and play area for younger children. All this majestic greenery provides a stunning foreground for the city skyline that, at times, seems slightly unreal it’s so beautiful.
While these images show a stunning commitment to gorgeous public space in Chicago, they are just a few of Chicago’s magnificent public sites, parks and amenities. While the city struggles with the same elements of crime, poverty and a declining population that most “rust belt” cities are experiencing, the areas surrounding the areas mentioned above are thriving. The creation of public space doesn’t just increase the aesthetic value of the area, it solidifies a hub of urban comfort and attractiveness which almost universally drives growth in surrounding neighborhood. Furthermore, these amenities drive tourism and livability for residents, a picture perfect combination!