Big city residents expect a lot out of urban parks. They want open space, things to do there, and literally, a place to breathe. But if the park’s beautiful, it’s bound to attract out of town visitors, who might make it crowded. Shawn Allee meets one man who wants to expand the welcome mat in his park:
Big city residents expect a lot out of urban parks. They want open space, things to do
there, and literally, a place to breathe. But if the park’s beautiful, it’s bound to attract out
of town visitors, who might make it crowded. Shawn Allee meets one man who wants to
expand the welcome mat in his park:
Grade-schoolers are busy romping around Chicago’s Grant Park. At first blush,
it doesn’t seem odd at all, but the sight surprises Bob O’Neill, a local parks advocate:
“When you think of a park, a lot of times you do think of children. Grant Park actually is
underrepresented in that demographic.”
But O’Neill wants to change all that and get more children in the park. One way would
be to bring one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions here. The Chicago Children’s
Museum lures half a million children each year, but its success has caused growing pains.
It’s outgrown its space on an isolated, tourist trap on Chicago’s lakefront and O’Neill
wants the museum’s kids in Grant Park.
“As they grow up their memories will be having gone to, and interacted with, and learned
from a premier children’s museum in Chicago’s front yard, surrounded by the high rises,
and using the outdoor space. I think it’s wonderful.”
O’Neill sees it like this: city high rises are an efficient use of land, but museum visitors
from the suburbs never see that. So, if the museum’s in the park, maybe kids will fondly
remember the urban landscape, but when he pitches this idea of moving the Children’s
“You might think that a toxic waste dump was proposed for Grant Park on its north end,
not a children’s museum.”
And what’s got him stumped most is who opposes it, namely, local parents.
Vicky Apostolis is one of them. She’s bringing her daughter to a field house for an art
(Daughter) “I made a flower…”
Apostolis says, when her neighbors got wind of the museum’s move, they sprung into
action. Before long, they’d gotten the local alderman and civic groups to oppose the plan.
For Apostolis, this park’s enormity is misleading. Developers are building more high
rises here, and each one will house hundreds of additional kids. She says, if you add the
museum’s visitors, the neighborhood will be awash in children and the park will be
overcrowded. Apostolis says people are drawn by the quality of life here, and this quiet
stretch of park is part of it:
“Everyone who has a family who has children, they know the value of going to a safe,
secure location that we can take our children, we can trust the people around there.
And there’s not a lot of car traffic either, that’s safe to get to.”
Apostolis says, if half a million annual visitors arrive, she and her daughter might get
“We have tourist attractions all over the city of Chicago, which are perfect – we love
tourists. However, we also want our neighborhoods, too.”
But parents groups aren’t the only ones watching this fight. Preservationists and urban
planners are taking note, too. Land-use expert John Crompton says Chicago should take
a hard look at the proposal:
“If these things are good things, and they obviously are, then they should find their own
niche in the world and not take it from parks.”
Crompton says green space is always on the defensive in public parks. There’s pressure
to fill it with something, say, a sports venue or, maybe, a museum:
“They see it as inexpensive land, and since it’s
leisure, we’ll put it there. I think that’s a totally wrong mindset. This is very expensive
land, it’s a very scarce and precious resource downtown, and in a hundred year’s time, what will
people think of us giving this up?”
Bob O’Neill is confident no one has to give up anything. After all, the museum would be
underground. But the parents fear out-of-town kids would still crowd the park, especially
in the summer. Again, O’Neill says it’s worth a try:
“The more that we can have children experience a downtown urban environment and all
the good and even some of the bad that goes with that, the better.”
On the other hand, the park’s high rise neighbors say they’re already living the urban good
life and they resent sacrificing today’s urban garden for a more crowded one in the future.
For the Environment Report, I’m Shawn Allee.