Some of America’s grandest city parks were built when urban areas still had room to grow. But today, older cities wanting new parks face shortages of space, money, or both. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Shawn Allee looks at one major city’s development of a park … from below ground
Some of America’s grandest city parks were built when urban areas still had room to grow. But today, older cities wanting new parks face shortages of space, money, or both. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Shawn Allee looks at one major city’s development of a park from below ground level:
At first blush, an old quarry site doesn’t seem to be a good candidate for a new city park, especially this one.
For the past fifteen years, the city of Chicago has used this quarry as a landfill. The site, called Stearns Quarry, lies off the beaten track, in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood, more than two miles southwest of downtown.
Right now it’s kind of ugly. Tractors are patting down a mound of debris and dirt that’s piled up thirty-feet above the nearby street.
(Sound of trucks)
I find the project manager, Claudine Malik inside the site’s construction trailer. She’s hovering over a map of what the park might look like by next year.
“It’s a twenty-seven acre site. It’s roughly a square and if you think of it as broken up into about four separate areas, that helps you map it out mentally. As you come in, there’s an athletic field, It goes down to a pond, which will be stocked for fishing. The majority of the section is a sledding mound. And along the back wall, which is a long preserved quarry wall, is a series of wetland cells that lead down into the pond.”
That’s a lot of different uses to cram into the site’s 27 acres. It’s hard to imagine a stone quarry turned into a landfill and then turned into a city park. To get a better idea of how it will be transformed, Malik and her team take me on a ride around the site.
(Sound of truck starting)
The plan puts every inch of ground to use because there aren’t many chances to put new parks in the city. Malik says rising land values in Chicago make even small land purchases pricey. And everybody seems to have ideas for the park.
Local residents, the state of Illinois and the city gave designers a tall order to fill. Since they’re all putting money into the five million-dollar project, everybody gets something they want.
Soon we spot Don Mikolic, a scientist with Illinois’ Geological Survey. He’s checking the quarry walls before the park’s complete.
(Sound of tapping)
“There’s part of a snail right there.”
Turns out, the quarry’s produced some of the best aquatic fossils in the Midwest.
“In fact you can probably find specimens from this specific quarry sitting in some of the biggest museums around the world.”
And some of the limestone exposed by quarrying will be left for park visitors to view. These walls offer more than just natural history though. Stearns Quarry is part of the region’s architectural history too. The quarry opened in 1833, a few years before Chicago became a city. Its limestone strengthened Chicago harbor and can be found in historic Midwestern churches.
Malik says the site’s history will find its way into the design as well. Just another thing for the planners to work into the park. Which makes you wonder, what’s driving a park to be all these things at once? To get some perspective, I head to the offices of the American Planning Association.
The APA is a professional organization for urban planners. Megan Lewis researches parks for the APA. Lewis says parks like Stearns Quarry face bigger challenges than the grand old parks designed in the 19th century.
“Now, you can’t really approach park planning especially in a city in the same way, because you don’t have the luxury of having all of that land available to you. So you sort of have to see what is there that can become a park and what do we do with it?”
Lewis says the mix of recreation, open space, even history, has a lot to do with the demands from so many competing interests. To see how thing have changed, she gives the example of Frederick Law Olmsted. He’s most famous for developing New York’s Central Park, a hundred and fifty years ago.
“The planning was sort of done in isolation. He would come up with his grand idea and he maybe only had a few people involved. But I think that now, so many people are empowered to say, This is what I want this place to be like, that planning doesn’t really happen in isolation anymore. Which is good, because you want it to be a democratic process.”
(Sound of quarry)
Back at Stearns Quarry, you can see just how those demands are being incorporated. Meeting all those different needs in a relatively small area with a relatively small budget is played out in each square foot.
This new use of the site is again reflecting the city’s needs. The little piece of land has evolved as the city has evolved. First it provided stone for building the city. Then it was a dumping ground. And now it’s a break from the asphalt and concrete, a place to play and rest in a bit of nature.
For the GLRC, I’m Shawn Allee.