The city of Chicago is often lauded, both regionally and internationally, as a model of what an urban waterfront can be. With long stretches of public green space bounded only by the seemingly limitless horizon of Lake Michigan to the east, the virtues of the “city by the lake”have attracted countless businesses, tourists, and residents to Chicago over the past 150 years.
As any resident of Chicago’s north side can tell you, this is only part of the story. From the end of Lakeshore Drive at Hollywood Avenue north to the city limits, the lakefront park system gives way to three miles of privately owned apartment buildings interspersed with patches of green space and beaches until the shoreline park system starts up again in Evanston. Beachgoers and families in this part of the city must content themselves with seeking out these rare access points by crossing a major thoroughfare. Cyclists and runners try to peacefully coexist with traffic of both the automotive and pedestrian variety in an attempt to fit in a good workout amidst the city’s bustle.
There may be a new future ahead for the lakefront if city plans taking shape right now come to fruition. Last year, the mayor announced his intention to extend the lakefront park system from Hollywood to Evanston by establishing a series of islands in Lake Michigan. This proposal has raised more than a few eyebrows – some in amazement, some in skepticism, and some in concern over how this new plan might impact the character of the shoreline beloved by Chicago residents.
One thing is clear – this project would involve the largest creation of artificial land on the bottom of Lake Michigan since the disposal of the remnants of the Great Chicago Fire under what is now Grant Park. Done wrong, the lakefill could actually have a negative impact on the health of the lake. Done right, this project could be a tremendous environmental asset to the city and reverse the trend of treating our urban waterfront like a sacrifice zone for fish and wildlife.
Of primary concern is ownership of and access to any lake property. All land created by the project must become property of local or state residents. Since the lakebottom is already held in trust for the people of Illinois by the state, the only acceptable transfer of property can be to another public entity, such as the Chicago Park District. This will ensure that the land will continue to serve the interests of the public. Additionally, public access must be paramount to any development. The express purpose of this project should be to allow residents and visitors to enjoy Lake Michigan in a healthy, sustainable way.
From an ecological perspective, the natural character of the lake’s water and bottomland should be preserved and enhanced. It’s no secret that Chicago’s lakebottom has been highly altered since settlement of the area. The park extension is an opportunity to provide real improvements to the zone near the shoreline by enhancing degraded fish and wildlife habitat. Likewise, the project should not cause erosion of shoreline land along Lake Michigan. Sediment in the waters of the lake naturally replenishes beaches and other landscapes worn down by waves, and poorly planned structures in the water can accelerate this erosion by cutting off supplies of essential sediment.
The design process is already under way. The Graham Foundation, a philanthropic organization dedicated to “informed and creative public dialogue concerning architecture and the built environment,” is sponsoring a competition to help develop ideas for the site. A new grassroots organization, Friends of the New Lakefront, has formed in Edgewater to begin consideration of more design ideas and monitor the city’s progress.
When city planners leave behind the baseball diamonds and fieldhouses of inland parks for the blue waters of Lake Michigan, they open another “kettle of fish” entirely, so to speak. It is fair to say that the world will be watching Chicago’s next move to improve its crown jewel of a lakefront. With the right planning and implementation, the city could be on the receiving end of a unique park that combines biodiversity benefits with public access in an unprecedented way.