“Urbs in Horto”: Or, maybe not

city_of_chicago_sealDespite a municipal ordinance against building private infrastructure east of Lake Shore Drive the City of Chicago is courting a privately built and owned museum. Although the city has a notoriously low ratio of parkland acreage per capita it is seeking authority to give more parkland to other private interests. Despite the fame of its park system and having the motto “Urbs in Horto” (Latin: City in a Garden), the city has shown little love for its parks lately and is currently moving towards a period in which public land is seen as developable with no recognition of public interests.

Without a doubt, the City of Chicago, its residents and government, should be excessively proud it was considered for cultural institutions like the Lucas Museum of Narrative Arts and can bid for Barack Obama’s presidential library (site yet to be determined). These two institutions would be giant jewels complementing the city’s already rich cultural offerings. They will likely act as economic engines, adding jobs, and hopefully bringing more people to the oft overlooked South Side, where they’re most likely going to get built. But, and that is a big BUT, the city is treading dangerous water by so willingly offering already established public parkland for private uses.

The legal issues already facing the Lucas Museum, one of the two institutions proposed on Chicago Park District land, are being clearly established as the advocacy organization Friends of the Parks (FotP website) brings a lawsuit against construction of the museum (museum website). The site sits between Soldier Field and McCormack Place and is currently used as a parking lot. It has started roiling debate about what’s more important: attracting cultural institutions or retaining [lakefront] parkland. If FotP succeeds in preventing the construction of the museum on this site it remains unclear if George Lucas, creator of the Star Wars franchise and museum patron, will look for another site in Chicago or find a waterfront site elsewhere. Access to the lakefront property is apparently one of the biggest keys to Lucas choosing Chicago for the museum.

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The first proposed design for the Lucas Museum (available on the museum’s website) depicts what the site looks like looking south from Soldier Field with McCormack Place in the background.

The University of Chicago announced plans today to acquire the rights to build on 20+ acres in either Washington Park or Jackson Park near its campus in Hyde Park as part of its bid for the Obama presidential library is also proposed for CPD land. It contrasts with many other Chicago based plans that looked at non-park sites to build and indeed include plans to increase parkland and other amenities, not decrease them (see UIC plan; alternative link). The U of C’s plan is backed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who also backs the Lucas Museum plan, and although public meetings about the acquisition of parkland are planned for next Tuesday and Wednesday at Hype Park locations it seems unlikely that Emanuel will backdown from his support for this proposal and will hold back on handing over the sites to the U of C. It is unclear what type of action the Friend’s of the Parks will take, but it surely will not be in support of this proposal.

In a scenario where both projects go through the city is set to lose something like 30-40 acres of parkland at the hands of private institutions. The sites will both include green space, yes, but no new green space and both will be privately owned and run, cutting off a slice of public land from universal access. While a total of 40 acres maximum seems small considering Chicago has over 12,400 acres of parkland (split between city, county, and state land) the per capita ration of parkland to residents is incredibly low in Chicago. Of high-density cities in the United States, Chicago comes in 13th for the ratio of parkland to people according to the Trust for Public Land. While that doesn’t seem too low, it should be noted that Chicago isn’t even in the top 50 percentile; the average number of acres per 1,000 people is 4.6 acres in Chicago. The median acres per 1,000 people of 18 high-density US cities is 6.7 acres–two acres greater than Chicago. Comparatively Minneapolis has 13.4 acres/1,000 people, Washington, D.C. has 12.8 acres, and Philadelphia has 7.3 acres/1,000 people. Even Detroit has double the parkland average per capita and Pittsburgh has slightly more than double Chicago’s per capita acreage of parkland.

Granted, the city did recently open a new 22-acre park in Little Village called La Villita, it opened the redesigned Maggie Daley Park on the northeast corner of the larger Grant Park, and is slowly opening Northerly Island as it develops through 2017, which will add a total of 91-acres of parkland. Additionally, the 606, commonly know as the Bloomingdale Trail, is scheduled for completion some time next year and will add over 2-miles of linear park on the Northwest Side. This is all wonderful progress on the part of the city to increase the amount of urban parkland, however none of this excuses the slow consumption of existing parkland either. There is indeed a net increase in parkland acreage, but not a total increase, which should be the city’s real goal. The city is well behind some of the countries most desirable cities in terms of parkland acreage, which hurts the city despite its cultural institutions, especially as Chicago competes for investment and looks to retain residents.

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The Michael Sorkin designed proposal for a presidential library in Woodlawn, just south of Hyde Park and the University of Chicago, puts the library in close access to parks, other cultural institutions and transit and includes green space and trails using empty lots woven together. The UIC plan has a similarly ambitious plan to go well beyond its campus and includes multiple West Side neighborhoods, green space expansion, and new transit options.

There is more a concerning trend out of City Hall though indicating the city’s mayor and Aldermen hold little value in parkland and protecting it. The municipal support for using parkland for private interest goes well beyond being a numbers game. It is an important moral issue facing the city. Regardless of what the numbers say, the use of parkland for private interests show a frustrating and unhealthy precedent for the future that says parks are open for development. This is just another area in which City Hall has shown its willingness to forego public ownership of various assets and hands them over to private interests dressing those new uses up as for the betterment of the city. Eventually this will get even more out of hand than it already has if proposals like the two under scrutiny are not stopped and made examples of.

Chicago needs to value its key existing assets–parkland, educational institutions, public safety–more than it values private interests and institutions, even when they are cultural institutions. Obviously getting these institutions would be huge boons to the city, but at what costs? The city is jumping to potentially dangerous solutions and it is clear that the public interest is of less importance than private ones. Alternatives exist for both projects! If the city was serious about these projects it would look at other past proposals offering more acceptable options (see Michael Sorkin’s proposal, alternative link, for the Obama library and Blair Kamin’s thoughts on the Lucas Museum site), yet the go to solution is using parkland. Its insane. Under Rahm Emanuel’s governance its questionable if alternatives have even been discussed: or, is the glitz of high-profile institutions that blinding?

By putting these two proposed projects ahead of park preservation and investment in existing infrastructure and institutions, the city is going for a gimmicky approach at getting new investments and cultural institutions to establish themselves in Chicago. The city does need to work to draw such things to the city, but the goal should be to attract new institutions by the attractiveness of the city’s merits and not by what assets the city hands over to private interests. The result will be a city that better serves its residents and institutions that have a stronger respect for the city and its residents and the values they hold dear. It is what a city that doesn’t sacrifice public parks for private interests looks like. And clearly, the current power structure of the city has little interest in the public trust and the public’s interest, and that should be hugely concerning. The Obama library’s foundation, the University of Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, George Lucas: all these figures need to recognize the problematic roles they’re playing is threatening the long-term vitality of public assets in Chicago and their role in affecting the serious moral issues at hand as does the public, who need to make their voices heard at these debates may creep quietly under the radar.

Urbs in Horto means being a city rich in trees and gardens, and now includes acting in sustainable ways, but at its roots it means being a city of parks–places to play, relax, escape the concrete, and discover nature. Urbs in Horto is the result of building parks for the people, because if it was up to the private interests in Chicago’s past, Grant Park would be a freight rail yard.

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