Oh, The Weather Outside is Frightful! But the City is So Delightful!

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: weather–winter weather especially–should not be a major player in determining where people live. It is high time cold climate cities embrace the winter as an asset and chide it. This discussion may become an annual tradition on this blog (I wrote about it last year too); so, as long as the annual threat by Northerners to move mid-winter continues, so will my call for a more positive mentality towards the chillier months–and in this installment for better design for the winter.

In the previous post about winter I focused on a mix of methods to improve a residents’ experience of our cold climate city. (This was done with help from the Project for Public Spaces.) Suggestions ranged from incorporating winter markets into the seasonal calendar of events to creating little league hockey and other winter sports opportunities.

The suggestions weren’t entirely focused around a single theme. After getting back to Chicago this year, I re-recognized the importance of design in getting residents through the winter. Most of this realization happened using the “L”, which is where most Chicagoans probably get extended exposure to the winter elements. This, and walking and biking mid-winter in the city.

The weather is made uncomfortable mostly due to wind and snow. In a city like Chicago it is hard to avoid both. It’s called ‘lake effect’ and the Great Plains. There is nothing to stop or slow any inclement weather. Sadly, the design of a lot of the city’s public spaces and amenities doesn’t seem to account for this. And in terms of design, this is what the Chicago needs to begin considering.

So, to make winter all the more lovely in Chicago there are three areas where design holds the solutions: transit stations, sidewalks and bike lanes, and parks.

  • Transit has to be made weather proof. It is insane that the CTA and Chicago’s DOT haven’t made it a standard policy to build stations that includes weather proofing. Chicago is unique having a rapid transit system that is almost entirely above ground; or, at least this is unique among cold climate cities. Yet, station design doesn’t reflect this reality. While the airy elevated stations are great in the summer, they don’t hold up in the winter.
    • Use the Cermak-McCormick Place Green Line station as a design model for future stations and renovations. The station, wrapped in a tube like structure, protects passengers from the elements while waiting for trains. While it isn’t enclosed fully to keep it heated, it keeps passengers dry and moderately warm.
    • Install glass windows along Blue and Red Line stops in the medians of highways. The canopies of many of these stations (e.g. Harlem and Cumberland Blue Line stops) are ideally designed to allow such installations. This would not only help keep platforms insulated from the weather, but lessen noise caused by traffic passing so close to the platforms.
    • The same applies to stairwells along segments of other L lines. Enclosing them in glass would go a long way to improve the station experience while allowing light in still. Take the Brown Line: most of the stairwells at the Brown Line’s elevated stations are only enclosed with fencing. This allows snow and ice to build up on the stairs making for wet and dangerous ascents to and descents from platforms. Put up impermeable walls and problem solved.
    • Invest in bus stops that actually keep the weather at bay. The CTA’s JCDecaux bus stops are purely aesthetic and fail on a functional level. The gaps between the glass walls and roofs let in snow and rain and the open fourth side lets wind and cold in easily. A good example of a weather proof bus stop were those I’ve seen in Winnipeg. It was enclosed on all four sides and included an easy to push open swinging glass door to keep the weather at bay.
  • winnipeg-bus-stop

    This bus stop in Winnipeg is fully enclosed. This design could also include ticket machines or be incorporated into prepaid boarding schemes. 

    Using permeable pavement is another solution to deal with snow and ice. Shoveling, or lack thereof, is an annoyance for pedestrians and cyclists in Chicago. Bike lanes only get partially cleared and crosswalks are usually blocked by piles of snow, ice, and sludge kicked up by snow plows. This decreases the likelihood of winter biking and causes inconveniences and safety concerns. According to a Water Environment Federation report on porous pavement the amount of salt needed to keep streets and sidewalks clear of ice decreases where porous pavement is used. It also lowers the amount of black ice that appears since water can drain before refreezing when it melts. Porous pavements should become standard in areas that are difficult to clear including bike lanes, parking lanes, pedestrian crossings and intersections. It is no silver bullet to snow build up, but the easier it is for snow and ice to clearance, the better.

  • While the Project for Public Spaces is right for pointing out that using skywalks and underground pedestrian walkways can backfire by lessening the value of outdoor spaces they are in and of themselves not worth dismissing. In cities like Chicago, Montréal, and Minneapolis the winter weather can be extreme and there is value in keeping people inside on the worst days. The question is whether these passages are designed to connect with their respective cities. Chicago needs to renovate its pedestrian passage way, which covers a significant area of the Loop and employ better signage in addition to other aesthetic improvements. A particular focus should be made on a single aesthetic identity and ensuring users know where they are in relation to the city above. Montréal’s Ville Souterraine is a prime example of how to maintain a balance between indoor and outdoor spaces. The system connects major institutions and the Métro and throughout the system opens into light filled galleries and atriums that connect back to street level.
  • Green spaces play a vital role in improving how we experience winter cities. Design firm Perkins + Will lays out a number of suggestions for improving outdoor life in cold cities. This ranges from designing to maximize winter sunlight and creating new waterfront recreational opportunities with parks that connect residents to rivers and lakes, but also block wind. In North American cities where grids are the dominant street form another way to achieve this is by capping streets throughout the grid creating parklets at dead-ended streets that provide new public spaces and can be planted with large trees to block and slow wind. Such parklets shouldn’t be restricted to areas along water, since streets along a grid channel can wind for longer distances. I can say the worst wind I experience biking is on an uninterrupted east-west street on Chicago’s Far Northwest Side far from any water.

Before I wrote this I was sitting in a café in Madison in a newly built building. The café had floor to ceiling windows that must have been 15 feet high. They let in plenty of light, but mid-winter in a city surrounded by three lakes, where the wind, snow, and cold can be intense the lack of context struck me. The large windows did not keep out the cold. The only thing you needed to do to figure that out was come inside. Design trends have become so ubiquitous that any context seems to have disappeared. How silly that is. Design for the winter and we might all be a little warmer year round.

The Lucas Museum: Built Over Train Tracks It Will Achieve Much More

Getting a solid foundation for George Lucas’ Museum of Narrative Arts in Chicago has proven difficult, but not impossible. The issue: prime lakefront property. Per law this is not land that is meant to be built on by private interests and by tradition supposed to remain “forever clear and free”, but Lucas is dead set on waterfront property. He demands too much and Mayor Rahm Emanuel promises too much. The Friend’s of the Parks are ensuring the site stays in legal limbo. All three are failing to get to a solution to the impass. As usual, a reasonable and thoughtful one exists, essentially offered for free by a local architect and published in the Chicago Tribune.

Blair Kamin, the Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic has called on Lucas and Emanuel to move the museum out of the park, but not off the lakefront. He argues that the Mayor, Lucas, and local architects have to come up with creative alternatives, because, as he puts it, the arguments for building on the lakefront east of Lake Shore Drive are a “narrative with no basis in reality.” Indeed, he takes his call the next step and outright promotes an alternative: Chicago architect Thomas Hickey proposes building a deck over the train tracks from McCormick Place to 18th Street.


Chicago architect Thomas Hickey’s proposal for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Arts.


Calling this a “stroke of genius” is equal parts under- and overstatement. Like so many controversial projects and urban planning issues in Chicago the best and most impactful solutions often mix simplicity or obviousness. The deck idea offered up by Hickey addresses a number of issues near the museum’s future home.

The museum project in its original incarnation is a massive urban planning conundrum. It goes further than the clash of private and public interests. Not a single party is being all that creative in their ideas and fail to see the potential to promote a robust discussion about major urban planning on the Near South Side from green space, to transportation, to economic and cultural development. By virtue of design, Hickey’s project forces the conversation in that direction.

The fight over the museum started when Lucas, who was deciding between sites in San Francisco and Chicago, settled on Chicago, because unlike San Francisco it offered a water front site. Like San Francisco, this waterfront site was no guarantee nor was it ever and probably even less guaranteed. Emanuel offered more than he could actually promise and either assumed or hoped he’d be able to nab land that isn’t supposed to be built on by private interests. For many, this land shouldn’t be built on, period.

The site in question is currently a Chicago Park District parking lot. The museum appears to be a better alternative, but only until we acknowledge two important details. First, the site is under the protection of Illinois public trust doctrines stipulating certain natural and cultural sites are to be preserved for the public’s benefit including lakefront parkland. The parking lot remains public property. Secondly, the site might be a parking lot now, but the fact remains a private building forever removes the property from the public realm.

Back to the deck over the Metra Electric tracks, the stroke of architectural and urban planning genius. This idea works so impressively well, because it solves the issue of lakefront access for Lucas while opening up a more robust conversation about urban planning for this neighborhood with far reaching impacts.

The architectural solution is rather straightforward as is the parkland: according to Hickey’s design, the deck would accommodate a structure that is similar to the one proposed with the exception that is has a thinner, longer footprint. The parking lot in question would also be transformed into new green space connecting the museum directly to the lake over Lake Shore Drive via the deck, which would cover both the railroad and a replacement parking lot.

So far, so good.

It gets better though.

The decks location over the Metra Electric tracks and wedged between the Prairie District/South Loop and lakefront parks integrates the museum into the neighborhood, the parks, and the Museum Campus (kind of), but affects rail infrastructure below. Building a deck is a chance to make improvements that would either create immediate benefit or be part of long-term projects. A side benefit is more financing from more parties, lowering fiscal burdens overall. I’m even willing to endorse public funds for parts of the project with major public benefit. (Are you listening Mr. Lucas?)

Lucas Museum Proposal

New parkland and lakefront access are small, but meaningful benefits of a deck over the railroad. 

The simplest benefit is greater access to the lake from the South Loop. Currently, the only path between Roosevelt Road and 31st Street is a walkway at 18th Street that has to weave its way around train tracks, a station, and Lake Shore Drive. The deck provides a more direct path to the parks and potentially a second one from Cullerton Street, which is close to the center of the entertainment district around McCormick Place. The Cullerton St. access point integrates the site into the neighborhood around the convention center, which Kamin argues is a more practical, because of the geographic disconnect from the Museum Campus.

The effects on the Metra infrastructure below also raises the question of how this proposals impacts larger urban planning projects. The tracks, roads, and McCormick Place Busway (which could be turned into a BRT route integrated into a larger citywide network) would likely have to be reorganized to accommodate the new structure. This is a chance to do a number of things like improve track conditions and rebuild the 18th St. Station as a modern facility.

Chicago Map

Building the Lucas Museum on a deck over Metra Electric tracks north of McCormick Place could be part of a master plan the includes improved station buildings, more parkland, imrpoved lakefront access, the development of CrossRail Chicago or rapid transit along Metra Electric (CTA Gold Line), an O’Hare express train, and new BRT infrastructure.

This the chance to include other projects into a larger comprehensive master plan. Take, for example, making improvements to the St. Charles Flyover (16th Street Connector). These tracks connect lakefront tracks to Union Station and are a key component of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association’s CrossRail Chicago. It would provide huge benefits to the neighborhood as a whole. Thru train services between the North, Northwest, West, and South Sides could finally be introduced on Metra infrastructure and give a boost to Emanuel’s wish for an express train service to O’Hare. While detractors of that project argue a direct O’Hare-Loop connection has few benefits many believe an express service with stops on the Near Northwest Side, McCormick Place, and Hyde Park is more viable.

At least from this writer’s perspective, this is the ideal proposal. Fiscally speaking, more parties might have to pony up some money, but they’d all share in the benefits: Lucas, gets his views of the lake and direct access to it and double the parkland (as does the public). He benefits from a train station immediately adjacent to his project, while the community benefits from a better station. The museum builds on the economic activity already happening in the neighborhood, and the Mayor might be able to put forward a viable O’Hare-Loop-South Side train link. If Hickey’s design does anything, it shows that there is a win-win-win-win solution.

“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.


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.


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.