In Chicago, parks are on the upswing


Grist Magazine on the resurgence of green spaces in Chicago

Little Village, streets tightly clenched with two-flats and bodegas, is one of Chicago’s most densely populated neighborhoods. Residents call it the “Mexico of the Midwest,” as it serves as an entry port for Mexican immigrants. While there are large parks on the fringes of Little Village, there are few within the community. It is one of the city’s many “park deserts.” Streets, alleys, and parking lots have long served as makeshift playgrounds, the only green being weeds springing from cracks, or the rare lawn.

For three decades, residents begged for a verdant space where their children might play or where they could sit for a brief reprieve. Finally, weary of waiting for the Chicago Park District to cobble together such a site, they chose to do it themselves.

At month’s end, ground will be broken for Jardincito (Little Garden), a nature park for children on what was once a derelict lot. Owned and protected by the nonprofit land trust NeighborSpace, the 75-by-125-foot park will echo the design and philosophy of early 20th century landscape designer Jens Jensen, who tried to recreate the disappearing Illinois prairie inside the city, by planting native flowers, trees, and shrubs, creating ponds and rivers as well as council rings and natural performance spaces.

“This is for the 8-year-and-under-crowd and is the way of the future,” says Ben Helphand, executive director of NeighborSpace. We will, he’s certain, see more parks akin to Jardincito, designed to reunite children with nature, with hills to roll down and leafy tunnels to explore — “where they can learn to walk on a path and not asphalt.”

Jardincito is just one small piece of a massive regreening underway in Chicago that’s being driven by both community groups and government leaders. City officials want Chicago, already celebrated for its architecture, to be recognized as a city of world-class landscape architecture as well. Chicago is home to 570 parks, of which a quarter are historic landmarks, designed by the likes of Jensen, Frederick Law Olmsted, and William LeBaron Jenney.

“We are the richest city in the world in terms of park facilities, amenities, and resources,” says Julia Bachrach, historian for the Chicago Park District. “It’s an embarrassment of riches. Living near Jensen’s Columbus or Humbolt parks is like having a Mona Lisa in your back yard.”

But as the story in Little Village shows, not all neighborhoods have benefited from those riches. Now, though, the parks movement hopes to correct that, making up for the wrongs created by racism, rapid growth, and for negligence in the early 1980s. That’s when the U.S. Department of Justice sued the Chicago Park District for discrimination in its allocation of recreational and park services, neglecting parks in both Hispanic and black neighborhoods. Improving and creating parks, city officials say, will slash crime rates, offer youth recreational opportunities, and instill neighborhood pride.

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