In Chicago, New Parks Are Civic Infrastructure

Burnham's Plan of Chicago / University of Chicago
Burnham’s Plan of Chicago / University of Chicago

For Daniel Burnham, the Chicago architect and planner who created the 1909 Plan of Chicago, civic and infrastructural improvements in Chicago could only happen simultaneously. This approach continues today. Using Burnham’s plan as launching point, Marshall Brown, Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and Marshall Brown Projects, moderated a discussion at the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting in Chicago on three new works of “civic infrastructure,” with presentations by Sarah Astheimer, ASLA, James Corner Field Operations; Matthew Bird, ASLA, Michael Van Valkenburg Associates (MVVA); and Gina Ford, ASLA, Sasaki Associates.

In the Plan of Chicago, Burnham’s approach was an “integration of landscape and architecture,” creating hybrid places infrastructural in nature. The three new Chicago parks and landscapes discussed in the session – Navy Pier Pierscape by James Corner Field Operations, Maggie Daley Park by MVVA, and the Chicago Riverwalk by Sasaki – are also hybrids. All required a high level of performance, a “contemporary green and sustainable design,” as Astheimer put it.

Ford called Chicago a “uniquely infrastructural city,” and the projects reflect this. The Navy Pier, built in 1916, has a direct line to Burnham’s plan, as it is the only pier he proposed that was actually created. The new pierscape reoriented the entrance to the pier, opening a “free and clear view of the lake” as you approach, while also changing the perception that the pier is disconnected from Chicago and too commercial.

Navy Pier pierscape / James Corner Field Operations
Navy Pier Pierscape / James Corner Field Operations

The two other landscapes required building significant new infrastructure:

Maggie Daley Park required construction of a large park filled with activities, but also a naturalistic garden, all built over a parking garage. MVVA then unified “a complex site through topography” and created an “integration of ideas and programs” that resulted in a landscape to be enjoyed year round, providing opportunities for both play and relaxation.

Maggie Daley Park / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates
Maggie Daley Park / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

The Riverwalk required that land literally be built on the river. For Ford, “creating a landscape on water” in a tight space was a challenge but by “knitting together” the existing walkways to create a continuous path, as well as creating new places for gathering, socializing, and recreation, the Riverwalk “allows the life of the city and the life of the river to interact.”

Chicago River Walk / Sasaki Associates
Chicago River Walk / Sasaki Associates

These new pieces of civic infrastructure can “get people out of their homes and into their community,” as Bird said. And while landscape architects and designers might not be able to change the world in as broad strokes as they may like, they can at least, as Ford put it, “create a comfortable bench for different people to engage with each other, to have a conversation they might not normally have.” It’s clear that since the days of Burnham, Chicago only continues to build on its legacy of creating and supporting large-scale civic and infrastructural improvements.

One thought on “In Chicago, New Parks Are Civic Infrastructure

  1. scientiste 11/18/2015 / 11:17 am

    Reblogged this on Mental Flowers and commented:
    Another great example from Chicago of prioritizing green spaces and environmental enrichment for its citizens.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s