Photo by Brooke Collins

Building On Burnham: A Plan To Bring The “City In A Garden” To Every Chicago Neighborhood

Mayor Rahm Emanuel

A little more than a century ago, Daniel Burnham presented his Plan for Chicago that made our city known as the “City in a Garden.” The world has changed since Burnham’s time — and so has Chicago — but his principles remain true today.

Our neighborhoods and communities have expanded well beyond the lakefront and the river banks of Chicago.

Today, the river runs right through many vibrant communities — giving us the opportunity and the responsibility to make the river work for our neighborhoods today in the same way that it worked for our industries a century ago.

Our river will be Chicago’s next great recreational park.

The Chicago Park District runs the largest citywide after-school program, so investing in our Park District keeps our children safe and strengthens the social fabric of our communities.

At Hamilton Park, 7th District Police Commander Larry Watson, along with CAPS, organizes a summer baseball league for more than a hundred kids in the neighborhood. And at Fosco Park, on the Near West Side, 12th District Commander Edward Kulbida, runs a youth basketball tournament which I opened up a few weeks ago.

So as we continue working to make our neighborhoods safer, our parks and playgrounds must continue to play an essential role.

A new century for Chicago requires a new plan for Chicago’s parks and recreational spaces — built on Burnham’s original insight. Our plan — Building on Burnham — will bring the spirit and benefits of Burnham’s original plan to every resident of Chicago.

It will use Chicago’s two bodies of water — our river and our lake — to enhance the quality of life in our neighborhoods.

It will make our parks constant places for play, and also spawn more centers of opportunity and learning for our children and families.

And it will elevate the status of our existing parks to help bring cultural vibrancy and economic growth to every Chicago neighborhood.

Chicago remains the “City in a Garden.” Now is the time to make sure the garden blooms in every neighborhood in our City.

Our plan for the future of our parks will build on the foundation and the vision that we pursued over the past five years.

Thanks to the strong leadership of Superintendent Mike Kelly and the Park Board — chaired by Brian Traubert for over five years and now chaired by Jesse Ruiz — together with residents and community leaders throughout Chicago, we have begun to reinvest in and reinvent our park system.

Nearly three years ago we launched Chicago Plays, an ambitious initiative to rebuild and modernize 325 stand-alone playgrounds. It is one of the largest efforts of its kind for any city in America. Having a park close by is a key factor in bringing and keeping more young families in our neighborhoods.

This summer, we will complete the remaining playgrounds, a year ahead of schedule. In addition, some of our communities have now received completely new park space.

Last year, thanks to the commitment of so many community leaders, we opened La Villita Park, also known as the Big Park in Little Village. Located on the old Celotex site, it was the largest brownfield conversion in America. It transformed polluted and unusable land into a park that serves the children and families of Little Village.

Photo by Brooke Collins

This past June, we opened the 606 — an idea that the residents had been advocating for decades. We helped make their vision a reality, and now people from around the city and around the country are walking, running, and biking on that great promenade connecting four communities. I want to thank all of the architects led by the team at Van Valkenburgh Associates for their great design.

In the past year, we opened two new nature areas — one on Northerly Island as part of the Museum Campus and one at West Ridge at Western and Peterson. By this fall, we will open the first phase of Big Marsh — a 278 acre bike park and nature preserve on the South Side, giving families throughout the city access to the natural wonders of the Calumet region. I want to thank everyone from SRAM for promoting the Big Marsh Bike Park and for their partnership in this effort.

And last year we opened Maggie Daley Park, honoring the visionary work of Chicago’s former First Lady. We took a piece of land on our lakefront that was long ignored and reclaimed it for children and families from all across Chicago.

Adding up all of these efforts, together we have created the equivalent of five Millennium Parks across Chicago. In addition to all of these projects I just mentioned, in the past five years we have also added 750 acres of parkland in our city.

So, as you can see, the Park District has been working hard to improve and create new park space. Now we will accelerate those efforts through our Building on Burnham plan, which I present to you today.

Let’s start with our lakefront — the most heavily used part of our park district.

Lake Michigan has always been Chicago’s front yard. It is our greatest natural resource and one of Chicago’s most important cultural, recreational, and commercial sites.

The recreational heart of our lakefront is the Lakefront Trail — an 18-mile pathway connecting communities from South Shore to Edgewater. More Chicagoans than ever before are walking, running, and biking along this unique trail — and that’s great. But more traffic brings more bottlenecks — and even some collisions.

That’s why, as part of this plan, we will improve the Lakefront Trail to make it safer, more accessible and more enjoyable for Chicago residents.

By 2018, we will complete the Navy Pier flyover. We will also create separate trails for runners and bikers — from 31st to 51st on the South Side and from Fullerton to Ohio on the North Side. No longer will you have to hear repeatedly, over your headphones, “on your left.”

In the next three years, we will completely repave seven miles of the Lakefront Trail with a clear north and south divider to make it safer for everyone.

We will also add unique features along the lakefront including gathering places within the Burnham Wildlife Corridor for children to learn about nature, a pool and event space at the 31st Street Harbor, more art installations along the trail, including a work by Yoko Ono in Jackson Park, and a state-of-the-art climbing wall at Steelworkers Park. And we will add a new triathlon training space at Ohio Street Beach.

But even with all of this, some of our communities and their residents still remain cut off from the lakefront — like the greater Bronzeville area. Residents in Bronzeville can see the lake but they cannot easily reach it.

To expand access to the lakefront and its amenities, we will open the 35th Street Bridge this August, featuring a spectacular design by John Hillman. The bridge will link the community to a new park district facility with a swimming pool and an arts center.

This year, we will also begin construction on pedestrian-only bridges at 41st and 43rd Streets, and reconstruction of the bridges at 31st Street and Oakwood Avenue. These bridges will finally give people of Bronzeville, the quad communities, and Kenwood easy access to the lakefront at multiple points.

This week, we will cut the ribbon on a brand new space for Theater on the Lake at Fullerton and begin construction on more year-round space for up and coming theater companies.

As a Congressman, I began the process to secure funding for this project and I am proud that, as Mayor, we will see it become a reality.

We all know the lake is our front yard. These spaces and investments are its welcome-gates. Together, it is my hope that they will be the most significant and sustained investments in our lakefront since the days of Daniel Burnham.

The Chicago River is the spine that connects many neighborhoods throughout our city. There are more miles of waterfront on our river than on our lakefront. If the lake is our front yard, then the river should become our residential backyard.

In our Building on Burnham plan, we will fulfill the pledge I made upon taking office as Mayor — to make the river — Chicago’s next great recreational park.

We will finally make it part of our neighborhoods rather than a separate part of the city given over to industry and commerce alone. When we closed Chicago’s last two coal fired power plants four years ago, we decreased the amount of industrial traffic, opening up the river for recreational use.

All those decades of industrial use took their toll on the river. Today, we are transforming it from an eyesore of our industrial past into an anchor of our neighborhoods.

We created the Great Rivers Chicago initiative, led by the Metropolitan Planning Council and Friends of the Chicago River. The goal is to take a broader look at all three of our region’s rivers — the Chicago, the Calumet, and the Des Plaines Rivers. The new vision for the Chicago River that I am announcing today is an outgrowth of that process.

I am also proud that the health of the river is being restored as a part of this process, as noted yesterday in the Chicago Tribune. Forty years ago, there were just seven aquatic species in the River. According to the Friends of the Chicago River, today there are 75.

In the past four years, we have invested in the river’s recreational use. We have opened three boathouses along the river — in Ping Tom Park and in River Park, both designed by Chris Lee, and in Clark Park, which was designed by Jeanne Gang.

This fall we will open our fourth and final boathouse — Eleanor, in Bridgeport, also designed by Jeanne Gang. This means there will soon be a place to enjoy the river in every part of the city, whether for canoeing, kayaking or crew.

Last May, thanks to the tireless advocacy of Friends of the Chicago River, we opened the first phase of the new Chicago Riverwalk. It has taken a part of the city that was closed for decades and opened it up for families and guests to enjoy.

When completed this fall, the Riverwalk will span over a mile and a quarter from Lakeshore Drive to Lake Street on the west end.

Its purpose is to give our residents direct access to the river. And its beautiful design is a testament to the great work of the architectural teams from Ross-Barney and Sasaki Associates.

I want to thank all of those who are bringing this dream to fruition — from the architects to the engineers to the construction workers who are out there completing the work as we are here talking today.

The Riverwalk is transforming the area along the river in our central business district. The plan we are announcing today will bring that same renewal to neighborhoods from the South Branch to the North Branch. We are ending the days of people being cut off from the river and re-engaging it to improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods.

Our plan ensures that residents will have an opportunity to access and enjoy the river on an average of every mile along the north and south branches, whether it’s through an extension of the Riverwalk, a boathouse, or a pedestrian bridge.

This past Sunday, we announced a new rails-to-trails project along the river called the Pilsen and Little Village Paseo. It will transform an abandoned railroad corridor into a vibrant recreational space for the residents of Pilsen and Little Village, fulfilling a pledge I made after we cut the ribbon on the 606.

We are also expanding the Riverwalk from Roosevelt to Harrison in the South Loop, paving the way for more recreational and economic opportunities in that fast-growing neighborhood.

We will construct two bridges. One is the Riverview Bridge — a two-block long pedestrian-only bridge in Albany Park.

The second one is a new connection to Horner Park under the Irving Park Bridge, meaning there will be one less road to cross for walkers, joggers and bicyclists.

And we will expand Thillens Park below Devon Avenue to give its surrounding residents more greenspace along the river.

When all is said and done, we will make the City of Chicago unique in the country for having two separate and distinct waterfronts that are open, accessible, and desirable for residents and visitors alike. And it will give residents along the river the same kind of amenities that people enjoy along the lakefront.

Building on Burnham will also expand cultural and recreational opportunities for our children and families in every neighborhood, building on the success of our Night Out in the Parks program.

Last July, we broke ground on the new XS Tennis Facility in Washington Park on the South Side.

We have invested in a new track at Gately Park on the South Side. We hope the State of Illinois will follow through on their commitment from 2014 to invest their resources to support this project and more importantly to support the kids of Chicago. And we will also be investing in a new rec center for Addams/Medill Park on the Near West Side that will have two baseball fields and more green space for recreation.

But this is not just about creating new fields or building more bricks and mortar. We are rethinking the entire programming model — working together across different agencies and departments to better serve the residents of Chicago.

Our goal is to make all their facilities more accessible and the programming they offer more desirable and effective for our youth. For example, the new Beverly and Morgan Park Sports Center offers programs in gymnastics and ice sports. At Big Marsh kids can partake in adventure sports. At Columbus Park they can learn soccer and golf. And at Clark Park, they can play football, baseball, soccer, and crew — ensuring that kids from across our neighborhoods have access to different sports.

We will also make space available in these public facilities for community partners, so they can offer their own programming for kids across Chicago.

Every child in every neighborhood deserves to have these opportunities within their reach. Soon, they will.

Photo by Brooke Collins

As we connect our children to more recreational and educational opportunities, we will also connect them to the natural areas that exist all around us.

When it comes to the beauty of our natural areas, the Second City should never be second to none. From fishing to biking to walking off the beaten path, Chicago offers the chance to experience nature without ever leaving the city limits. Now is the time to open more of these natural areas for more of our families to enjoy.

Today, our park district manages 65 protected natural areas, encompassing more than 1,400 acres throughout the City of Chicago. In the past four years, we have doubled that acreage through planning and conservation efforts.

Building on Burnham will take this expansion of natural areas to the next level. It sets a goal of two-thousand-and-twenty acres of protected natural areas in the City of Chicago by the year two-thousand-and-twenty.

For the past century, Daniel Burnham’s original plan helped make Chicago true to our motto as the great City in a Garden that we are today.

It was the blueprint for ensuring that Chicago could co-exist with our growing industry through having parks, beaches, and museums to serve our residents while attracting visitors from around the globe.

Building on Burnham stays true to that vision by ensuring that as our economy continues to grow today, we will also enhance the quality of life for residents in all of our neighborhoods.

As Chicago grows, we have a responsibility to build on Burnham’s plan and strengthen it to see the river and other parts of the city in a way that Burnham could never have envisioned but stays true to his principles of a City in a Garden.

Some may suggest that this is not the time for this project — that our city doesn’t have the resources. But I believe that we have a responsibility to make our neighborhoods safer and stronger and to give more of our children the opportunities that our parks and recreation can offer.

Let’s be clear. It was Daniel Burnham who said, “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood. Make big plans and aim high in hope and in work.”

By being more creative, more collaborative, and more comprehensive in our vision, we will extend Burnham’s blueprint to every corner of Chicago.

We will create recreational and economic opportunities for thousands of residents, draw visitors from downtown into other neighborhoods, and keep children in every neighborhood safe, engaged, and learning.

Beyond being the largest after school program in the City, we will also continue to make sure that these Park District projects expand economic opportunities for all of our residents and youth alike.

Most importantly, our Building on Burnham plan will help ensure that the “city in a garden” is within reach of every child in Chicago. In this way, we can ensure that our children “make no little plans” — because we want their dreams and their futures to be unlimited.

Chicago Mayor’s Office

Written by

The Office of Mayor Rahm Emanuel

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade