Make Room for Parks—Land&People

Phil Jones is a blue-collar kind of guy, a carpenter by trade and a family man with a tattoo of his three children across his right bicep.

Which is to say, he's not your typical enviro-wonk or open-space crusader. But here in Chicago, city of big shoulders and the political flex, Jones is proving just the guy to anchor one of the more innovative coalitions ever to enlarge and enliven a tired old neighborhood park. It's a coalition, moreover, that is pumping up for heavier lifting—the creation of a three-mile biking and hiking trail from a dormant railroad spur. Both projects are showing how neighborhood activists and a nimble nonprofit can create precious public space in the most congested urban neighborhoods.

Congested? That certainly describes Phil Jones's Logan Square neighborhood on the city's North Side, where large Hispanic families have been moving into graystone three-flats and red-brick walkups. In 1998, the year Jones took over as advisory council president for local Haas Park, a report published jointly by the city, its independent park district, and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County described Logan Square as the second most parkstarved neighborhood in the city. According to the report, Cityspace—An Open Space Plan for Chicago, the neighborhood would require some 33 additional acres of green space to meet the recommended minimum of 2 acres per 1,000 residents.

Under the leadership of Mayor Richard M. Daley, the city has whittled away at its overall park shortage. Millennium Park, opened in 2004 on Lake Michigan near downtown, has earned justified attention in the press and created millions of dollars in economic benefits each year by increasing property values and attracting new tourist dollars. From 2005 to 2015, total spending by the park's estimated 3 million annual visitors is expected to range from $1.9 billion to $2.6 billion.

Millennium Park joins Grant Park, Lincoln Park, and other showcase parks along the Lake Michigan shoreline that have helped earn Chicago its motto "City in a Garden" and give the impression—especially to visitors in nearby downtown—that the city is rich in parkland. In all, the Chicago Park District manages 552 parks, 33 beaches, and an arm-long daily schedule of programs and special events. As one might expect in a cold climate, the city is also well-endowed with indoor public recreation centers.

Where Chicago is really lacking in open space is in its neighborhoods. The lakeshore parks were part of a plan for the city created by renowned architect and planner Daniel Burnham in 1909. But many other parks envisioned in that plan were never completed. Chicago's expansion in the early 20th century came at such explosive speed that neighborhoods sprang up as if overnight, with little consideration given to where their residents would play. Data from TPL's Center for City Park Excellence rank Chicago ninth among the nation's densest cities in bringing parks to its people, with only 4.2 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents. Teeming New York City has 4.6 acres and compact Boston a generous 9.2 acres.

Taking The Case To The Mayor

For Phil Jones, the drive to expand Haas Park—an acre of heavily trampled green on busy Fullerton Avenue— began 15 years ago when his oldest daughter, Amy, then age nine, said she wanted to play T-ball—a variant of baseball for young players in which the ball, instead of being pitched, is hit off a tee on home plate. At the time there was no organized T-ball team at Haas Park, Jones recalled—or much of anything else. So he volunteered to coach a team, which got him involved helping to create new park facilities (bases for the diamond, bathrooms, etc.) and eventually got him on the park's advisory council.

This was in the mid-1990s, when things were beginning to look up for Chicago's neighborhood parks. For decades, the Chicago Park District—an entity separate from the city but one the mayor controls by appointing its board—had a well-deserved reputation as the department of last resort for patronage employees and union tradesmen who could never be found when you wanted them. But soon after his election in 1989, Mayor Daley began strategizing for new parks. The city copublished the Cityspace report, and the mayor dispatched several lieutenants to shake up the park district. One key reform was giving neighborhood groups more control over local parks. Jones remembers going to a park district workshop on how local parks councils could develop programming and supplement their budgets.

"They told us how to set up our own bank account," he says, "so we could do our own fundraising above what the district was spending. We started candlelight bowling, movies in the park, T-shirts—anything to raise an extra buck for uniforms and whatnot. But when we asked the district to make the park bigger, that was a problem. They said it wasn't feasible, that we were landlocked."

In fact, that seemed to be the case. The park is bounded on one side by Fullerton Avenue—a major commercial strip; on two others by dense neighborhoods of two-flat apartments; and on the fourth side by a commercial warehouse. But Jones and his council wouldn't take no for an answer. They did, in their own way, what effective nonprofits do when faced with a seemingly impossible mission: they reached out for new allies and built a more powerful coalition.

Tim Mitchell, now park district superintendent but then Mayor Daley's chief of infrastructure planning, remembers his first encounter with Jones, at a City Hall meet-the-mayor breakfast for park advisory groups. Most invitees were happy with a handshake and a photograph, Mitchell remembers. Not Jones. "Phil waits his turn, hands the mayor a Haas Park T-shirt, and says, 'Please help us expand Haas Park.' Oh yeah, the mayor remembered Phil all right. Afterward he told us, 'We've got to help these people out.'"

Even with the mayor's blessing, however, it's not easy for a mammoth, budget-constrained urban park system to explore, much less execute, an expansion of one of its smallest parks—especially one in a built-up neighborhood where property values are high and going higher.

Elbow Room For Haas Park

But Phil Jones kept on widening the circle. In 2001, former state senator (now Illinois attorney general) Lisa Madigan pledged a half-million dollars from a state public works bonding program to explore expansion of Haas Park. The local alderman squeezed a $1 million pledge from the park district for planning and feasibility. At one point, when things started to drag, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown needled Daley and the parks district to get it done.

Meanwhile, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA), one of the city's oldest and most sophisticated community groups, set up the Logan Square Parks Alliance to lobby for more open space and recreational opportunities in the neighborhood. LSNA also led a comprehensive neighborhood planning effort sponsored by the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), a national neighborhood development organization. Expansion of Haas was a top priority of the final plan.

"LISC and the neighborhood association realized that the park was an important component of any neighborhood plan," says Beth White, director of TPL's Chicago Area Office. "In general, parks are as important as transportation, affordable housing, and good schools—an essential ingredient of a healthy community."

The neighborhood association also provided what turned out to be a breakthrough piece of intelligence: a condo developer had quietly purchased the Worldwide Distributors warehouse building west of the park. The potential was clear: if the park district somehow were able to buy out the developer, and if the city were willing to vacate the side street where it separates the park from the warehouse, Haas Park could be expanded by 75 percent.

But it had to happen in a hurry! The park district didn't have funding and legally couldn't obligate itself to buy the land. A flurry of phone calls heated up the lines among the neighborhood association, LISC, Phil Jones, 1st Ward Alderman Manny Flores, the park district, and TPL's Chicago Area Office. Without knowing when or even if it would be able to transfer the land to the park district, TPL agreed to purchase the warehouse, acquiring it in January 2005 for $2.6 million.

TPL also was able to raise more than $300,000 toward project costs and to pay for much-needed improvements to Haas Park's battered playgrounds. (Donors included the MetLife Foundation and The Stenning on Lake Geneva Conservancy Society.) So strong were the positive vibes—and Phil Jones's persistence—that the park district dug deep to acquire the property from TPL in December 2005. In the wake of the acquisition, the city demolished the warehouse and has begun work to vacate the street separating it from the park. Plans for the land include a new field house to replace the park's cramped brown brick warming house, built in 1947.

"This will be a $10 million deal before it's done," says parks Superintendent Mitchell, and he credits TPL for making it possible. "We just didn't have the resources on hand to make it happen. When TPL stepped up, that was huge."

Hit The Trail

Enlarging existing parks is one way to create outdoor recreation in crowded urban neighborhoods. Another way is to reclaim elevated rail lines for second-story parks and trails above busy city streets. Besides Chicago, two cities have attempted this so far. New York has an ongoing effort to create a park on the 1.5-mile High Line right-of-way along Manhattan's West Side. And Paris has completed a nearly three-mile-long elevated park it calls Promenade Plant?e.

In Chicago, the city has been negotiating to buy a three-mile-long elevated route from the Canadian Pacific Railway Company to create the Bloomingdale Trail, named for Bloomingdale Avenue, above which it runs. Through much of the 20th century, the rail line served a small manufacturing district on the city's North Side. But traffic declined through the 1980s and stopped entirely soon after. Converting the line to a park is expected to cost approximately $50 million as phases are implemented over the next five to ten years.

"How else could you get 12 acres of open space in a neighborhood this dense?" asks Kathleen Dickhut, a Chicago deputy commissioner of planning who has shepherded the project at City Hall. "If we used condemnation, it would cost way more than $40 million . . . and people would hate us for it."

At the city's request, TPL agreed to manage the private side of the public-private partnership that will create the trail. TPL will promote and market the trail, and facilitate a community process that will help design it and put in place a plan for continuing stewardship. TPL and the city organized the Bloomington Trail Collaborative, a group of local nonprofits and businesses, in support of the effort.

"The trail can be much more than a bike path," enthuses Ben Helphand. Helphand is president of Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail, a grassroots group of cyclists, hikers, and naturalists that is part of the collaborative and that will eventually take over stewardship of the trail. "I mean, the route goes by or near 12 different schools and a YMCA. It connects to the North Branch of the Chicago River and to the city's boulevard system and several other bike routes. And it connects four incredibly dense and diverse neighborhoods."

Elevated trails are not easy to complete, however. This one, 20 feet above street level, will require an access point every half mile. It will cross 37 street overpasses that will need to be refurbished or, in some cases, replaced and later maintained. And the trail will need landscaping, lighting, water bubblers, restrooms, and, of course, security. While the city has been negotiating to buy the rightof-way, TPL, with assistance from LISC and others, has been picking up land for future trailside miniparks with access points. This work began when local parks activist Josh Deth saw a "For Sale" sign on a parcel of land along the future trail. Deth called TPL, and TPL called the city. To date, TPL has invested nearly $2 million and acquired four parcels along the trail. In addition to providing trail access, the new miniparks will bring much-needed recreation space to park-poor neighborhoods.

"I compare the trail to a charm bracelet," says TPL's Beth White. "Each charm will be different, but each will bring real benefits to its neighborhood and reflect each neighborhood's unique character."

Targeted urban park projects like Haas Park and the Bloomingdale Trail are the new big thing in open space creation. America has, after all, many Logan Squares—neighborhoods rediscovered by back-to-thecity gentry, or discovered anew by immigrants looking for a toehold on the American dream. Often such places—a warehouse district gone to lofts, say—never had parks in the first place or, like Logan Square, has parks that are undersized or obsolete. Urban opportunities require a different kind of spatial imagination, says Peter Harnik, director of TPL's Center for City Park Excellence. "Often you have to look through the fact that there's a building on a site. If there isn't a park, you have to find someplace that could be a park."

"Every city needs to take more seriously the growing need for neighborhood parks," noted TPL President Will Rogers on a recent Chicago visit. He said that TPL's Parks for People initiative, of which Haas and Bloomingdale are a part, aims to bring the health, economic, and environmental benefits of open space to communities that, for too long, have gone without.

These days Chicago takes second place to no city in its efforts to create new open space in dense neighborhoods. "Not since the days of Daniel Burnham has there been so much civic energy directed to park building," Beth White says. "TPL has been working in Chicago for more than a decade, but these days the struggle seems to be keeping up with the mayor." And with, she might add, people like Phil Jones.

In building coalitions, it's good to have sharp business minds in your corner, along with some generous donors and a politician or two. But when you're just starting out, trying to get something going—even just a T-ball team—it's good to have some regular folk on board. Maybe even one who knows how to flex his tattoo. About TPL's Parks for People Initiative TPL's Parks for People initiative works in cities and suburbs across America to ensure that everyone— in particular, every child—enjoys access to a nearby park, playground, or natural area.

Parks are essential to the health of individuals and communities. They offer recreation and renewal, promote exercise, reduce crime, revitalize neighborhoods, protect the environment, and bring communities together. Children without access to parks suffer from higher levels of obesity, diabetes, asthma, anxiety, and depression.

In some of our nation's cities, as many as two in three residents have no access to a nearby park, playground, or open space. TPL's initiative seeks to address this critical need by creating parks where they are needed most, shaping the future of American cities—and American lives—for generations to come.

John McCarron is a Chicago-based urban affairs writer.