The Works

Chicago Mayor: River Is City’s “Next Great Recreational Park”

Skeptics say he's prioritizing flashier projects over basic needs.

The Chicago River is a major part of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's plan to revitalize Chicago's parks and recreation areas.

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Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel pitched an expansive plan Tuesday to improve the city’s parks and recreational areas along the lakefront and the Chicago River and throughout the city’s neighborhoods.

Proposed efforts include repaving seven miles of the city’s 18-mile path along Lake Michigan, creating separate lanes for bicyclists and runners in some of the lakefront path’s busiest stretches, and building additional recreation areas, including a “world-class” indoor track and field facility and a climbing wall at Steelworkers Park.

Emanuel gives special attention in his plan to the Chicago River, calling it “Chicago’s next great recreational park.” Plans for revitalizing the river include four new boathouses along the North and South branches, new pedestrian bridges and a downtown riverwalk to be completed this fall.

“Chicago used to be known just for a beautiful lake, but we actually have two waterfronts,” Emanuel said in his speech announcing the plan. “And we need to make both waterfronts work for our quality of life, for our cultural, as well as our recreational and economic growth.”

The Chicago Tribune reported that many of the projects in Emanuel’s plan were previously released or are even already in the works, including the “Paseo,” a trail along unused train tracks. But Emanuel’s plan brings these projects and others together as part of a broader initiative he’s calling “Building on Burnham.” The name is a nod to Daniel Burnham, an urban planner who laid out a sweeping “Plan of Chicago” more than a century ago that emphasized ways to preserve green space and parkland.

The Tribune says Emanuel’s pitch was an effort to unite the city around the usually universally lauded topics of green space and outdoor programs and to “improve his standing with Chicagoans in general” after a slate of police scandals.

… Emanuel used his parks address to attempt to connect with lower-income Chicagoans, repeatedly returning to the theme of access to nature and recreational activities for children all over the city whose parents in many cases can’t afford to take them on trips.

Emanuel said in his speech that he intends to pay attention to neighborhood parks throughout the city, as well as the waterfronts.

Every child in every neighborhood deserves to have these opportunities within reach, and soon they will. And 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. We have to be honest. Some kids cannot afford to make it to Wisconsin or out West. Some of our kids never even make it to the lakefront. We must give them access to world-class natural spaces and the experience that come with it without ever having to leave the city.

Still, some were more cynical about the project and the mayor’s speech. Time Out Chicago called Emmanuel’s announcement “a self-congratulatory speech,” while the Tribune said the mayor’s “Building on Burnham” name is just the “latest example of the mayor slapping a quotable title on a speech to try to help it gain traction.”

Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Parks, told the Chicago Sun Times that while she appreciated some of the mayor’s plans, particularly the separation of bikers and joggers on the lakefront path, she has a number of concerns, including whether there’s enough funding.

Emanuel says the projects would be covered through a combination of federal funds, private foundation dollars and local property taxes, and that his past record of funding projects — such as the 606 Trail and boathouses — show that he’ll make the finances work.

Irizarry also said the plan seems to prioritize flashier projects over the city’s shortage of basic park needs, like soccer fields, and that the community should have been more involved in the process.

“We are always concerned about the process by which his decisions are made about parks. We have not been included in any of those processes and we hear from community folks all the time who are concerned about the process by which park decisions are made. What was the process to engage the communities about our park needs?” she said.

Watch the full announcement below.

The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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Kelsey E. Thomas is a writer and editor based in the most upper-left corner of the country. She writes about urban policy, equitable development and the outdoors (but also about nearly everything else) with a focus on solutions-oriented journalism. She is a former associate editor and current contributing editor at Next City.

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Tags: chicagoparksriverswaterfronts

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