Landscape Urbanism in Chicago: Four Strategies For the Millennium Reserve

“Designers must be willing to engage government officials, investors
and other land owners with comprehensive strategies that serve to
innovate and educate—even if this means ‘losing’ commissions
based on single-minded project briefs.”

Chicago’s Millennium Reserve is the largest urban open space in the continental United States. In a previous post, I covered the history of the 140,000-acre site and the complexity that planners and landscape architects will have to face in redeveloping the space: brownfield and contaminated site waste, cleaning a scarred landscape filled with construction debris, creating program and a vision for the future, and navigating complex political and capital flows.

Instead of reacting to these conditions, however, landscape architects and urbanists should be proactive and visionary in creating opportunities for their interventions. In a recent lecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, Thom Mayne of Morphosis made it clear that designers must be willing to engage government officials, investors and other land owners with comprehensive strategies that serve to innovate and educate—even if this means “losing” commissions based on single-minded project briefs.  Mayne’s new book Combinatory Urbanism: The Complex Behavior of Collective Form  includes his own forays into a methodology that has allowed design to go beyond the formal and into the strategic, echoing many of the tenets of landscape urbanism by allowing the ground plane to interact seamlessly with architecture.

How can the notion of “collective form” work in the Millennium Reserve, where the client does not yet exist?  The great potential of the Reserve—its social and ecological complexity—is at risk of being fragmented by piece-meal contributions if a comprehensive strategy does not emerge by regionalist thinkers.   This post identifies the client groups and surface-based issues that designers interested in Chicago’s future must embed into their strategies if they are to overcome marginalization as merely “formal” disciplines. Consider the following tactics:

1. Borrow from Burnham (but not too much)

After 100 years, it is time to rethink Burnham’s plan (Source: Plan of Chicago, Plate 73)

Daniel Burnham’s legacy in Chicago cannot be underestimated.  His superhuman ability to orchestrate the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 only marked the beginning of his apotheosis in Chicago.  Carl Smith’s account of Burnham in The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City offers the planner’s real legacy: his ability to formulate a regional vision with support from the elite Commercial Club of Chicago.  At once an architect and a future’s trader, Burnham was able to build cooperation from Chicago’s business and rail magnates by convincing them that they would profit from comprehensive, regional designs.  Burnham’s work engaged a city whose meteoric rate of urbanization demanded big thinking.  Today, Chicago suffers from a demographic stasis and new private and public collaborations usually occur at the scale of the site and for “sustainable” practices.    

Exelon, SunPower solar farm turns forty-one acres from blight to bright.  The site remains closed to the public, however.” (Source: Exelon Corporation)

For example, in 2010, Exelon built the country’s largest urban solar farm on a brownfield in the Reserve’s Pullman District. The project was incentivized by federal dollars and couples a clean energy agenda with profits for the energy giant in a community with ample vacant land.  Yet, the huge solar field serves a singular function that remains isolated from its surroundings and the “sustainable landscape” is merely a veil around the complex.  Developing integrative strategies before these projects are proposed would mitigate these piece-meal projects and engender a vision of alternative energy and public space that goes beyond “sustainable” practices.

2. Make public lands public works

The Reserve will bring federal dollars to Illinois and that money should be spent on building processes that will sustain work.  Understanding how we can merge open space and trails with productive landscapes is critical. The Forest Preserve District of Cook County currently owns sixty percent (9,300 acres) of the natural lands within the Millennium Reserve and their vision is to spend $4.5 Million on the creation of visitor’s facilities. Continuing this limited projection of “nature” as an image is troubling and has only been reinforced by satisfying political environmental agendas.  The forests may be used for climate-change research, biomass production or stormwater management, for example.

3. Leverage water resources 

The TARP system proves Chicago is dedicated to infrastructural solutions.  Why can’t these projects create public space?” (Source: The Architects Newspaper)

The Metropolitan Water District of Greater Chicago (MWDGC), an independent state agency with an elected Board of Commissioners has shaped Chicago’s hydrology since its inception in 1889. The MWDGC, responsible for the city’s water and sewage, owns most of the land adjacent to Chicago’s waterway (sanitary canals).  The MWDGC reversed the Chicago River and bypassed groundwater recharge through the Tunnel and Resevoir Plan (TARP) commissioned during the 1970s.  TARP remains one of the nation’s largest infrastructural projects, creating subterranean flood abatement tunnels.  Though an engineering success, regional hydrology has been subverted by this work.  The MWDGC is also responsible for the nation’s largest water reclamation facility—Stickney Water Reclamation Plant—and the agency has made it clear that the waterways should not be considered a river, but rather a means of sending Chicago’s waste to the Gulf of Mexico.  Only recently did the MWDGC agree to implement tertiary treatment before sending water into the river.  If we agree that the waterways are constructed artifacts, couldn’t they be designed to be more inclusive?

The Army Corp of Engineers is also still deliberating on how the threat of the voracious Asian carp in Chicago’s waterways might affect the multi-billion dollar Great Lakes fishing industry.  In their report, the Corp revealed that the canals were not being relied upon heavily by the shipping industry, a major advocate of keeping the river a private highway for commodity shipping.  How could a river reversal that protects Great Lakes ecologies include shipping, wastewater treatment, storm water storage, and public program?

The MWDGC must support innovation in riverside land-use patterns as they have done a poor job of building an identity of the waterways as a public amenity for Chicagoans, especially when compared to Lake Michigan.  The Reserve includes the Calumet-Sag Channel, Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, and the Calumet River.  Integrating alternative futures for these water bodies will be critical for gaining public support.

4. Plug into the Port

In 1989, former Mayor Richard J. Daley proposed the development of Lake Calumet Airport.  This infrastructural cure-all promised to protect the environment while solving the region’s financial problems. The plan was too much of an imposition on the landscape to jibe with local community groups and the proposal failed.

The Port of Calumet must be considered as valuable as an airport.  Intermodal centers are Chicago’s competitive advantage. As we know by now, “water is the new oil” and global water shortages are forcing water-intensive industries to assess their exposure to risk. Given its access to 25 percent of the world’s fresh water, Chicago is poised to be a leading industrial city over the next 100 years.  How can rethinking the Port District direct the growth of Great Lakes shipping and coastal management?

A recent change of leadership in the International Port District demonstrates Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s commitment to modernization and this is a perfect opportunity for designers to begin investigating points of entry. Maasvlakte 2100 led by Pierre Bélanger and Miho Mazereeuw’s opsys offers one method.  They worked with Port of Rotterdam authorities to complete a research and design proposal that couples freight infrastructure with biophysical systems, offering an alternative future that single-minded approaches could not.

What might designers do to begin approaching large, public landholders in the Reserve?  Is a competitive platform the best way to foster innovation, or would an “open-sourced” medium be effective?


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