Chicago’s Next Design Competition: the Millennium Reserve

New forms of visualization will be critical for selling the Millennium
Reserve as more than a trails project. (Source: Millennium Reserve)

For all of you entrepreneurs: In Chicago, the largest urban renovation project in the continental United States is underway.

The announcement of the Millennium Reserve may not have been loud enough, receiving very little press that touts it as anything more than an open space project. (note 1) But to think of the Reserve only in these terms would be to limit its potential for breeding innovative design practices in a global city. The initiative begs designers to establish new ways of working by building novel relationships between ecological restoration, public land acquisitions, private investment, and regional commodity networks.

The Reserve is a perpetual ideas competition—consider the project brief: In early December, 140,000 acres of Chicago’s southeast side were selected to become part of America’s Great Outdoors initiative. President Obama’s program asked each state to identify its most valuable landscapes and to protect them for future generations. The Calumet Core is one of two tracts of land selected in Illinois that fit the bill. Dozens of endangered plant and animal species inhabit over 5,000 acres of high quality wetlands, prairies, and forests that have anchored the dunes and colonized the swales formed by Glacial Lake Chicago over 16,000 years ago.

Calumet’s flat land made filling easy. And that’s what happened on Lake Michigan’s south shore, where one of Illinois’ most productive ecosystems was put into direct competition with one of America’s most productive centers of steel, creating an emblematic tension between technological progress and Chicago’s pastoral past. Decades of advocacy work (note 2) have identified how to conserve what is left of this strangely idyllic landscape, but few projects identify how Calumet’s ecologies can be designed to stimulate new regional economies.

Governor Pat Quinn recognized the aims of conservation organizations in Illinois, releasing $17.9 Million through the Illinois Jobs Now! capital program to work toward the Reserve’s first goal of environmental restoration. Closing a gap in the Burnham Trail will link downtown Chicago with the Southside through a greenway. In addition, a PARC Grant Program, wetland restoration, land acquisition, and historic trails send the clear message that natural resources are a cultural asset and a financial one. The city forecasts eco-tourism to spin-off of these investments.

The breadth of the initiative goes beyond connecting paths—and existing maps do not represent the entire project. The Reserve is an incubator for ecological management strategies, modeled after the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB) that was developed in the 1970s to merge local communities, environmental research, and on-the-ground job training in significant global landscapes.

Authors of the Millennium Reserve incorporated MAB’s creative zoning in their own vision. The Reserve’s core, transition and enterprise lands concept will be tested in an urban region with 434,000 residents, a stagnant industrial complex, and serious contamination issues. The zoning system creates a nimble set of relational components that have the capacity to address these conditions. Each area comes with its own management, job creation, and programming parameters. Creatively identifying these core areas based on measured criteria such as ecosystem services, groundwater contamination risks, or energy production can create unique public spaces that take their formal cues from the processes they support.

Thirty-three towns within the Reserve, extensive utility and freight right-of-ways, and scores of bank-owned parcels will demand cooperation among various actors. The extent of these concerted efforts will determine the success of the Reserve’s economic development goal to promote innovative industries and job training in Calumet. Sixty percent of the available industrial land in Chicago is located within five miles of Port of Calumet: It is one of two foreign trade zones—FTZ #22—in the city, with O’Hare Airport being the other. Peerless access to national freight, rail, and waterways make it the nation’s busiest intermodal hub. Despite this, it is only occupied by twenty percent of Chicago’s industry.

The Port of Calumet.
(Source: Alan Berger, 
Drosscape: Wasting Land in Urban America.)

The huge cleanup costs of a scarred landscape in Calumet may be to blame. Two thousand acres of the Reserve are considered brownfields. EPA Superfund, Toxic Release, and Brownfield Recovery sites will require remediation. Land reclamation is the last goal of the initiative and with over sixty square miles of lakeshore and wetlands filled in since the 1840s, the opportunities for materials re-use and remediation are endless. Slag, construction debris, and biosolids create a promising topography of waste that needs sorting.

Are we ready to get dirty?

Landscape urbanism’s leading thinkers would have us believe so. Chris Reed recently talked about “Landscape Optimism” in an interview in the journal Places. Reed argues that landscape architecture must stop being a reactive discipline: Instead, it must develop both the problems and the holistic strategies needed to solve those problems. He is right.  Divergent issues confronting Calumet will require a telescopic approach that integrates environmental preservation, economic development, and social justice. At the scale of the region this will require an understanding of political power structures and capital flows. On-site tactics must ground these forces in the hydrology, soil, vegetation, and pavement.

What do you think Chicago should do with the Millennium Reserve?

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Note 1: In Illinois, the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the Metropolitan Water District of Greater Chicago, the Chicago Park District (CPD), and the City of Chicago, with support from over forty philanthropic and planning partner organizations, serve on the Millennium Reserve Advisory Board.

Note 2: See: Calumet Stewardship Initiative, Calumet Ecological Park Association, Southeast Environmental Task Force.

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