How Can We Build Safe Urban Parks?

Washington Square Park, Chicago

The “Radiant City” is back. Two high-profile buildings currently going up in Chicago draw on a park-centric model for development which has proven problematic in the past.

One, an office building in the West Loop, is built into a 1.5-acre park planned for the West bank of the Chicago River. The other, an apartment building in Hyde Park, rises out of a three story retail complex with a fully landscaped green roof. Renderings and rhetoric have presented these parks as beneficent gifts to the City. Yet, reflecting the “Radiant City” idealism, important questions about the safety and utility of these new green spaces have been left unanswered by the architects and developers.

Le Corbusier, iconoclastic modern architect and designer, coined the term “Radiant City” in his 1933 book of the same name. In the book, Le Corbusier envisioned of the modern city as a collection of skyscrapers dispersed throughout expanses of parks. The public and the architectural elites saw in his vision a way to reunite city-dwellers with nature and a solution to the urban population problem. By the 1950s and 1960s, this conceptual model for development had become hugely influential and was reflected in the design of housing and office building projects across the country. The idea of urban green space as an unassailable end in itself is one of the lasting legacies of this model of city planning.

This way of thinking about green space blinded the public and the elites to the reality that parks are naturally social voids which only occasionally become glorious public spaces through luck and great effort. Jane Jacobs explores in her 1961 book The Death and Life of the American City the effects of city parks upon their surroundings.

For Jacobs, a successful park is a well-used park, and unsuccessful parks go hand in hand with unsuccessful, unpopular, and depressing neighborhoods. She says, “[neighborhood parks] further depress neighborhoods that people find unattractive…for they exaggerate the dullness, the danger, the emptiness.” We have all seen unsuccessful parks in unsuccessful neighborhoods. Abandoned by respectable people, they become the ideal setting for unobserved violent crimes. We see this in New York City, where violent crime rates in City parks are currently leading the rest of the city and are increasing even as citywide crime rates have declined. Thus do unsuccessful parks become cancers which destroy neighborhoods from within. These are the stakes, and this is why it is important to be cautious and thoughtful as we install new parks in our cities.

Yet green space continues to be a winning formula for developers and architects. River Point, the 45-story downtown office building which broke ground on Tuesday, January 15, will be situated in a 1.5-acre park on the West bank of the Chicago River. Plans for City Hyde Park, a mixed-use housing and retail development located at 51st and Lake Park Ave in Hyde Park, show a fully landscaped roof three stories above street level.

Rendering of River Point Plaza

The River Point park seems unlikely to succeed. Located on the West side of the river, in an area currently dominated by parking lots and trainyards, it is a joint collaboration between the City and the developer meant to extend the Riverwalk. Unfortunately, the park is isolated from its surroundings. The park itself will sit on a platform above the train tracks, and plans show only three stairways up to the park. In addition to naturally discouraging frequent, casual use of the park, the limitations on park access are dangerous, and, unless the park is well-patrolled, will make it an obvious target for criminals.

The River West neighborhood is developing, and it is possible that over time, the park will become a central location. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has proposed an ambitious project to redevelop the Riverwalk from Lake Michigan to the fork where the River Point tower sits. This project, if and when it goes through, could make the River Point park more attractive and accessible from the Loop. But at present, with its single-use tenant and discouragements to outside access, it seems likely that the park will stagnate. It will become a place to hurry through at the beginning and end of the workday rather than a place to linger. The developers and the city would have done better to integrate multiple uses into the development or to cut out the park altogether.

Drawing of River Point Tower and Plaza

The green space in the City Hyde Park project is different because it is intended for private, rather than public use. It is relevant to us because it is partially funded with City money through a TIF (tax increment financing) division. Designed by the much-admired Studio Gang, the building will serve a variety of uses, including retail at street level and apartments in the tower rising out of the green deck. Yet the park space, which will contain the amenities for the apartment dwellers above, will be segregated from other users, and so will be denied both the dangers and the vitality of a social space that is a nexus for multiple uses. Little harm will be done; the space will drag the neighborhood down no more than a seldom-used backyard. But it will also contribute nothing spectacular. As such, perhaps the city money diverted to the project would be better used to improve the district in other ways.

Rendering of Connors Park, Chicago

One promising public-private partnership is falling into place now at Connors Park in the Gold Coast neighborhood of Chicago. Connors Park, forgotten by the Chicago Park District, was littered and in disrepair, frequented by vagrants, according to Alderman Reilly, who initiated the partnership with Argo Tea. Under the agreement, Argo Tea will be allowed to construct a teahouse in the middle of the park and will, in turn, maintain and improve the park for the duration of its 15-year lease.

A close look at the terms of the agreement reveals that the city has gotten an exceptionally good deal. The green space of the park should be little altered, since Argo Tea is forbidden from expanding the amount of pavement (termed ‘hardscape) in the park. In addition, the agreement stipulates that the tea shop must be as open as possible and its use, and the use of the park around it, must remain free. In this case, since the failure of the park was due to its disrepair, the improvements and maintenance promised by Argo Tea will likely be enough to make the park comfortable and safe once again. Yet we should expect more even than this. Experiments like this in other cities, such as the food kiosks installed in Madison Square Park, Greeley Square, and Bryant Park in New York City, have been successful at drawing new visitors to enjoy and enliven the parks. We should expect the Argo Tea in Connors Park to do the same.

Parks should brighten and enliven their neighborhoods; they should be safe and friendly and inviting. The “Radiant City” approach to urban planning and architecture encourages none of these. Before we build more parks, we should look at our old ones, and ask: are they working? Where parks are failing, we should ask why, and, where possible, implement agreements like the one at Connors Park. Above all, we must think of parks always in the context of the overarching aim of urban planning: the creation of neighborhoods and cities which are safe, comfortable, and friendly.

Originally published on Out of the Yards, January 29, 2013


Justin Manley

Justin Manley is a second-year at the University of Chicago studying math and computer science. Justin’s bookshelf is packed with fantasy, contemporary fiction, biographies, and books on urban planning and architecture. He reads these in his spare time. The rest of the time, he’s climbing trees, ice skating, exploring Chicago, or writing for his blog Out of the Yards, which focuses on architecture and urbanism.

  • Carlo

    Just a note: much of the reason behind a park being included in the River Point Tower project is that doing so allowed the developers to get $29 million in TIF money to be used for the construction of the platform that the park and tower will rest on.

    Personally, I’m still kind of shocked that the city kicked in $29 million for a spec building…

    • Blake J. Graham

      All the more damning if the park doesn’t succeed as a public space.

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