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08.30.2010
New Chicago Park Hogs Smog
Pollution-eating pavers are self-cleaning, too, keeping down maintenance costs while clearing the air
The new Mary Bartelme Park in Chicago uses a new concrete that absorbs smog and self-cleans
Courtesy Site Design Group

When Chicago’s Mayor Daley cut the ribbon on Mary Bartelme Park late last month, he reaffirmed the city’s goal of planting 15,000 trees by 2015, as well as announcing that his administration will have invested $14 million in ADA accessibility improvements to city parks by year’s end. But Mary Bartelme Park, named after Illinois’ first female judge, represents another milestone, with a design that incorporates innovative smog-eating permeable pavers, the first of their kind in the city.

Designed by Chicago-based landscape architecture firm Site Design Group, the 1.4-acre park is located on the former site of an infirmary owned by University of Illinois at Chicago. “This community is very new and they wanted the park to be out of the box,” said Site principal Ernest Wong. With input from the Chicago Park District (CPD) and the West Loop Community Organization, an angular design was chosen over more formal and more organic approaches presented to the community. Creating a low-cost scheme was the priority, but creating an exciting design that private citizens want to take care of was the best way to ensure long-term upkeep.

The designers used a dynamic layout to heighten the excitement of the 1.4-acre park.

Site accomplished both objectives with a variety of low-maintenance materials: native plants, Cor-Ten steel retaining walls, and a variable-height seat wall made with terra cotta lintels salvaged from the demolished infirmary, a design that is friendly to senior citizens, but not to skateboarders. Perhaps the most innovative solution is an entry marked by bright white pavers that incorporate a new technology called TX Active. The material, manufactured by Essroc and poured over Unilock Eco-Priora pavers, is a photocatalytic cement that reacts to sunlight and accelerates the oxidation of pollutants, rendering them as harmless salts and thereby reducing the amount of nitric oxide in the air.

Though the permeable pavers clean the air best on sunny days, on rainy days they filter rainwater back into the ground, rather than local sewers. The material is also self-cleaning—it was first used by Richard Meier on the precast concrete exterior of the Jubilee Church in Rome—and doesn’t show the black streaks usually associated with concrete buildings in cities.

Residents of the fast-gentrifying West Loop neighborhood enjoy the new playground.

Park visitors will likely not notice some of these materials, though they are expected to reduce the CPD’s long-term maintenance costs considerably. Instead, pedestrians will be drawn in by a series of five stainless steel structures that form the misting water feature Site designed in lieu of a traditional fountain. The sculpture is an accessory to the 11,000-square-foot playscape, with legs that can be set in motion with the push of a button.

“The west loop was always a great place for young couples to move, but Chicago is trying to build this neighborhood as place families can thrive and grow,” Wong said.

Jennifer K. Gorsche