Urbs in Horto

The Sears Tower ceded its title of tallest building in the world to Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers in 1998. That same year Mayor Richard M. Daley authorized the Lakefront Millennium Project, converting a downtown train yard into a massive expansion of Chicago’s front lawn. It was heralded as a model for a new generation of urban parks.

Having long since relinquished the title of skyscraper capital of the world to Asia, the U.S., and Chicago in particular, have embraced a new measure of urban vibrancy: ambitious parks and public works projects that are redefining our cities from the ground up.

There is sound logic for our cash-strapped cities to double-down on their investments in public space. Its return on investment manifests as tourism dollars and boosted property values, but also as long-term infrastructure. Parks and greenways sustain cities, from promoting public health and sense of place to regulating the local climate and enabling commercial hubs.

Work is slated to start soon on the world’s longest elevated park, the Bloomingdale Trail, which would connect park-poor neighborhoods along the city’s Northwest Side with a multiuse trail nearly three miles in length. Mayor Rahm Emanuel promised full support for the project, naming the trail a first-term priority. Northerly Island’s idyllic transformation from former airfield to ecological oasis is on track to begin soon, as well, and the Chicago Park District last year acquired nearly 600 acres of marshland on the city’s southeast side.

Projected to cost between $50 and $70 million, the Bloomingdale Trail will pair private money with federal transportation funds. Chicagoans are right to be cautious of underestimating the true tab of such an ambitious project. Millennium Park ended up costing $475 million, more than twice its projected bill, with $173.5 million coming from private sources. It also wrapped up several years overdue, something Bloomingdale Trail enthusiasts may recall during that project’s long slog to secure funding. But viewed over the lifetime of the projects, even bloated price tags can be easily justified.

And the added benefits of ambitious parks projects go beyond economic impact studies. The Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, a now-defunct independent monitor of city spending, analyzed 13 years of planned investment between 1990 and 2002 and found parks were “left out” of the city’s tax increment finance-driven development strategy. This shift in urban planning priorities may help correct the historic discrepancies between downtown and the neighborhoods, as high-profile projects encourage a more comprehensive vision that could bring far-flung communities into the fold.

Emanuel’s $1.7 billion infrastructure trust, though it still poses issues of transparency, proves there is no lack of political will to think big and pursue innovative funding schemes. Mayor Daley’s infamous $1.15 billion leasing of the city’s parking meters left many Chicagoans with a healthy skepticism of flashy municipal cash grabs. But it would be a tragedy to let this lemon sour the image of public private partnerships in general.

We should continue to scrutinize the cost of innovative public space, because we want these projects to succeed. We should also look to Copenhagen—where they are already planning climate adapted communities—and elsewhere to guide our climate adaptation efforts, a crucial initiative that this new green paradigm is well-suited to address.

And there are smaller projects that could have an enormous impact in aggregate. Emanuel’s push for bike lanes will help connect existing parks and green space, just as the Bloomingdale trail will connect park-poor communities with public assets elsewhere. But it is not the only abandoned rail line in town. The city should aggressively pursue a comprehensive network of parks, greenways and safe corridors for alternative transportation throughout the city’s neighborhoods. Chicago’s pleasant but still car-heavy boulevards system would be a good place to start.

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