Civic Money Well Spent

Last weekend Kish and I visited Chicago’s Millennium Park for the first time.  I had high expectations because I’ve heard a lot about it, and those high expectations were fully met.

The fountain at Wrigley Square

Millennium Park is a 24.5 acre park located on the site of the former Illinois Central Railroad rail yard and parking lot, in an area between the Loop section of downtown Chicago and Lake Michigan.  The park, which took years to build and opened four years behind schedule, was dogged by artistic and aesthetic controversies and cost overruns.

At the time it opened, some predicted that the cost overruns and controversies would soon be forgotten after people got to experience the park and its many spectacular features.  I think those people were right.  Since its opening in 2004, Millennium Park has become one of Chicago’s most visited attractions, as well as the site of concerts, festivals, and many other activities.  When we visited there last weekend it was hopping.

A side view of "The Bean" at the Cloud Gate

The location of the park is inspired.  By putting the park at the site of the old rail yard, Chicago’s leaders and city planners subtracted a downtown eyesore and added a beautiful green space area that provides a great perspective from which to view the rest of the city and the impressive Chicago skyline.

And the features of the park show what can be done when a city and private entities work in partnership.  Millennium Park started as a smaller concept, with a smaller price tag, then grew in scale and cost as private benefactors and contributions were attracted.  Ultimately, the entire project cost $475 million and was funded through civic money and substantial private contributions from individuals, corporations, and foundations.  The result is a world-class combination of architecture, gardens, bridges, cool shaded areas, and fun stuff for just about everybody.

One of the "face fountains" at the Crown Fountain

The thing about Millennium Park that was most impressive to me was that it already seems deeply woven into the fabric of life for Chicago residents.  Sure, the architecture of the Pritzker Pavilion is striking, but it wouldn’t mean much if people in the community weren’t using and enjoying the facilities — and it sure looks like Millennium Park is used and enjoyed.  When we were there, we saw a number of wedding parties getting their pictures taken at Millennium Park landmarks.  We saw kids jumping and playing in the Crown Fountain, waiting for its iconic faces to spew out water.  We saw people with strollers walking past “the Bean” and enjoying the gardens.  I’d be confident in guessing that the people of Chicago are very happy that Millennium Park is there.

I’ve always thought that well-planned parks and fountains make a hugely positive contribution to a great city.  Chicago’s Millennium Park certainly supports that theory.

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