What Makes A Great Urban Park?

Yesterday we decided to spend some time at the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the premier art museums in the United States and home to pieces like American Gothic, Nighthawks, and a vast collection of impressionism and 20th century artwork. Because it was on our way, we walked through Millennium Park, which has to be one of the finest urban parks in the world. Chicago definitely got this one right.

As we walked through Millennium Park, I thought about what makes a great urban park. Of course, you want to have some green space, like the lovely garden area shown in the photo above. And you also want to include some interesting large-space artwork, like the gleaming reflective sculpture nicknamed “the Bean” that is shown in the first photo of this post. It draws people like a magnet, as they search to find themselves on the rounded, mirror-like surface, and probably has become, over the years, one of the most photographed objects in the city’s history.

One of the big questions for urban park planners has to be deciding how to treat the surrounding city. Do you plant a lot of big trees, to block out the skyscrapers as best you can and try to create a quiet, green space, or do you focus instead on creating vistas that frame the towering spires in interesting ways? The Millennium Park designers took the second approach, and I think it was a wise decision. Everywhere you look–even in the reflection in the Bean–you can see Chicago’s skyscrapers. And why not? This is some of the best urban architecture in the world, and it makes sense to show it off. But I appreciate the little touches that the planners have created, like the wooden walkway through the garden area, shown above, and careful thinking that the bridge shown in the photos below.

The BP pedestrian bridge, which links two parts of Millennium Park, is a good example of how creativity and attention to detail can add so much to a park. The designers needed a bridge to allow park visitors to easily cross over a highway. They could have made a simple overpass, but instead they created a shimmering, serpentine structure that winds around and makes you forget that you are on a bridge at all. You walk along, dazzled by the glint of sunlight on the sides of the walkway and gaping at the skyline and surrounding buildings, and before you know it you’ve reached the other side and have a hankering to walk back over the bridge again, just for the heck of it, because crossing it in the first place was so cool.

I’m confident that most of the tourists who visit Millennium Park end up leaving with the thought that they wish that their hometowns had a place like it. What better testament is there for a successful urban park?

On The Chicago River Walk

The Chicago River cuts through the heart of downtown Chicago as it heads out to Lake Michigan. The river has clearly been a focus of civic improvement over the past few decades–which is a big change from the days when the river was an industrial waterway and the big effort was to dye it green on St. Patrick’s Day. One improvement has been to work on the Chicago Riverwalk, which you can see along the river to the right of the photo above. We got a chance to explore the Riverwalk yesterday on a glorious autumn day, when the temperature was in the upper 40s under blue skies and bright sunshine.

The Chicago Riverwalk, like any urban path or trail that it left uninterrupted by crossing streets and traffic lights, attracts a significant number of joggers, dog walkers, and casual strollers, like us. If you like to get a close-up view of urban infrastructure, and I do, it’s a great walk that takes you under multiple bridges and past boat docks. I can happily report that the bridges looked to be well tended and in good shape, other than an inevitable coating of rust, and there were lots of boats out on the river, including both tour boats and smaller craft. You could also rent kayaks and take them out on the river, although it was a little cold for that. You know you are in Chicago when the tour boats tout that they are the one recommended by architects or offer the best architectural cruise.

Along the Riverwalk there are lots of places to eat and drink and get a hot cup of coffee and a doughnut on a brisk morning. Given the number of tiki bars and signs identifying the boundaries for alcohol consumption, I’m guessing that the Riverwalk is a favorite place for partying during the summer. We were mostly interested in checking out the older buildings and new skyscrapers as we walked along. You’ve got to give credit to the Chicago architectural authorities: the new, gleaming towers blend seamlessly with the older buildings, creating a very attractive cityscape as you move along the river. You can see the familiar clock tower of the Wrigley building in the photo below, nestled among the more recent additions to the skyline.

By the time we reached the end of the Riverwalk, the colossal office buildings had given way to condominiums and apartment buildings, and some boats were out patrolling the waters. I was impressed that, along with the tiki bars and beer joints, the Riverwalk planners had ensured there were lots of trees, some small green spaces–the dogs being walked certainly appreciated that–and playgrounds and plenty of benches where you could sit and enjoy the view. Because it was chilly, though, we kept walking to stay warm.

Our Riverwalk exploration ended after we passed through this cool tunnel, which features colorful panels depicting various scenes from Chicago’s history. With our coffee cups empty, we decided to turn around and head back to the hotel. Because the Riverwalk was such a pleasant stroll, we elected to retrace our steps along the lapping water rather than head up top to street-level and the hurly-burly of big city traffic. And the Chicago Riverwalk was just as pleasant and interesting on our return journey.