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?

Rediscovering Chicago

We’re in Chicago for a wedding weekend, and it’s giving us a chance to rediscover the City With Big Shoulders, the Second City, the Windy City, and that Toddlin’ Town. I used to come to Chicago regularly for work, and we visited often when Richard was in college here, but more recent planned trips were cancelled when the pandemic intervened–so it’s been a while. But now people, myself included, are deciding that we’re just going to have to live with COVID and all of its variants and get on with our lives–in a prudent way, of course.

It feels good to get out and get back to a really big city. When you haven’t been to a really big city in more than a year, the experience seems fresh and new and exciting. And Chicago is such a great place, for so many reasons–like the cool view from our hotel room window, shown above–it’s a good destination for those of us who want to shed the outer protective coating of COVID Caution and start to get out more.

We drove in, and the first sign that the pandemic has created significant change in the world is that, when we reached the Dan Ryan Expressway, it actually functioned as an expressway rather than a snarled traffic disaster seemingly designed to cause the blood pressure of drivers to go through the roof. Astonishingly, there wasn’t much traffic on the road, and we were able to get to our destination without any stoppage. That’s literally never happened before in countless driving trips to Chicago. For the first time, perhaps, Dan Ryan (whoever he is, or was) is glad that the highway was named after him.

Downtown Chicago was not as bustling as the Chicago of yore, but there were still a lot of people out and about, on the River Walk, on boat rides, and just walking the sidewalks and enjoying some crisp fall weather. We appreciated being out among people, and revelling in the taste and feel and smell and sound of pre-pandemic activities. You still need to mask up when you go into buildings in Chicago, but the great outdoors, and the terrific views of cool buildings that Chicago architecture affords, can be enjoyed blessedly mask-free.

If you’re interested in breaking out of your personal COVID zone, and feel like it is high time to reintroduce yourself to our great American cities, Chicago is a good place to go.

Harbor Portraits

Last night we took a sunset cruise around Charleston’s harbor. It was a warm, pleasant evening with lots of clouds in the sky, but happily the rain held off and we were able to enjoy a light breeze and the scenery. The cloud banks prevented us from actually seeing the sun drop below the horizon, and instead we were treated to the colorful impact of the dying sunlight on the many clouds. As we sailed along it was like traveling through an ever-changing modern art painting. Pretty spectacular!

One Last Stonington Sunrise

I’m back in Columbus, after a happily uneventful travel day. It was weird to wake up in our German Village bedroom and not see a scene like the photo above, taken one morning earlier this week, right outside our bedroom window. So I’m going to indulge myself by posting this last sunrise picture before transitioning fully back to Midwest sights and sounds.

They say that people who live around physical beauty eventually become indifferent to it. So far that hasn’t happened with me and the sights presented by living somewhere with a view of water and sun. Maybe it’s because the harbor views still seem so novel after decades living in the landlocked Midwest, or maybe it’s because my time in Stonington is broken up by returns to Columbus, or maybe I just like sunrises that have lobster boats in the picture. I hope I never reach the point where I can pass by a striking sunrise without stopping to goggle at it, and looking forward to seeing more.

The View From The Rocks

It was a beautiful morning yesterday. The sky was blue, the sun painted the eastward facing houses on Greenhead peninsula with a brilliant, glowing luminosity, and the tide was out, which allowed me to walk far out onto the rocky outcroppings along the shoreline and get a good view at the long pier fronting the water.

I wanted to get a good, long look at this pretty little part of the world, which I have called home for the past few months, and lock it securely in my memory before heading back to the Midwest. I took this photograph because sometimes a photo app can help the memory, too.

Pumpkins Please

Kish is a big pumpkins person. As soon as the pumpkins show up at the grocery store, she’ll buy a carload and put out as many as possible to make for a colorful autumn. That’s okay with me, because I think pumpkins are pretty pleasing, with their bold colors and rounded shape. In Stonington we have a nice shelf on our front step that is perfect for displaying pumpkins, where they go well with the remnants of this year’s crop of Black-eyed Susans and the dusty white plant the locals call “snow in summer.”

It’s still fairly warm here; yesterday the temperature may have briefly touched 70. But pumpkins aren’t the only sign of the cooler autumn to come. The edges of the leaves at the tops of the trees are starting to turn, there’s more animal activity, and the summer tourist season has ended. It’s a good time for pumpkins.

Taking The Zig-Zag Course

The road to Russell’s property on Cape Rosier passes this zig-zag waterway that, after multiple turns, eventually reaches open water. This small outboard craft is typically anchored at one end of the waterway, as far from the open water as possible.

I suppose the boat owner may park the craft at this spot because it is a safer place for a boat to weather storms. I also wonder, though, whether the existence of the zig-zag course influences the decision. I’d be tempted to leave the boat here because it would be fun to steer through the twists and turns every time you climbed aboard.

A Tall Ship In The Morning

This morning’s walk produced a surprise—a “tall ship” in the harbor, towering over the outboards and the lobster boats. It was a perfectly clear morning with barely a breath of breeze, and I walked out to the end of a jetty to get a good look as the masted vessel rode at anchor. With my time in Stonington drawing to a close, I’m going to take in as many harbor and boat scenes as possible.

Big Sky Above

Tonight the rain clouds finally moved through, and as we walked to dinner the clouds were piled on top of each other to the east as the setting sun backlit the boats from the west. The gathered cloud banks seemed to stack up to the very top of the sky. It was spectacular.

And all the time I was thinking I would have a cheeseburger for dinner.

Circling Gulls

On my walk this morning I noticed a few dozen seagulls circling one of the piers near the mailboat dock, with more gulls joining every minute. They were raising an unholy racket and clearly had spotted some potential food that they might grab off the pier. It was either that, or a reenactment of a scene from Hitchcock’s The Birds.

The gulls looked very picturesque, silhouetted against the sunrise, but the harsh reality is a different story. Seagulls are trash birds that will try to eat just about anything and will fly off with the disgusting items you can imagine. We know this because we’ve found items dropped by seagulls on our deck. This summer’s seagull gifts have included a large, rotting, eyeless fish head and a gross bait bag with fish guts that probably was snatched from a lobster boat.

It’s just part of the price you pay for living in a seaside community.

At The Midpoint

Well, we’re at the midpoint of our three-day Labor Day weekend. And with a beautiful sunrise this morning to spur us on, we are at the moment of decision. What should we do today, knowing that tomorrow is also a day off? Hiking? A long walk? Yard work? Grilling out? Reading? Watching football and savoring a cold beer?

That sounds a lot like exactly what we did yesterday—and it also sound like exactly what we should do today, too. That’s the beauty of the Labor Day weekend.

Sailing Practice

Normally the view of the harbor from Greenhead Peninsula exclusively features the familiar, functional outlines of lobster boats. Every once in a while, however, a graceful sailboat will change the view as it passes, silhouetted against the islands in the bay.

The sailboat that was out this morning looked to be getting in some practice as it tacked and changed course on a brilliant and cool morning, when sailing conditions were just about perfect.

Pine Hill Preserve

After our visit to Scott’s Landing on Sunday we drove the short distance to the Pine Hill Preserve on Little Deer Isle, another of the properties managed by the Island Heritage Trust that we had not visited before. The contrast between the two locations could not have been greater. Scott’s Landing allowed for a pleasant ramble on gently rolling meadows and beaches. Pine Hill Preserve is a lot smaller and a lot more . . . abrupt. After a short walk on old quarry road you reach its central feature: a rock outcropping that rises dramatically from the pine forest. It’s a big, steep hill, and you can get a sense of its scale if you look carefully at the photo above and see the two figures at the top who are taking a picture.

The short hike up Pine Hill is a lot more challenging than anything Scott’s Landing requires of a hiker. The key word is “up.” The trail is almost entirely vertical, as the photo above shows. Be prepared to haul yourself up the steep, rocky incline and—because, as any veteran hiker knows, coming down is usually more hazardous than going up—be prepared to get on hands and knees and carefully back down when you are descending on some stretches of the trail.

But when you reach the top you are rewarded by some magnificent views. In one direction you gaze over the rock face, where they quarried some of the stone that makes up the causeway between Little Deer Isle and Deer Isle, and acres of pine trees beyond. In another direction, you can look over the forest to the Eggemoggin Reach and the suspension bridge to the mainland.