Park that Transformed Downtown Chicago

Ed Uhlir died Wednesday, not living long enough to enjoy another Thanksgiving because multiple myeloma overtook him at 73. But the entire Chicago region can be thankful for his quiet service to the city and for his major accomplishment as both an architect and a public servant.

In a world of “starchitects,” those designers with rock-star name recognition in their highly visible profession, his creativity was of a different and far less flamboyant sort. He succeeded in orchestrating the contributions of numerous rich, powerful, and sometimes difficult personalities to produce an outcome that changes people’s perceptions of what a major public space can be. He spent six years, starting in 1998, as the project director for Millennium Park. Mayor Richard M. Daley persuaded him to take on the role shortly after he had retired from the Chicago Park District, with plans to enter the private sector. Daley told him the job would last a couple of years. It ended up being six, but Uhlir stuck with the task until the 26-acre Millennium Park opened in 2004, completely transforming the lake side of Michigan Avenue for several blocks south from Randolph St. to Monroe St. In the process, it also transformed everyone’s sense of downtown Chicago.

During those six years, I watched from a bird’s-nest view of what is now the park because the American Planning Association (APA) was situated across Michigan Avenue from the Art Institute of Chicago and catacorner from the park’s edge. I have regretted to this day not having had the foresight to start shooting daily photos from that 12th-floor vantage point to create a record of its progress toward completion. I had the corner office closest to the action. But who knew?

Well, some did. In late June of this year, I attended, on an intermittently rainy day, a tour of Millennium Park, co-sponsored by the APA Illinois chapter and the American Society of Landscape Architects Illinois chapter. The program began in a meeting room behind the park’s amphitheater with a series of short presentations led by Uhlir, who was remarkably candid about the process of creating the park. But retirement can do that to you.

What Uhlir began with was a park design by the firm Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM) that he found unsatisfactory, he said, in part because it was not completely accessible, though it was based on “an extension of details from the Burnham plan.” Exactly what that meant historically was laid out by Benet Haller, who had been with the Chicago Department of Planning and Development, but now is a transit manager for Cook County. He followed Uhlir’s presentation with a discussion of the history of the downtown lakefront area that Grant and Millennium Parks now occupy, which more than a century ago grew from landfill, much of it derived from subway tunneling as the city’s transit system was built. Haller noted that the Chicago lakefront has been evolving for decades, with features like Grant Park’s iconic Buckingham Fountain emerging in the 1950s. Evolution is, of course, precisely what one would expect of a dynamic urban area. Michigan Avenue, now several blocks from the lake, gained its name from originally being along the lake. Also along that lakefront was a stretch of railroad that still provides passage for many riders into downtown along Metra’s Electric Line, now ending below ground in a station under Millennium Park.

Terry Guen explains nature in the park to those in the APA/ASLA tour.

As Terry Guen, a local landscape architect who also spoke, noted, city lawyers discovered by 1998 that the city owned in fee simple the land between Randolph and Michigan, easing the task of leveraging use of the land from railroads that opposed its use for a park. In addition to the Metra station, the space below the park also contains a parking garage, making the park above, as Guen observed, “the world’s largest publicly accessible green roof.”

Achieving that status required a discreet but confident man with a sense of humor who could patiently weather the tug of war between wealthy donors (such as Penny Pritzker), who underwrote many of the most significant improvements to the park; world-famous architects like Frank Gehry; Maggie Daley, the mayor’s wife; who insisted on accessibility for the entire park; and civic and business leaders. After the initial design failed, Uhlir shifted the approach to a design competition that attracted some of the best ideas that found their way into the final scheme, including the proposal from Anish Kapoor for “Cloud Gate,” aka “the Bean,” one of the most popular aspects of the park since its opening because it allows visitors to see both themselves and the city skyline in the reflections on the perfectly buffed metal. Despite early criticism about cost overruns, the park has become the leading tourist attraction in Illinois, outpacing even Navy Pier with approximately 13 million visitors annually. It is a dynamic combination of features—the water fountain, the amphitheater, a winter skating rink, the “Bean,” and gardens that blend into an effective whole that seems always to be greater than the sum of its parts.

Part of the magic, according to Guen, came from tapping the local wisdom of “plant people, contractors, and others who knew so much about Chicago,” bringing wildflowers and prairie plants that bring an explosive mix of colors while allowing “little weed growth because the ground is so packed full of roots.” The botanical features of Millennium Park can keep a native plant enthusiast busy all summer long, even as the built features attract audiences seeking cultural experiences. For instance, the Harris Theater, on the northeast corner, attracted my wife and me on our anniversary one year to hear Roberto Bernigni perform a comic monologue followed by a recitation in Italian from Dante’s “Il Inferno.” We returned on my birthday to join a “do-it-yourself Messiah,” in which audience members participate in singing assigned parts of Georg Friedrich Handel’s famous work.

All Ed Uhlir did to make this happen was keep all the egos in check, harness them toward a common goal, and leave Chicago with a lasting civic treasure where people can rest, recreate, and relish the best the city’s culture has to offer. If that is the only legacy for which he is remembered, it is far more than most of us will ever claim. Millennium Park is now an indelible part of Chicago’s identity.

Jim Schwab

Climate Resilience on the High Plains

For those who think only in terms of the politics of red and blue states, the conference I attended March 30-31 in Lincoln, Nebraska, may seem like a paradox, if not an oxymoron. It is neither. It is a matter of looking beyond labels to facts and common sense, and ultimately toward solutions to shared problems. The problem with climate change is that the subject has been politicized into federal policy paralysis. But the scope for local and even state action is wider than it seems.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) Public Policy Center with support from the High Plains Regional Climate Center (HPRCC) sponsored the conference on “Utilizing Climate Science to Inform Local Planning and Enhance Resilience.” I spoke first on the opening panel. The sponsors have been working with communities across Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. Planners, floodplain managers, and civil engineers from eleven municipalities in those states participated, along with UNL staff, climatologists, the Nebraska emergency manager, and myself.

My job was to provide a national perspective on the subject from a national professional organization, representing the Hazards Planning Center at the American Planning Association. I talked about two projects we are conducting with funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: “Building Coastal Resilience through Capital Improvements Planning” and “Incorporating Local Climate Science to Help Communities Plan for Climate Extremes.” I made light of the fact that there was not a single coastal community among the four states of the region, but I added that the lessons from the first project are still relevant because every community plans for capital improvements, which generally constitute the biggest investments they make in their future. Capital improvements cover long-term expenditures for transportation and waste and wastewater infrastructure as well as other facilities potentially affected by climate change. In the Midwest and High Plains, instead of sea level rise, communities are watching a rise in the number and severity of extreme events on both ends of the precipitation curve—in other words, both prolonged drought and more intense rainfall. Drought taxes water supply while heavy rainstorms tax local capacity to manage stormwater. Both may require costly improvements to address vulnerabilities.

This park is part of the new urban amenity created for Lincoln residents.

I simply set the stage, however, for an increasingly deep dive over two days into the realities facing the communities represented at the workshop. Such input was an essential point of the conference. Different professionals speak differently about the problem; if planners or local elected officials are to interpret climate data in a way that makes sense politically and makes for better local policy, it is important for, say, climate scientists to understand how their data are being understood. There must also be effective information conduits to the general public, which is often confused by overly technical presentations. Moreover, what matters most is not the same for every group of listeners.

Glenn Johnson explains some of the planning of Antelope Valley.

Some of the challenges, as well as the successes, were clear from presentations by two speakers who followed me to talk about the situation in Lincoln. Glenn Johnson is retired from the Lower South Platte Natural Resources District. Steve Owen is with the city’s Public Works and Utilities Department and spoke about the challenges related to water supply and quality, as well as flooding. At the end of the conference, we spent three hours touring Lincoln’s Antelope Valley project, an interesting combination of using a weir (small dam) and landscaping tools to create adequate water storage to reduce flooding in the downtown area. This had the interesting impact of removing some land from the floodplain and sparking redevelopment in what are now some of Lincoln’s most up-and-coming neighborhoods. At the same time, the project through creative urban

Now you know what a weir looks like (if you didn’t already). Photo courtesy of UNL.

design has allowed the city to create new urban park space and trails that enhance the urban experience for residents. Responding to climate and flooding challenges need not subtract from a city’s overall prospects; it can help enhance its attractiveness to both citizens and developers. The result is that good planning has helped make Lincoln a more interesting city than it might otherwise have been. That is a message worth considering amid all the political hubbub over climate change. We can create opportunity, but we must also embrace the reality. My guess is that this is why the other ten cities were present.

Jim Schwab

In the Valley of the Crooked River

DSCF3156Two weeks ago, I wrote about Cleveland’s Flats Entertainment District, where restaurants and bars now line the sides of the once filthy Cuyahoga River that now hosts boats and rowers. The Flats is but the last reach of a river that extends south into the Akron area. What has often been far less well known to outsiders than the more notorious industrial past of the river is the beautiful, forested valley that surrounds it upstream. In fact, about the time the Cuyahoga River was making environmental history by becoming a driving force behind passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, U.S. Rep. John Seiberling, an antiwar Democrat from Akron, was leading an effort to designate a new national park. By 1974, he had won authorization for the creation of what is now the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which remains a hidden treasure for many. I have personally discovered from discussing our trip that many people outside Ohio do not even know that the park exists.

For some interesting background on the politics and commitment behind the drive to create the park, I recommend a book I read several years ago about the life of John Seiberling, A Passion for the Land: John F. Seiberling and the Environmental Movement, by University of Akron emeritus history professor Daniel Nelson.

As for the Cuyahoga Valley National Park: Yosemite or Yellowstone it is not. Ohio, which became a state in 1803 and rapidly urbanized and industrialized afterwards, does not offer such massive public spaces for preservation. But it does contain gorgeous smaller valleys such as the Cuyahoga where protection of the landscape was still possible in the 1970s, and land was assembled from numerous small landowners and public spaces, woven in some cases into the fabric of the existing Metroparks system. In the area that contains the park, certain places seem to take one back in time to the 19th century, when Ohio built a canal to connect the Ohio River and Lake Erie and move agricultural and other products to markets a generation before the railroads began to dominate. Towns such as Peninsula and Boston, in the heart of the upper Cuyahoga Valley, still have the small town feel of that era in many ways, and many older homes have been preserved.

DSCF3157One, in fact, now hosts the Conservancy of the park, along Hines Hill Road just east of Boston, where one finds the visitor center. When we arrived, staffers were erecting a tent for an outdoor wedding that weekend. Curiously, we were also in town for an outdoor wedding for one of my nephews, but his was at Thorn Creek Winery in Aurora, several miles to the northeast. Although we merely stopped to investigate the scenery, and we were totally unexpected arrivals in the Conservancy office, the staff in the office treated us like honored guests, plying us with materials about the park and answering questions. Their friendliness is a tribute to the attitudes and sense of mission of both the Conservancy and the National Park Service itself.

DSCF3164The park itself is a fantastic playground for hikers, bikers, backpackers, and even skiers and sledders. This is the north, after all. Near the Boston Visitor Center is the Boston Mills ski resort, offering some modest hills but great accessibility for people in the metropolitan area. But we arrived in June, and we began to wander the Towpath trail that leads away from the visitor center back into the forest, south beyond the massive bridge that carries Ohio Turnpike travelers past the Cuyahoga River below. From the height of the turnpike, one might never realize that what lies below is a national park, although it is certainly an impressive expanse of forested greenery. Down below, however, we were treated not to nature’s silence but to its music. For one thing, it was cicada season, so the buzz was all about the woods, but so were the birds, some of whom may have been feasting on cicadas. We surely could have seen other wildlife, had we come around dawn or dusk, but we were hiking in the late morning, when the deer and the rabbits and coyotes were well hidden. It is remarkable how easy it is to get away from everything, although the trails are popular enough to keep you in touch with other passing humans. The trails seemed to attract both young and elderly, providing a great excuse to all ages to stay in shape and in touch with nature. I began to wish I had tree and bird guides with me to better understand parts of my experience. If I still lived in the area, I might revisit with those guides, but it may be a while before I return.

DSCF3169Our hiking visit occurred on a Thursday. Jean and I made a return visit on Friday, but of a different nature, and one that accommodated my sister, Carol, who lives nearby in North Royalton. She joined us at the parking lot on Rockside Road in Independence at 9 a.m. for the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, a fine way for first-time visitors (and others) to see the park and its valley from a different perspective. The CVSR is a passenger train that uses tracks that largely run along the edge of the river. It is mostly run by volunteers who simply love the job of educating people about the local environment and its history. Audio is available that allows you to hear some of that history along with what one crew member jokingly referred to as “some pretty bad music,” most of it evoking a sense of bluegrass and Civil War and the early frontier with the use of banjos and bass fiddles. Call it “mood music.” The train ride takes about an hour and a half to get to Akron before turning around and bringing you back to where it started. Along the way, there are several stops that allow riders to get off and explore and then wait for the next train coming through. Explorers may want to get the schedule before they wander off. The price is only $15; as senior citizens we got tickets for $13. The money supports the train and is well worth it for the scenery along the way.

Because the park is interwoven among small towns and private property, the park leases some land for sustainable farming of vegetables and sheep, goats, and chickens, with some of the products finding their way to the Countryside Farmers’ Markets. The Conservancy staff also noted for us that there is now a visitor home in the park called Stanford House, built in 1843. It is not a bed and breakfast because visitors are on their own in sharing the use of a kitchen, but rooms can be rented starting at $50 per night, and the home provides immediate access to the Towpath Trail and the railroad, among other attractions.

Ultimately, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a study in adaptation, fitting a park into the scenery of a river valley that is also at the center of the large Cleveland-Akron metropolitan area. The park has been evolving since its advent in the 1980s and will continue to evolve as conditions change. But one major contribution it has already made is to stymie the urban sprawl that has so adversely affected much of the Cleveland area and allow residents to enjoy an expanse of refreshing greenery.

One reason it has taken two weeks to return to this blog and tell the story, since we returned to Chicago on June 12, is that I left again on June 19 for Grand Rapids, Michigan, to participate in the 40th annual conference of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, which was founded about the same time the national park was being organized. Today it is a growing organization of more than 17,000 floodplain managers, about 1,000 of whom attended the conference at the DeVos Convention Center, which sits along the Grand River opposite the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, to which it is connected by a stone pedestrian bridge. ASFPM members have always been familiar with nature-based strategies for reducing flood damages and preserving the quality of rivers and streams, and the conference contained numerous discussions of such approaches. It occurred to me that what I had seen in the Cuyahoga Valley was one of the best possible approaches to floodplain management, the prevention of the encroachment of development to allow nature its due, preserving a natural setting that nonetheless endows humans with wonderful opportunities for outdoor recreation and exercise in an age when public health authorities worry about an epidemic of obesity. We have to make our cities attractive places for people to get the exercise they need. Many factors in the Cleveland metropolitan area, frankly, work against that goal, but the park exemplifies it. It is modern floodplain management at its best with a healthy dose of environmental protection in the bargain. The fact that the park is sprinkled with outdoor attractions like the Blossom Music Festival only serves to enhance that goal by acquainting people with what the park has to offer.

John Seiberling was clearly a visionary in fighting for the creation of the park in Congress. But every city has its environmental champions. It is the job of the rest of us to make it politically possible for them to survive and to achieve their objectives. We all benefit from a better quality of life when they do.

As for the title of this blog post: The Cuyahoga River derived its name from the local nomenclature of the Mohawk Indians, an Iroquois nation, who referred to the river as “crooked” because of the way it winds through the landscape, hence “crooked river.” (The Seneca, also Iroquois, used a similar name.) Meandering is nature’s way of diffusing the force of flood waters while distributing silt into the rich agricultural soils along the banks. Ohio grew up on such wealth. Now it is preserving some of it.

 

Jim Schwab