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

All’s Well at Burwell’s

Chad Berginnis shares a story during the roast. To his right is Nicole LeBouef, new Deputy Assistant Administrator for NOAA for the National Ocean Service. Photo by Susan Fox.

Chad Berginnis shares a story during the roast. To his right is Nicole LeBouef, new Deputy Assistant Administrator for NOAA for the National Ocean Service. Photo by Susan Fox.

Warmth is a concept with many dimensions. In the realm of physics, it is a relative measure of temperature. In reference to weather, perhaps the most common subject of human conversation, it is a measure of the kinetic energy of the atmosphere around us, which is constantly changing. Mark Twain has been erroneously quoted as saying, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” His friend Charles Dudley Warner sort of said it, but no mind. On Tuesday, February 7, in Charleston, South Carolina, no one around me had any complaints. We were perfectly happy with the kinetic energy of the atmosphere of the day, which brought the city to a very comfortable 75° F. No rain, just a mild breeze. Let it be. (You can accurately take that quote from the Beatles.) Two days later, I would have to return to Chicago, where it was 18° F. when I stepped off the airplane.

Like many other English words, warmth takes on many metaphorical and emotional connotations derived from its physical qualities. “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” President Harry Truman used to say, and he was not referring to room temperature in the White House. Conversely, there is the warmth of positive human relationships, just as there is a chill in the air when they are not going well.

That evening, at a downtown Charleston restaurant, Burwell’s, I experienced that warmth at a group dinner organized by some National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) staff for those members of the NOAA Digital Coast Partnership who were attending the Coastal GeoTools Conference. The partnership consists of both NOAA, through its National Ocean Service, and eight national nonprofit organizations, including the American Planning Association, which I represented along with a colleague, Joseph DeAngelis, a research associate for the Hazards Planning Center. The conference was hosted for NOAA by the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM).

Susan Fox, NOAA point of contact for APA in the Digital Coast Partnership, presents a gift before the roast. Photo by Miki Schmidt.

Susan Fox, NOAA point of contact for APA in the Digital Coast Partnership, presents a gift before the roast. Photo by Miki Schmidt.

But enough of the organizational details. Shortly after all our carloads arrived at Burwell’s, and our party of 24 was led upstairs by the wait staff, it became apparent that something special was afoot. Miki Schmidt, Division Chief for Coastal Geospatial Services at NOAA, attempted to get people’s attention by clinking empty glasses. It wasn’t working, so I decided to use my booming voice to say, “Miki wants your attention.” That worked. Then he announced, to my surprise, that they wanted to honor my upcoming retirement with a few gifts, among which were a framed certificate of appreciation from the U.S. Department of Commerce for my service in supporting Digital Coast and a framed photograph of those who had attended the last full meeting of the partnership in Rhode Island in September 2016, signed by many of the attendees. The warmth of the professional and personal relationships built with colleagues since APA joined the partnership in 2010 became readily apparent to me in this unexpected moment.

Allison Hardin poses with the wolf; David Hart observes (September 2011). Photo by Melissa Ladd.

Allison Hardin poses with the wolf; David Hart observes (September 2011). Photo by Melissa Ladd.

Then we sat down, and the “roast” began. More than once, as Miki seemed ready to turn the floor over to me for the final word, someone new would pop up to offer stories both fun and serious. Yes, it was true that I had once, wearing a moveable wolf mask, climbed through the open window of a park shelter in Madison, Wisconsin, during an evening reception for a partnership meeting hosted by ASFPM, asking the whereabouts of “them three little pigs.” Undaunted by the momentary confusion my entrance engendered, Allison Hardin, a planner from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, insisted on posing for a photograph with the wolf, who politely obliged. I was known (though not alone) in trying to provide such moments to enliven the more relaxing moments of partnership gatherings. When my “final word” finally came, I shared not only some enhancements of the recollected moments, but my own plans beyond APA, which I discussed in a recent blog post, “The Fine Art of Stepping Down.”

Still, the Digital Coast Partnership was also built through a great deal of hard work, which was also celebrated. The representatives of the groups involved worked hard over the past decade to build the partnership, which is now celebrating its tenth year. Meetings sometimes involved long discussions of how we could better collaborate, and we now often partner on important proposals and projects in which our complementary strengths facilitate important progress in achieving Digital Coast’s mission. NOAA established Digital Coast to advance the use of geospatial technology by coastal communities to improve and enhance coastal planning and resource management. Much of this consists of a substantial and growing of free, online tools and resources for mapping and visualization purposes. The partnership consists of the user communities that can help vet Digital Coast products and assist in their dissemination. But the operative Digital Coast slogan has been “More than just data.” It is the human dimension that matters, and the science and technology have been means to an end, which is enabling the achievement of noble coastal community goals such as environmental protection, hazard mitigation, economic sustainability, and climate resilience.

And so—I suppose it was appropriate that the organizers of the dinner chose to bring us to Burwell’s Stonefire Grill, which generates its own warmth through its comfort menu of steaks and seafood. Though it certainly can be pricey like any steakhouse (most steak entrees are between $30 and $40), the food is outstanding. Personally, I indulged in the lobster bisque for starters. It offered some of the deepest, most flavorful spoonfuls of joy of any bisque I have had in a long time. Alan, our waiter, was not lying at all when he told me it was great. On the subject of warmth, let me add that the wait staff of Alan, Mat, and Will were very patient and careful in tending to this large crowd, as was bartender Jo Jo Chandler. I did not meet the owner, John Thomas, but he is to be commended for both the staff and the cuisine. The Wagyu flat iron steak that I ordered was tender and delicious. I also indulged in a side order of Brussels sprouts, which I love but which require some attentive preparation to succeed. These were great in part because they were prepared in combination with caramelized onions. Others around me

Miki to the right of me in the upstairs dining room at Burwell's.

Miki to the right of me in the upstairs dining room at Burwell’s. Photo by Susan Fox.

enjoyed the seafood offerings, including oysters and scallops, and I heard no complaints and considerable praise. I can assure readers that, if you visit Charleston, Burwell’s is worth a visit for one of your evening outings. It also features a warm and casual atmosphere and a good downstairs bar, from which that amber beer in my hand originated, courtesy of Chad Berginnis, the executive director of ASFPM. I wasn’t sure, when we first arrived, why he offered to buy. Now I suspect he was in on the “roast” plan all along. Thanks, I say, to all of my friends at Digital Coast. My actual retirement from APA may have been almost four months away, but they knew this might be the last chance to do it before that day came. I hope they do the same for others when the time comes.

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

Riverwalk: A New Chicago Magnet

DSCF3110IMG_0239

Chicago is already quite rich in parks and tourist attractions. What can it add downtown?

In the past, I have written about the 606 Trail in Chicago, which is experiencing its first anniversary after opening a year ago. Despite some of its well-known challenges and problems, Chicago remains a city of quality destinations. Navy Pier, now a century old, just unveiled its redesign last month, including a new 200-foot Ferris wheel, and has been the top tourist attraction in Illinois. Millennium Park has few peers among downtown urban parks and has also been a second magnet for visitors since opening in 2004, ranking only behind Navy Pier.

But below the bridges and viaducts, down near the water’s edge, another jewel is nearing completion along the Chicago River—the Riverwalk. On June 2, I joined a tour sponsored by both the American Planning Association Illinois Chapter and the American Society of Landscape Architects Illinois Chapter and listened to an explanation of both completed and upcoming changes.

Chicago has no shortage of websites and museums devoted to its own urban history, which I won’t even try to summarize here. Suffice it to say that, when Haitian-French explorer-trader Jean Baptiste du Sable first encountered Potawatomi Indians (one of whom he married) at the shore of Lake Michigan in 1790, the Chicago River was still an indolent waterway barely crossing the sandbars to empty into the lake. In a little over 200 years, it has become home to one of the world’s largest cities, with all the pollution and navigation over two centuries that one might expect. In the 1890s, amid the city’s rapid industrial expansion, engineering reversed its flow away from the lake to the Mississippi River watershed, in large part to spare Chicagoans the pollution of their beaches and water supply that came with using the river as an open sewer. The river itself was not a place where you wanted to spend time unless you were in a boat, and even that was questionable. More than 800 picnickers died when the Eastland tipped over at the water’s edge in 1915. At street level on Wacker Drive, a plaque memorializes that notorious incident.

But times change, and in the 21st century, the Chicago River is once again a civic asset to which significant attention—and investment—are being paid. Over the last ten years, the first two phases of a rebuilding project have come to fruition, producing a Riverwalk that now extends on the south side of the main branch from Michigan Avenue west to LaSalle St. A third phase will extend the Riverwalk further west to the juncture of the North and South Branches. Even the term “main branch” may seem a little puzzling to non-natives because it extends only about one mile. Most of the length of the Chicago River is in the two branches, but the whole river in either direction is less than 20 miles. The Lake Michigan watershed in this instance barely reaches beyond the city and rises only about 20 feet above the lakeshore. Beyond that, you are in one of the sub-watersheds of the vast Mississippi River valley. Most people would never notice they had crossed this boundary if a sign did not tell them. The Continental Divide, this is not.

However, the controlled nature of the river and the short reach of the main branch make the creation of a downtown Riverwalk far more manageable and the experience of walking it thoroughly enjoyable. The firms of Jacobs/Ryan Associates, Sasaki Associates (with whom I have collaborated on disaster recovery issues), and Ross Barney Architects, involved in the design and engineering, have produced an experience that unfolds in “rooms” as one moves in either direction along the river, bringing users close to the water while allowing the occasional flood to muddy some steps without much damage beyond washing down the mud the next day. Phase 1redesigned and rebuilt an existing path between Michigan Avenue and the lake, an area popular with tourists as a loading zone below the stairs from Michigan Avenue down to the riverfront for tour boats. It then extended that two blocks westward to State DSCF3126Street and includes the Chicago Veterans’ Memorial Plaza, opened in 2006. One of its nice touches is a series of concrete stairs more suitable for lunch or relaxation than for climbing. It is a dignified but welcoming setting in keeping with its purpose. In Phase I, the idea began to emerge of adding river-level sidewalks that allow visitors to move from block to block without going up to street level and back down again, although some of these obviously had to intrude from the existing river’s edge into the waterway, and thus involved some negotiation among agencies responsible for navigation and safety, given the mix of water traffic still traversing the Chicago River. Congress also had to act to provide permission to allow building 25 feet into the river to create the necessary width for the new Riverwalk.

IMG_0242What has emerged in Phase II is the creation of the rooms: Marina, Cove, and River Theater, extending from State Street west. The first is opposite Marina City, occasionally nicknamed the “Corncob Towers” because of their design, and permits docking by river boats and lounging by pedestrians. The Cove, in contrast, is a favorite stopping point for kayaks and canoes, which provide a rich source of aquatic exercise for sports enthusiasts. The River Theater changes the nature of the experience yet again with the appearance of a riverside amphitheater, using a low-slope path woven into climbing stairs that can also double as points of relaxation for hikers. The theater, for the most part, is the activity on the river itself, although one can imagine a waterborne performance someday floating before the viewers. Most of this opened for public use just a year ago.

Phase III is adding a water plaza at the river’s edge; the Jetty, which places a series of floating gardens along the river edge that allow people to learn about river ecology and native plants, and the Boardwalk, providing an accessible walkway connecting to Lake Street. Although currently inaccessible at river level, one can view the construction on the final phase from street level. We were told the project will be completed by this fall.

O'Brien's is one of the existing restaurants, along with City Winery, that provide refreshment along the route.

O’Brien’s is one of the existing restaurants, along with City Winery, that provide refreshment along the route.

It is one thing to traverse this path with a crowd from a mobile workshop in the late afternoon. Not only does a crowd make a difference, so does timing. I returned the following morning, since my CTA Blue Line commute takes me to the Clark & Lake station. Instead of remaining on Lake Street, I walked to Wacker Drive and descended the stairway again, this time walking in the cool of the morning by myself at 8 a.m. Not that I was alone. The path was already being filled with pedestrians like me, and joggers, and even an occasional bicyclist, so I had to pay attention to those around me as I repeatedly set my camera to shoot many of the photos included here. Heat varies, of course, throughout the summer day, but one pleasant, enduring feature is the cool breeze off the water. In the morning, as well, the restaurants are not yet open, making for a slightly more solitary experience, which even a confirmed extrovert like me can enjoy in contrast to the crowds that by late afternoon are now finding their way to the

The collection of bars and restaurants on the Riverwalk is still growing.

The collection of bars and restaurants on the Riverwalk is still growing.

new bars and restaurants that are now exploiting the popularity of the Riverwalk, as intended, with more coming as the project moves along. The opportunity to sit outdoors at river level and enjoy snacks or dinner and drinks can be very pleasant, and very different from the usual experience high above on the city streets. I expect that most of these establishments will do quite well. I intend to enjoy some of them myself, with friends in tow.

Jim Schwab

Regional Green Infrastructure

The subtitle to this headline for many people might be: Who Cares? As a term of art, green infrastructure may be popular with landscape architects, civil engineers, and urban planners, among a few other allied professions, but it does not often mean much to the average person. Many people may struggle to define infrastructure even without the word green in front of it.

Infrastructure generally refers to those modern systems, such as roads, bridges, and utility grids that allow our cities and regions to function effectively. Recognizing that the value of infrastructure lies in the services it provides, green infrastructure has been distinguished from traditional gray infrastructure by focusing on the use of natural systems, such as wetlands and urban forests, to protect or enhance environmental quality by filtering air pollution, mitigating stormwater runoff, and reducing flooding. It stands to reason that such natural systems are most likely to provide such “ecosystem services” well when we respect and preserve their natural integrity. It also stands to reason that, to the degree that such systems face threats from urban sprawl and urbanization, their ability to perform those services for human populations is diminished. To say that development has often helped to kill the goose that laid the environmental golden egg is to state the obvious, no matter how many people want to avoid that truth. That does not mean that our cities cannot or should not grow and develop. It does mean that, using the best available natural science, we need to get much smarter about how it happens if we want to live in healthy communities.

Fiscalini Ranch Preserve in Cambria, California.

Fiscalini Ranch Preserve in Cambria, California.

I mention this because, as part of the American Planning Association staff pursuing such issues, I spent three days in Washington, D.C., last week at a symposium we hosted with U.S. Forest Service sponsorship on “Regional Green Infrastructure at the Landscape Scale.” We were joined by about two dozen seasoned experts not only from the Forest Service and APA, but from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, several national nonprofits, and others to sort through the issues impeding better planning for green infrastructure. We explored major hazard-related issues such as wildfires, flooding, and coastal storms and how green infrastructure can or should function in relation to them.

This matters because there are huge costs associated with the way we choose to develop. There can also be huge benefits. Whether the ultimate ledger in any particular region is positive or negative is largely dependent on the approach we choose, and that is heavily dependent on how broadly or narrowly we view our responsibilities. Historically, in America, we have been rather myopic about the damage we have done to our environment, but our perspective has become more comprehensive over time, starting with the conservation movement in the late 1800s. But today, as always, there are undercurrents of more myopic attitudes and impatience with the more deliberate and thoughtful calculations a more long-term view requires. There is also the simple fact that understanding issues like climate change requires some degree of scientific literacy, something that is missing too often even in some presidential candidates.

But it helps to drill down to specific situations to get a firm sense of consequences. For instance, the Forest Service budget is literally (and figuratively) being burned away by the steadily and rapidly increasing costs of fighting wildfires. That is in large part because the average annual number of acres burned has essentially tripled since 1990, from under 2 million then to about 6 million now. As recently as 1995, 16 percent of the agency’s budget went to suppressing wildfires. Every dollar spent on wildfires is a dollar removed from more long-term programs like conservation and forest management. By 2015, this figure has risen to 52 percent, and is projected to consume two-thirds of the agency’s budget by 2025. Clearly, something has to give in this situation, and in the present political situation, it is unlikely to be an expansion of the Forest Service budget. At some point, a reckoning with the causes of this problem will have to occur.

What are those causes? Quite simply, one is a huge expansion in the number of homes built in what is known as the wildland-urban interface (WUI), defined as those areas where development is either mixed into, interfaces with, or surrounds forest areas that are vulnerable to wildfire. The problem with this is that every new home in the WUI complicates the firefighters’ task, putting growing numbers of these brave professionals at risk. Every year, a number of them lose their lives trying to protect people and property. In an area without such development, wildfires can do what they have done for millennia prior to human settlement—burn themselves out. Instead, a century of aggressive fire suppression has allowed western forests, in particular, to become denser and thus prone to more intense fires than used to occur. The homes themselves actually represent far greater densities of combustible material than the forest itself; thus fires burning homes are exacerbated by increased fuel loads. In addition, prescribed fire, a technique used to reduce underbrush in order to reduce fire intensity, becomes more difficult in proximity to extensive residential development. A prescribed fire that spun out of control was the cause of the infamous Los Alamos, New Mexico, wildfire in 2000. The entire situation becomes highly problematic without strong political leadership toward solutions.

At the same time, denial of climate change or even reluctance to broach the subject does not help, either. It compounds the difficulty of conducting an informed dialogue at a time when increased heat and drought are likely to fuel even more wildfires of greater intensity. The recent major wildfire around Fort McMurray, Alberta, displacing thousands of people, may be a harbinger of things to come.

That is just one sample of the issues we need to confront through a larger lens on the value of large-scale green infrastructure and regional cooperation to achieve positive environmental results that also affect issues like water quality and downstream flooding. Because we could produce an entire book on this issue—and the suggestion has in fact been made that we do so—I will not even attempt here to lay out the entire thesis. Rather, it may be useful to point readers to some resources that I have found useful in recent weeks in the context of writing for another project on green infrastructure strategies. Most of these are relatively brief reports rather than full-length books, enough to give most readers access to the basics, as well as references to longer works for those so inclined.

On the subject of water and development in private forests, a Forests on the Edge report, Private Forests, Housing Growth, and Water Supply is a good starting point for discussion. Because planning to achieve effective conservation at a landscape scale requires collaboration among numerous partners, an older (2006) Forest Service report, Cooperating Across Boundaries: Partnerships to Conserve Open Space in Rural America, may also be useful. With regard to wildfires, a recent presentation at a White House event by Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics, a firm that has specialized in this area, may also be useful for its laser focus on trends and solutions with regard to development in the wildland-urban interface and the need for effective, knowledgeable local planning in areas affected by the problem. But I would be remiss if I did not bring readers’ attention back to a 2005 APA product of which I was co-author with Stuart Meck: Planning for Wildfires. It could probably use some updating by now, but every one of our central points, I believe, remains valid.

Happy reading to all!

 

Jim Schwab

 

Greening Greater Racine

How often do any of us look around our communities closely enough to fully understand the extent of the greening activity that is taking place? My guess would be that the vast majority of us—and I include myself—have no idea of the sheer volume of hours and effort that is expended, particularly on a volunteer basis, to keep our cities green and healthy.

With Sandy and David Rhoads in the lobby of the Golden Rondelle Theater

With Sandy and David Rhoads in the lobby of the Golden Rondelle Theater

I had the opportunity this weekend to get a glimpse of all that effort in a city of about 80,000 just an hour and a half north of Chicago, in Racine, Wisconsin, a lakefront community about 20 miles south of Milwaukee. The gift to me was an invitation from David Rhoads to be the featured guest speaker for an event on Friday evening, March 18, which set the stage for an Eco-Fest the following day at Gateway Technical College. The evening event took place at the SC Johnson Golden Rondelle Theater, a building with a flying saucer appearance on the grounds of the SC Johnson Co. in downtown Racine. I should note that this company has for years sponsored environmental programs in and around Racine and provided backing through its Johnson Foundation for the famous Wingspread conference center, often used for important policy discussions related to environmental and resilience issues.

Inside the Golden Rondelle

Inside the Golden Rondelle

My theme was “Green and Healthy: The Future of Cities,” but I did not speak about Racine because, frankly, I did not know nearly enough about it, but also because my mission was to introduce the audience to the wider range of urban forestry and green energy activities around the nation. In the bargain, I discussed the role of hazard mitigation and disaster recovery planning in creating resilient communities that minimize the waste of destruction from natural hazards, concluding with the examples of Joplin, Missouri, which included major reforestation efforts in its recovery from a major 2011 tornado, and Greensburg, Kansas, which engineered a green recovery that has made the town 100 percent reliant on renewable energy. In short, my mission was to paint a holistic impression of what it takes to create green and healthy communities.

But David does know very well what has been happening in Racine, which was one reason he was introducing me that evening. We have known each other for nearly 25 years since he was a professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, and I was chairing the Environmental Concerns Working Group for the Metro Chicago Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. David has always been intensely interested in the theology of creation and environmental stewardship. The Working Group mission became, and remains, financing and enabling energy efficiency and renewable energy retrofits for Lutheran churches in the synod, which covers four counties and roughly 200 congregations. David and his wife, Sandy, also a pastor, have made Racine their home and are actively engaged in environmental activism on the local scene, including faith-based environmental awareness efforts. I was thus more than pleased to honor David’s invitation.

Because the intent of my own presentation was to “set the table,” in David’s words, for discussing the greening of Racine, I was followed by a panel of four local professionals: Julie Kinzleman of the Racine City Health Department, who spoke on healthy beaches and water supply; Nan Calvert, on environmental education centers in the area; Matt Koepnick, on urban forestry; and the Rev. Bill Thompkins, an African-American church leader, on neighborhood beautification. Without detracting from the other three in any way, I must say I was particularly taken by Thompkins’s approach. After stating that his inner-city church had asked the question “you don’t necessarily want to ask,” namely, what would happen if your church were no longer present in the neighborhood, he and his parishioners and neighbors undertook to reclaim a city park that had become a gang battleground and began to distribute and plant thousands of plants and trees. What difference does that make? As Thompkins explained, people are more likely to treasure an attractive neighborhood than a neglected one, and to begin to take responsibility for their local environment. Greening the neighborhood, in effect, was a way of restoring the social health of the people in the neighborhood. That echoed a theme I had introduced earlier, citing our APA work in Planning the Urban Forest, that trees have actual mental health benefits that have been documented in social scientific studies. A city that is green is also a city that is healthy for its people.

But what also struck me was the diversity of the efforts underway, including not one but several environmental education centers in the area, and an ongoing expansion of tree-planting efforts in Racine. David asked me for a one-minute closing observation on the program, and that was the one point I chose to make. Look around. See how much is going on around you that you did not know was happening.

Activity at Eco-Fest Racine, at Gateway Technical College

Activity at Eco-Fest Racine, at Gateway Technical College

The entire program set the stage for a much better attended event the following morning at Gateway Technical College, a school on the lakefront that provides training in environmental technologies. Eco-Fest Racine featured more than 50 displays by groups large and small, activist and educational, including children’s activities, which attracted the immediate interest of my wife, a retired elementary school teacher. Display topics ranged from garbage disposal to recycling to energy audits to urban gardening and forestry to environmental education and advocacy. It included secular groups and Racine Green Congregations, where a woman named Margie informed me ruefully that Wisconsin, under Gov. Scott Walker, an ideological conservative, has been losing its best scientists from agencies like the Department of Natural Resources because of anti-scientific bias from the administration. In the space of just a few hours, neither my wife nor I could absorb all that was offered in this cornucopia of information, but I came to realize one thing: Such events serve a critical purpose in exposing all of us to the breadth of activity that is present in our communities. I do not think Racine is unique, though it is blessed. I think other communities might contemplate the model of this program, the first of its kind in Racine, according to David, as a way of connecting people.  We need to be more aware of the ways in which we support each other so that those at work improving their communities can feel less alone. Networking, after all, is an important form of empowerment.

 

Jim Schwab

Cubs Win! Holy Cow!

Okay, all you 8,000 blog readers out there, listen up. I deal with a lot of serious subjects on this blog, but I also like to have fun. And I’m also a big baseball fan. In Chicago. Right now that combination adds up to something slightly dangerous, as Chicago fans are entering uncharted waters.

They may well have a winner in the Chicago Cubs, who last won the World Series in 1908. At the risk of my nonexistent reputation for sports prognostication, I say they are going all the way.

There are times in the affairs of men and women when all the stars line up, and the omens all point in one direction. Consider the following:

  • The Cubs, who had a mediocre first half of the season, came roaring out of their obscurity after the All-Star game to secure a wild card spot, just three games behind the St. Louis Cardinals, the team with the best record in Major League Baseball this year.
  • They did this in large part with the help of a pitcher who was not even in the All Star game, Jake Arrieta, who was 11-1 after the break with a 0.75 ERA. I mean, who does that?
  • They used Arrieta in the one-game wild card playoff against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Pittsburgh, where he iced the team that was just two games behind the Cardinals in the National League Central Division with a four-hit shutout. The Cubs then moved on to St. Louis.
  • The Cubs lost game one in St. Louis, roared back to take game two, then finished off the Cardinals in two games in Wrigley Field, the first time in a century they have clinched a playoff series in their own stadium.
  • Despite the fact that Jake Arrieta finally had an off night, his first since July, his teammates picked up the slack and hit six home runs to carry him to an 8-6 victory. Those home runs broke an MLB record for the most by any team in a playoff game. Ever. Granted, it was a windy night on the lakefront, but it was just as windy for St. Louis.
  • And then—and then . . . . this is the topper, the one clue that marks a team of destiny. Late in game four, with the Cubs already ahead but happy to take out some insurance, Kyle Schwarber swatted a four-bagger that appeared to top the towering Budweiser sign in right field. But what happened to the ball? No one saw it land on Sheffield Avenue behind the stadium. No one claimed to have caught it. But photos revealed a ball sitting on the platform supporting the sign, and a Cubs worker indeed found it there, with the distinctive markings of a postseason ball.

Indeed, the Schwarbomb, as it is now known, a 419-foot monster launch, managed to fall onto the platform and stay there. The Cubs have encased it in a glass box to protect it from the elements and plan to leave it there until the playoffs are over. Think of it as a potent of good luck. Our time has come.

Now, I am going to upset half of Chicago with my unorthodoxy. I can root for the White Sox or the Cubs, and as the White Sox are not in the playoffs—in fact, they had a very mediocre season—I am perfectly happy to cheer on the Cubs. They are the best thing happening in Chicago, at the very time when the former Chicago Public Schools CEO has pleaded guilty in a bribery case for steering a no-bid contract.

You see, I grew up in Cleveland, where we had to suffer with the long-suffering Cleveland Indians, stuck with a name and logo that still brings discomfort to many Native Americans, a team that took a 41-year break in World Series appearances after 1954, when the winningest team in Major League history lost four straight to the New York Giants, who included in their ranks one Willy Mays, who made what is perhaps the most famous catch in Major League history of a Vic Wertz would-be home run ball. Events sometimes foretell destiny. Mays produced one in 1954; Schwarber may well have produced one in 2015.

Coming to a city with two teams, I failed to do what native Chicagoans do between the Cubs and White Sox: pick sides. Instead, I thought, double the chances, double the fun, what a blessing to have two teams in contention. Until I found out that, most years, neither one was in contention. And then there was that foul ball caught by fan Steve Bartman in the 2003 playoffs. He was blamed for the Cubs’ collapse, but really, a team so easily rattled did not deserve to move on. The 2015 Cubs are poised, not rattled, confident, not jittery. They are going to win.

Besides, I am a fan who never had any dreams of being on that field myself. As a child in Little League, I had about a .100 batting average after getting glasses for myopia and astigmatism. I didn’t learn how to compensate for all that until I was an adult and occasionally played intramural softball. One night, laying into a pitch that was just too good to be true, I drove one deep into left field, so far that I was crossing home plate before the other team got the ball back into the infield.

Damn, it felt good. Ever since, I have understood what it feels like to really park one. Even if mine came from an amateur against other amateurs. And I know when a really big home run is an omen of things to come.

And if my sixth sense about the Cubs turns out to be in error? I can always go back to writing about urban planning and disaster recovery. Lord knows, the Cubs have provided some lessons on the latter topic over the years. But not this year. They’re taking the World Series.

 

Jim Schwab

Charleston Charm

DSCF2878There is something mildly disconcerting about visiting an intriguing city several times without having the spare time to go tourist. I first visited Charleston, South Carolina, in 2003, for a business meeting with the National Fire Protection Association, for which I led an American Planning Association consulting project evaluating the impact of NFPA’s Firewise training program. I wandered a few blocks from the hotel but got only a cursory impression of what the city had to offer. In more recent years, I have been there repeatedly for various meetings and conferences connected to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric  Administration’s Coastal Services Center. This led to considerable familiarity with some of the local hotels and restaurants but still did not afford many opportunities to simply wander.

This year, I decided to fix that problem. My wife, Jean, had never been there. We chose our 30th anniversary (June 8) as an excuse for a four-day visit. Besides, it was time for a vacation. Proposals, projects, meetings, and budgets could all wait.

Even as a vacation, it was a view of Charleston through the eyes of an urban planner. None of us leave our experience, knowledge, or even our biases behind. Mine lean toward intellectual inquiry and a fascination with history. Charleston is chock full of history and geographic challenges, which make for interesting environmental history. The old city sits on a once marshy peninsula facing the Atlantic Ocean with the Cooper River to one side, and the Ashley River to the other. Plantations and a thriving rice culture were once built on those foundations. The rice culture, however lucrative it may have been, was built on one other foundation that vanished after the Civil War: slavery. With its demise, and the rise by the late 19th Century of agricultural machinery for rice growing in Texas and Arkansas, rice died as a central feature of the South Carolina economy.

DSCF2872The story is told vividly in the South Carolina Lowlands exhibit in the Charleston Museum, a two-story building on Meeting Street along what is known as the Museum Mile. As that sobriquet suggests, the city has a great deal to offer in this respect, most of which we did not have the time to visit. The offerings include a Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry, the Confederate Museum, and the Gibbes Museum of Art, currently being renovated, among several others. The Charleston Area Regional Transit Authority makes these attractions readily accessible to visitors with three free trolley lines that come together on John St. in front of the Visitor Center, which sits between King St., largely a commercial corridor, and Meeting St. Of the three, the Green Line (#211) runs the length of the Museum Mile.

From our perspective, the history of the South Carolina Lowcountry makes up the best piece of the exhibits the Charleston Museum offers, and clearly the most extensive, using a combination of glassed display cases and short videos to tell the story from prehistoric Indian tribes to European settlement and Indian displacement, to colonization, the American Revolution and Civil War, to modern Charleston. Another exhibit, for those more biologically inclined, details the flora and fauna of the region, and two other, smaller exhibits display both the clothing of the area over time, and the furnishings and metalware of the early American presence. It is enough, if one is diligent about it, to occupy the better part of a day. The museum also contains an auditorium for special events.

The Joseph Manigault House, viewed from the Temple Gate.

The Joseph Manigault House, viewed from the Temple Gate.

The museum also owns two old houses that have been preserved and are open to the public. The Joseph Manigault House, named after a French Huguenot descended from religious fugitives to America in the 1600s who became wealthy planters by the early 1800s, was designed by the owner’s brother and completed in 1803 using Adam-style architecture. Among its features is a Gate Temple that was left intact in the mid-20th Century even as an Esso gasoline station operated on the property before the museum finally acquired it well after World War II. During the war, it was used by the USO to entertain service men stationed in Charleston. It is on Meeting St. across a short side street from the Charleston Museum.

The Heyward-Washington House, on the other hand, requires either a long walk down Meeting St. or a ride on the Green Line to the corner of Broad and Church St., at which

Backyard gardens of the Heyward-Washington House.

Backyard gardens of the Heyward-Washington House.

point one hikes a block south to a home modestly tucked between other buildings in an area that was urban even when the house was built, just before the American Revolution in 1772. It belonged initially to Thomas Heyward Jr., among other things a signer of the Declaration of Independence, but it never belonged to a Washington. President Washington, during a tour of the southern states in 1791, simply stayed there for one week in June as a guest of the Heywards. More interestingly, the home later became the property of John F. Grimke, who with his wife produced two daughters, Sarah and Angelina, who developed profound differences with their rich, slave-owning, planter parents. The daughters became radical abolitionists. Needless to say, they became less than welcome in South Carolina, which posted a warrant for their arrest. That never happened because they resettled in Philadelphia, where they became Quakers, allied themselves with other abolitionists, and continued their activities, speaking and writing widely for their cause. There is no doubt they remained a thorn in the side of their southern kin until the day they died.

DSCF2828But by now I am well ahead of, well, our trip. Neither the Charleston Museum nor the two historic homes were among the first things we saw. In fact, we arrived on Sunday, relaxed over brunch at the eminently affordable yet well-managed Town & Country Inn & Suites in West Ashley, a quieter part of the city west of downtown across the Ashley River, and finally made our way across not only the Ashley but the Cooper River, traversing the magnificently attractive Arthur Ravenel Bridge to Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant. The dock is home to the U.S.S. Yorktown, a World War II aircraft carrier now preserved as a museum for visitors. We did not happen to buy tickets for that while we were there, but it does look impressive from dockside.

DSCF2836We did have tickets for a dinner cruise that evening aboard the Spirit of Carolina, a much smaller vessel designed to provide a pleasant experience for those who like to eat a fine dinner while watching the waves and the birds and the pleasure boats in Charleston Harbor. Both of us enjoyed a well-prepared meal of rib-eye steak, foreshadowed by she-crab soup and a house salad, accompanied by a bottle of champagne provided for our anniversary, and topped off by key lime pie for dessert. To DSCF2831be honest, I do not expect the absolute best of cuisine on dinner cruises; there are some natural limitations built into the format. The cruise is the point of it all. But this was excellent nonetheless. We both came away satisfied. With the help of some gentle guitar music and the breezes that greeted us during our short visit to the upper deck, it was an enjoyable way to celebrate an anniversary. By 9:15 p.m., as our boat pulled ashore to let everyone out, we felt our hosts had treated us to a very pleasant evening.

The next day our target was the South Carolina Aquarium. Given the geography, and aquatic and maritime history, of Charleston, this aquarium is a natural feature of the city. It is situated on the eastern waterfront of Charleston, a few blocks east of Meeting St., but also accessible by trolley. (It also hosts a parking garage.) One can easily DSCF2841spend a day there, and we spent most of a day there, absorbing the living exhibits of sea life that give patrons insights into aquatic life of all sizes and the ecological challenges facing much of it today. With such scientific powerhouses as NOAA nearby, one has high expectations of the aquarium for its scientific content, and by and large it delivers. One unusual feature, somewhat removed from its context, is the Madagascar exhibit, including some lemurs in a tree. I do not profess to know how that fits with the rest of the material, but it is edifying nonetheless. One learns of the utterly tiny amount of paved roads on an island nearly the size of Texas with nearly as many people but a declining rainforest. More related to the region, we discovered to our surprise an entire section devoted to piedmont ecology, examining the river life and aquatic ecology of the foothills of the Appalachians. If you can afford the time, the aquarium is well-endowed with such pleasant surprises. We arrived late in the morning but did not leave until about 4 p.m.

DSCF2834Although we did not find time to undertake the tour to Fort Sumter, we did visit the Fort Sumter National Monument, a modest building next to the aquarium that houses some displays pertinent to the battle that launched the Civil War when Confederate forces shelled the Union fortress on a small island in Charleston Harbor. Tour boats depart from the piers behind the building, and it is probably worth a visit. I hope to accomplish that on a future trip. The Fort Sumter National Monument, unlike the tour, is free and open to the public, and managed by the National Park Service.

DSCF2860That evening, we cheated, but who cares? We engaged a second establishment, Stars, in helping us celebrate our anniversary, this time on the actual date. I have previously reviewed Stars on this blog. So why not try something new instead? For starters, Jean had never been there; I had been there with colleagues during business trips. After reading my most recent review, Jean insisted she wanted to try the place herself, so I made a reservation. Upon arrival, after checking in with the maître d’, I took her upstairs to see the rooftop bar, where we were promptly served Bellinis, after a short explanation of a drink new to both of us. We loved it. Back downstairs, we got the royal treatment from a waiter who one of the owners subsequently informed us was “Big John,” as opposed to “Little John,” also working there, who was at that moment at the front of the restaurant. Big John had migrated from up north but, for the moment at least, found Charleston to his liking.

This time, we diverged in our orders, Jean getting steak (with black truffle grits and bacon braised mushrooms) while I ordered sea scallops. But neither entrée, while excellent, stole the show, at least in our estimate. That honor was reserved for a special share plate that featured cauliflower and broccolini roasted in a cheddar cheese sauce that was as good and succulent as any appetizer I can remember in a long time.

DSCF2868On Tuesday, our afternoon visit to the Charleston Museum followed a morning visit to the Waterfront Park, much closer to the Battery at the end of the peninsula than to the aquarium and most of Museum Mile, but still accessible by trolley. The park is simply a wonderful outdoor setting in which to view the ocean, complete with fountains, palm trees, and walkways along the water’s edge. It is a very pleasant place to pass some time, especially on a warm summer day. It looks like a wonderful venue for an outdoor wedding and has been used that way. For those who simply want to use their laptop or mobile device while occupying one of many park benches, it is also fully equipped with wifi, courtesy of Google and the Charleston Digital Corridor.

Hiking up the street past the old Custom House and turning left at Market St., we reached the popular City Market, a stretch of airy long buildings containing booths featuring numerous local artists and jewelry makers, among others. From one of them I eventually bought a small matte painting of a tropical seashore for my office. It will serve me well on cold Chicago winter days. We also ate lunch at an open air restaurant nearby, the Noisy Oyster, which offered commendable seafood at very reasonable prices. (By this time we were looking to limit both our food expenditures and our caloric intake.) From City Market we took the trolley back to the Visitors Center, where we had parked in the garage for the day, but first took our detour into the Charleston Museum, across the street.

After leaving the museum to get our car, however, we noticed the ominous, heavy gray clouds gathering overhead. Something told us the better part of wisdom lay in returning to our hotel, where we could read our books. (I was working on the H.W. Brands biography of Ben Franklin, The First American. I like to tackle the 700-page heavyweights during vacations.) By the time we arrived at the hotel, the rain was beginning to drip but not coming down very fast. Soon enough, however, the lightning and thunder mounted, and the rain pounded. On the television, we saw news reports from King St. showing cars struggling through several inches of water. I soon learned that much of downtown is either below sea level or at very low elevations with poor drainage, making for a chronic problem of urban flooding. Charleston, also subject to tropical storms such as Hurricane Hugo, which devastated the area in 1989, was not quite the seaside paradise we had enjoyed until then. It is, in fact, one very vulnerable coastal city that also experiences occasional tremors from a fault that triggered a major earthquake in 1886. Charleston needs good disaster plans.

Charleston needs a few other things as well. On our final day, after visiting the Heyward house, we took a long stroll up King St. back in the direction of Stars and the Visitors Center. On a hot day, that can be challenging, so we tried our best to hew to the shady side of the street, though at noon in June, there is a period when no such thing exists. What does exist is a wide variety of old and new storefronts, and we ended up buying some flip-flops and shoes in an H&M store, lunch at the 208 Kitchen, a pleasant little lunch establishment with good sandwiches at single-digit prices, and delicious Belgian gelato at a small store called, well, Belgian Gelato. Eventually, Jean, having finished off her murder mystery, wanted something new to read and found out there was a Barnes & Noble bookstore around the corner from the Francis Marion Hotel, a charming historic place where I have stayed on several previous trips to Charleston. She decided to try Identical by Scott Turow, a Chicago-area writer and fellow member with me of the Society of Midland Authors.

So what does Charleston need? As helpful as the trolley is, and although there is bus service provided by CARTA, it is clear that the creaking, older part of the city is ultimately facing a challenge of mobility as a result of too much dependence on the automobile. Light rail would help, and some people told me it had been discussed, but the big question is how to retrofit it into the existing fabric of this historic core of the city.

DSCF2880With all the tourism the city is now attracting, it is also facing the classic challenge of most such aging urban magnets of maintaining affordable housing for the workforce it needs to support such attractions within a reasonable distance of their employment. Already there is an obvious outmigration of the working poor to areas like North Charleston, a suburb that has very recently experienced toxic racial tensions between citizens and police, particularly after the shooting of Walter Scott this spring. When we researched hotel prices in preparation for our trip, it became obvious that the downtown area is experiencing significant price escalations. Charleston can easily allow the old city core to become a playground for the affluent, a tax generator as such, but it cannot afford to lose its character in the process. Charleston has come a long way since the lunch counter sit-ins of 1960 and the segregationist politics of Strom Thurmond. The challenge now is to preserve its well-earned reputation by honoring that progress in a progressive fashion. A cursory reading over breakfast of local newspapers told me that issue is far from settled in the development debates that are currently underway.

Jim Schwab

Chicago’s 606: Transformation of an Urban Space

IMG_0037

More than a century ago, the City of Chicago settled a neighborhood dispute by forcing the elevation of a railroad bed for a 2.7-mile spur line that served a variety of small factories on its North Side that provided jobs for a string of neighborhoods in or near Bloomingdale Avenue. The Burlington Northern Railroad had first built the line in the 1870s, but by 1910 it was on a collision course with the surrounding residential areas as auto and pedestrian traffic met freight cars at street grade. Within a few years, the rail cars were running about 16 feet above street level, with 37 viaducts providing overpasses above uninterrupted street traffic below. By the end of the century, however, many of the factories were gone, or were converted to condominiums, and trucks served whatever shipping needs remained. The rail spur had become an anachronism, and eventually the right-of-way reverted to the city.

Dog walkers, children on tricycles and in strollers, all along the length of the Trail. Volunteers in yellow shirts were plentiful along the route.

Dog walkers, children on tricycles and in strollers, all along the length of the Trail. Volunteers in yellow shirts were plentiful along the route.

During that time, a vision developed of a different kind of urban space, a linear park that would become the nation’s second elevated rail-trail, following the High Line in Manhattan. Funded largely with federal transportation enhancement funds,

Winding, ADA-compliant access ramps connect pocket parks, such as Park 567 here, to the trail above.

Winding, ADA-compliant access ramps connect pocket parks, such as Park 567 here, to the trail above.

supplemented by some city money and millions in local fundraising, the Bloomingdale Trail moved from dream to concept to an actual plan by 2013, and finally, on Saturday, June 6, a reality as the trail opened, complete with 17 access ramps and Mayor Rahm Emanuel surveying its length as the leader of a small bicycle troupe accompanied by a handful of police. Thousands of Chicagoans moved onto the trail, on foot, on bicycles and tricycles, and in strollers, taking in the newest amenity in town amid street celebrations and music on Humboldt Avenue and with children’s activities in pocket parks along the way. A host of volunteers in yellow shirts welcomed the visitors and directed them to the day’s festivities. Residents had waited a long time for this day. They finally realized the imaginative transformation of an urban space that long had seemed neglected. The 606 Project, originally known as the Bloomingdale Trail, became a new source of healthy recreation.

New construction is a common site along the trail. This site is near Milwaukee Avenue and parallel to the CTA Blue Line, which crosses the trail.

New construction is a common site along the trail. This site is near Milwaukee Avenue and parallel to the CTA Blue Line, which crosses the trail.

And, for some, an abiding fear of displacement. That was almost surely to be expected. Development of the trail followed the 2008 recession, with its sudden decline in housing prices, followed by a more recent uptick. For Chicago, that uptick has been nearly citywide, but there are disparities, and it has been noted repeatedly that the trail links disparate neighborhoods. To the east, starting around Ashland Avenue, neighborhoods within a mile of the trail were gentrified at least a decade ago. As one approaches the western terminus, at Ridgeway, household incomes and property values have been remarkably lower, and the percentage of renters much higher. Renters, of course, have much less control over rising housing costs than homeowners, on two counts—one, that rents can go up, but two, that affordable rental units can be torn down or rehabbed and converted into more expensive units, resulting in potential displacement in favor of newcomers with more income.

A view of my own street, North Campbell Avenue, from the trail crossing above.

A view of my own street, North Campbell Avenue, from the trail crossing above.

The trail is almost certainly accelerating those trends, but as a resident of eastern Humboldt Park since building a new home on an infill lot in 1994, at a location about one-third of the way from the eastern end, I can attest that it is not the sole source of such gentrification, which was already well underway to the east, in Wicker Park and Bucktown, even then, when the mere idea of the trail was barely a glimmer in the minds of the biggest visionaries in town. It has inexorably marched west. The question is not the direction in which trends are moving, but the pace.

No need to leave the trail if you're thirsty. Water fountains appear at decent intervals.

No need to leave the trail if you’re thirsty. Water fountains appear at decent intervals.

The question is also not whether residents of the area want such an amenity. Now that the 606 Trail and Park is open, it is unquestionably a beautiful space that offers great recreational and physical activity value to a substantial chunk of Chicago. Nearly 100,000 Chicagoans are within walking distance of the trail, depending on how you calculate that distance. (Speaking for myself, one mile is no big deal, but for others it could be insurmountable, depending on age and physical condition.) The views from the trail are stupendous and varied. What is at issue for those concerned about being priced out is whether working and low-income people of modest income and resources can enjoy the park they have so long awaited. It is a volatile equity issue the city needs to address.

IMG_0079

In any event, there was always the opposite question: What if we did not develop such a trail? The abandoned rail line, left unattended, would eventually become a serious liability for the city, yet the cost of tearing it down, ending up with nothing, might well have been comparable to the $95 million ultimately invested in creating something, something noteworthy and positive.  Doing nothing with this obsolete space was never a viable option. It would have become an eyesore or worse.

IMG_0089One issue that a few have feared almost certainly will not come to pass: increased crime and vandalism. On opening day, despite teeming crowds, some running, some walking, some cycling, and some with dogs and baby strollers, along the entire length as I rode my own bicycle, stopped, shot photographs, and talked with volunteers, I saw absolutely no accidents and no incidents. People on wheels respected the pace and space of those around them. The trail seemed to bring out the best in everyone; Jane Jacobs’s long-ago observation about the value of “eyes on the street” never seemed so true. People with homes adjoining the trail seemed to enjoy the presence of the passersby, some sitting on decks and in backyards waving at trail users, including the occasional marching band participating in the celebration.

IMG_0094

There will be time to engage in more deliberative debate about the impacts of the 606. For today, on this blog at least, I prefer to take time to offer a visual celebration by sharing some of more than 130 photos I shot that opening morning. Enjoy the views.

 

Want to just watch the traffic go by? Sit on a bench.

Want to just watch the traffic go by? Sit on a bench.

Jim Schwab

 

Or watch the street fair below on Humboldt Avenue on opening day, June 6.

Or watch the street fair below on Humboldt Avenue on opening day, June 6.

 

 

 

Trees in the Disaster Recovery Equation

For the last two or three years, if not longer, I have been engaged in an ongoing discussion with people from the U.S. Forest Service and the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) about the role of trees in post-disaster recovery. Phillip Rodbell, an urban and community forestry program manager with the Forest Service’s Northeast office in Philadelphia, has been particularly diligent in pursuing the question of how we can better protect trees in urban areas from storms and other major disasters as well as how to reduce the loss of trees in the process of removing debris after disasters. Too often, in the absence of qualified arborists or other forestry professionals, the existing incentives for debris removal cause more, rather than fewer, trees to be cut down and hauled away than is truly necessary. The question is how to change that.

The fact that some trees, sometimes many trees, do in fact get blown down in storms, crushing cars and occasionally people, snapping utility lines, and blocking roads, fosters the false perception in some minds that trees are inevitably hazards in themselves. In fact, inadequate maintenance of the urban forest, including inadequate attention to those trees that really do pose hazards, creates problems that can be prevented with better municipal tree pruning cycles and pre-planning for more appropriate vegetative debris removal after big storms. However, local resources, including professional expertise, can be overwhelmed in a more catastrophic disaster such as a severe tornado or hurricane. The sheer number of trees blown down by Hurricane Katrina, for instance, was staggering, well into the millions.

Phil and I ultimately decided that, if the Forest Service could provide a modicum of money to help sponsor what we decided to call a scoping session, and if ISA and the American Planning Association (APA) could contribute more modestly to support the project, we could perhaps bring together a team of subject matter experts, representatives of relevant local, state, and federal agencies, and people from interested nonprofit associations, and we could foster a meaningful discussion of how to address this problem. In the process, we might help save federal, state, and local governments millions of dollars annually in avoidable debris removal costs.

This spring, we succeeded in bringing that package together and initiating a contract between the Forest Service and APA. The result was a two-day discussion held June 16-17 in APA’s Washington, D.C., offices, involving more than two dozen people, mostly in-person, but with a handful joining by conference call from remote locations in New York and Mississippi. A summary of that discussion, and the issues it addressed, is now available on the APA website, along with a bibliography of resources on the topic, and a series of briefing papers prepared by the invited experts. I invite my readers to check it out. To learn more, click here.

 

Jim Schwab