COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Revitalizing Chicago Through Parks and Public Spaces

Jul 30, 2001
Dec 14, 2017

Remarks from Mayor Richard M. Daley, City of Chicago

The following is a transcript of Mayor Daley's keynote address to the Urban Parks Institute's "Great Parks/Great Cities" Conference, July 31, 2001

I'M PLEASED TO be here today to talk about my favorite subject, the City of Chicago, and I want to invite all of you to visit my city the next chance you get. If you haven't been to Chicago for a number of years, I predict you'll have the same reaction that we hear time and again from our visitors. They always tell us, "I had no idea Chicago was such a beautiful city."

We heard that often from reporters and others who came to Chicago for the 1996 Democratic National Convention. The syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer wrote in 1998 that "Chicago might just be our most stunning city." As recently as last May, a writer for the New York Times discovered to his surprise, that Chicago's lakefront is spectacular, and full of recreational and cultural opportunities.

He had expected steakhouses and smoky bars - and we do have them. We also have elevated trains that show up all the time in movies and television shows. We have plenty of factories, railroads and hard-working people who are responsible for one of our nicknames: City of the Big Shoulders.

Trees, flowers, parks, attractive open spaces: these things are contagious. When people experience them, they want more of them. And they're willing to pay for them, because they know they're getting something for their money.

But there's a softer side of Chicago, and that's what I'm here to talk about today. It's reflected in projects as small as the window boxes on City Hall and the playlots in our neighborhoods, and as large as our new Millennium Park, which is being built over downtown railroad tracks at a cost of $320 million, most of it from the private sector. Come to Chicago and you'll see flowers and shrubs in the street medians, not just downtown, but in the neighborhoods as well. This is a result of our Landscape Ordinance, which requires developers of everything from office buildings to parking lots to install - and maintain - landscaping around their property and on the public way.

You'll see neighborhood fountains. We've built and renovated a dozen of them, including one that was 117 years old. Besides being beautiful, fountains are natural gathering places and they cool off a public space during hot summer days.

You'll probably see more trees than you expected. We've planted more than 300,000 since I became mayor in 1989, to beautify the city and reduce noise, air pollution and summer heat. On top of City Hall, there's a rooftop garden, containing 20,000 plants of more than 150 species. Because green roofs are cooler than dark roofs, we expect to save $4,000 a year in heating bills and we hope to inspire the owners of private buildings to build their own gardens.

Because green roofs are cooler than dark roofs, we expect to save $4,000 a year with City Hall's rooftop garden - and inspire private building owners to build their own gardens.

If you walk around downtown this summer, you'll see something that's intriguing and a little bit offbeat: displays of fiberglass street furniture decorated by local artists. We have more than 300 pieces on sidewalks, parkways and plazas. This, of course, is a sequel to our highly successful Cows on Parade exhibit, which has been replicated in many cities, including New York. If flowers and trees add color and softness to a city, cows and street furniture add humor and whimsy. They tell you to slow down, calm down and smile.

In many of our neighborhood business districts you'll see what we call streetscapes. These usually include new sidewalks, curbs and gutters; trees with tree grates; bicycle racks; benches; planters; decorative paving and drinking fountains.Wherever possible, we include decorative structures appropriate to the community. For example, there's a Chinese dragon theme on concrete pillars in Chinatown; decorative bronze medallions of the Aztec calendar in a Mexican-American community; gateway structures resembling Greek temples in Greektown; and rainbow-colored pillars in a gay and lesbian community. These streetscapes help generate community pride, they create a sense of place and they help attract customers for neighborhood businesses.

I believe very strongly that the cities that pay attention - really pay attention - to quality of life will be the cities that thrive in the 21st century.

This is quite a wide variety of amenities - everything from fiberglass cows to playlots - but they all have this in common: they improve the quality of life. And I believe very strongly that the cities that pay attention - really pay attention - to quality of life will be the cities that thrive in the 21st century. Part of this is psychological. Cities are vibrant and exciting, but they also can be overwhelming and intimidating. Trees, flowers, a small park, even a sidewalk bench can soften the rough edges of a city, calm your nerves and make you feel a little more in control of things. Parks play an equally important role in residential areas. They are essential building blocks of strong neighborhoods.

OVER THE LAST 50 years, many Chicago neighborhoods lost their cohesion as families moved to the suburbs. I'm convinced the main reason for this flight was the decline of the city's public schools. And if you've followed what we've been doing in Chicago for the last six years, you know that education is my number-one priority. I believe the education of our children is central to everything else we're trying to accomplish in Chicago: creating jobs, reducing crime, attracting industry and ending poverty.

As the schools lost their effectiveness as community anchors, the same thing happened to the neighborhood parks, libraries and other public spaces. People stopped using them, and the City stopped taking care of them. Or maybe people stopped using them because the City stopped taking care of them. It was a downward spiral.

As schools lost their effectiveness as community anchors, the same thing happened to parks, libraries and other public spaces. People stopped using them, and the City stopped taking care of them. Or maybe people stopped using them because the City stopped taking care of them.

I believe very strongly that government cannot expect people to take care of their property unless government takes care of its property. How can people believe we value education if we allow our schools to deteriorate? How can people believe we value neighborhoods, if we allow our parks to deteriorate? Now we are rebuilding these community anchors. Since I've been mayor, we've built 71 new schools, annexes and additions, and built or fully renovated 40 libraries.

Since 1996, we've spent some $600 million on capital improvements to city parks, including field house repairs, skate parks, playgrounds, Interactive water parks, batting cages, beach improvements, lagoon rehabilitation and junior golf courses. We've made our schools and parks safer, as well. We assigned police and security guards to the schools, installed metal detectors and banned gang colors. In the parks, neighborhood residents worked with the police through our community policing program to drive out the gang-bangers. We passed a gang-loitering ordinance to allow the police to break up groups of known gang members who were hanging out. And when the U.S. Supreme Court said the ordinance was unconstitutional, we passed a new one - and we'll defend it all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary.

Besides rebuilding the schools, parks and libraries, we're getting them to work together on program, as well - especially on summer and after-school programs involving learning and recreation. For example, we have a program called After School Matters, which offers courses in the arts, technology and sports to thousands of youngsters. It is modeled on our Gallery 37 program, which was founded by my wife, Maggie, and provides paying jobs to 3,000 young people each year while they create visual, literary and performing art under the direction of professional artists.

Besides rebuilding the schools, parks and libraries, we're getting them to work together on program, as well - especially on summer and after-school programs involving learning and recreation.

After School Matters links six high schools with a nearby park and library. Some of the students learn computer skills and web-page design at the library. Others go to the parks to train for jobs as summer camp counselors, lifeguards, scorekeepers and coaches at public parks and private athletic clubs. With the help of a federal grant, we're expanding this program to 12 more schools within the next year. This program is based on our firm belief that education must extend beyond the six-hour school day and the nine-month school year. Education has to take place at all hours, and on weekends and during the summer - and that means enlisting the help of libraries, parks and museums.

The parks and schools also cooperate on swimming programs. By opening 11 high school swimming pools to the public, we have increased the number of public indoor swimming pools by one-third. Of course the schools could have dreamed up a dozen reasons why this wouldn't work, but they were smarter than that. They realized this would generate goodwill by bringing more people into the schools.

IMPROVING THE PARKS and their programs is one thing. Adding new parkland is more difficult, because Chicago, like many other older cities, has been fully developed for many years. And Chicago has less parkland per capita than most other big cities. So we're trying to acquire new parkland any way we can, in big tracts and small. Let's start with the small. A few years ago, we created a task force to look at our open space problem. Early in 1998, they came up with a program called CitySpace, which calls for substantially increasing the amount of open space within the Chicago city limits. We're doing this in a number of ways.

One of our most successful efforts has been our campus park program. Some years ago, the people in charge of the Chicago Public Schools decided to pave over most of the school yards with black asphalt. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it doesn't make a very attractive, or usable, space. So we are tearing out the asphalt; planting grass, trees and shrubbery; adding benches and playground equipment when appropriate; and turning these areas into campus parks. The school children use them on weekdays; neighborhood residents use them in the evenings and on weekends.

We are tearing out the asphalt in school yards and turning them into campus parks. School children use them on weekdays; neighborhood residents use them evenings and weekends.

This has brought community residents closer to the schools, both literally and figuratively - and that's vitally important when you're trying to generate support for the public schools. We've already built 80 campus parks, which added 200 acres of open space, and we'll complete 20 more campus parks by next spring. Another program is called NeighborSpace, and it's designed to help turn vacant lots and river edges into small parks and gardens. Many of these lots were tax-delinquent or were taken over by the City after being abandoned by their owners.

Obviously, we can't expect the Chicago Park District to manage all these little spaces. So we created a not-for-profrt corporation to take over these lots, add improvements such as fencing and running water, and provide liability insurance to community groups that manage them. So far, this program has acquired 21 acres of underutilized property and converted it into 72 community gardens and parks.

We also use city-owned land when we assemble property for larger parks. The new 20-acre South Chicago Park is being created from 169 parcels of city-owned, tax-delinquent and donated land, leaving only 25 parcels to be acquired. Another potential source of parkland is abandoned service stations. Chicago has more than 500 of these eyesores. Over the last three years, we have cleaned up 40 of them and removed 144 underground storage tanks. When we've been able to locate the owners, we've forced them to pay. Some of these sites have already been placed back into service as neighborhood parks and child-care centers, while others are ready to be redeveloped into new commercial sites and affordable housing.

We have a long-range program to turn the Chicago River into Chicago's second shoreline, by acquiring land for nature trails, fishing areas, canoe launches and other recreational assets. So far we've acquired 30 acres of public open space along the river, and we recently introduced ordinances to acquire seven more. In 1998, the City began requiring all new riverfront developments to be set back 30 feet from the river and to have a landscaped public path. Through 36 private river developments, we have created over seven miles of riverwalk.

Of course we haven't forgotten our better-known shoreline - along Lake Michigan. Next February, we intend to close Meigs Field, our lakefront airport, and turn it into a 91-acre park and nature preserve, with lagoons, wetlands and prairies that will show what Chicago's landscape was like before European settlers arrived. This will be in keeping with Daniel Burnham's Plan for Chicago of 1909, which called for a series of offshore islands in Lake Michigan. Only one of them was built, and in 1946 it was covered with a small airport for business travelers. Now we are returning this land to the people of Chicago.

And next year, when we renovate Soldier Field, the lakefront home of the Chicago Bears, we will add 17 acres of new parkland. These two projects will complement our museum campus, which was created in 1997 when we moved Lake Shore Drive to the west to create a park for three of our museums: the Field Museum of Natural History, the Adler Planetarium and the Shedd Aquarium. We are also preserving Chicago's native landscape through our largest park project, the Calumet Open Space Reserve: 4,000 acres of prairies, wetlands and forests, surrounded by an equal amount of industrial land on Chicago's far southeast side.

About 1,200 acres already is publicly owned. The City and the State of Illinois intend to acquire and clean up 2,600 acres. The first parcel -117 acres - is being donated by the Belt Railway of Chicago as part of a mitigation requirement for filling wetlands in its suburban rail yard. Not far from there, the Ford Motor Company is building a new factory on a large brownfield site between two inland lakes. It will be surrounded with native plants, and an existing ditch will be turned into a meandering stream. Whenever possible, we try to create parkland on the site of new developments For example, six acres of parkland and a new school are being created downtown as part of the Illinois Center development.

I WANT TO emphasize that we are doing all these things for the people of Chicago and not just to attract tourists or conventioneers or suburbanites or new businesses. I work for the people of Chicago, and they give me my performance evaluation every four years. My goal is to make Chicago the best city in the nation to in which to live, work and raise a family. But the nice thing is, if you improve the quality of life for the people who live in your city you will end up attracting new people and new employers. If you offer the quality of life that people desire, they will want to live in your city. It's as simple as that.

The nice thing is, if you improve the quality of life for people in your city, you will end up attracting new people and employers. Our quality-of-life measures helped attract new companies like Boeing.

There was a time when people lived in cities like Chicago because they had to if they wanted to get a job. No longer. If the recent census figures proved anything, they proved that people have more freedom than ever before to live where they want to live. Edward Glaeser, a Harvard economist, recently told the Chicago Tribune, "By and large, the places doing well today are the ones that are the most pleasant to live. And Robert Lang of the Fannie Mae Foundation said, "The big thing is that the jobs now follow where the people feel like moving. It used to be the other way around."

That trend has benefited the Sun Belt, of course. But in the 2000 census Chicago and several other northern cities gained population for the first time in 50 years, and it's largely because people now want to live in these cities, not because may have to. In fact, many suburbanites are finding the city is doing a better job of creating human spaces than the suburbs. It's hard to find a nice neighborhood park in our newer suburbs. You can't ride your bike to visit friends in another subdivision, and you certainly can't walk to the regional shopping mall.

But if you come to downtown Chicago on a weekend, you'll see thousands of people strolling past the Michigan Avenue shops, enjoying Navy Pier and the free Lincoln Park Zoo, and hiking or jogging on our 18-mile lakefront path. Many of those people are suburbanites who come into the City to work during the week and to play on the weekends. It makes you wonder why they don't just move into the city to avoid all that travel time - and many are doing just that.

These same amenities also attract tourists and conventioneers. Last year Chicago had 30 million visitors, and they keep coming back because they like the feel of the city. We believe our Cows on Parade alone attracted two million additional visitors in 1999 - with an economic impact of almost $200 million. Our quality-of-life measures also have helped attract new companies, like Boeing, which is moving its world headquarters to Chicago. These companies look at a variety of factors, including location, taxes, economic incentives and quality of the workforce. Put they also want to be in a city that's a good place to live: It keeps executives and their families happy, and it makes it easier to recruit new employees.

I'VE BEEN ASKED to offer some advice on how to transfer some of Chicago's successful programs to your own cities. I'm always reluctant to do that, because every city is organized differently and has different financial and political considerations to deal with. So I prefer to make some fairly general recommendations. First, as should be obvious by now, I believe you have to take a holistic approach. The programs I've described involve at least 12 city departments and agencies. Some of them are directly under the mayor's control. Others are governed by separate boards. No department is concerned exclusively with quality of life and attractive public spaces. So all of them have to be. And it's the mayor's responsibility to keep them on the same page.

With a holistic approach, no department is concerned exclusively with quality of life and attractive public spaces. So all of them have to be.

One of the ways I do that is to put talented generalists in charge of the agencies that deal most directly with quality-of-life matters. I wholeheartedly agree with a statement from a handbook called How To Turn a Place Around that was published by Project for Public Spaces. It said "The professionals responsible for activities that directly impact public spaces - such as planning, traffic and transit, recreation and education - have roles that are peripheral to those spaces. Therefore, when an idea stretches beyond the reach of an organization, people are often told, 'It can't be done.' But when officials say, 'It can't be done,' often what they really mean is: 'We've never done things that way before.'"

That describes my experience - and my frustration - in attempting to reform the Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Park District. So I put outsiders in charge of both agencies. I named my budget director to head the school system. His successor has a degree in sociology from Harvard, but is not a professional educator. I put my former chief of staff in charge of the Chicago Park District, even though he had no background in parks' management. The current parks superintendent, David Doig, had been deputy commissioner of the city's Department of Planning and Development.

I know there are a lot of parks professionals in the audience. So before you walk out on me, I want you to know that the true professionals - at both the Park District and the Chicago Public Schools - strongly embraced our reforms. Many of them had been waiting for leaders who were willing to think outside the box. The central problem at the Park District was that it was being run for the benefit of the bureaucracy, not the customers.

Project for Public Spaces' handbook, How To Turn a Place Around, notes that "When officials say, 'It can't be done,' often what they really mean is: 'We've never done things that way before.'" That describes my experience - and frustration - in reforming the Chicago Park District.

For example, a newspaper reported that a Park District instructor wouldn't allow children in the gymnasium because he feared their sneakers would scuff the floor. And a woman who inquired about the availability of a certain program was told the information was confidential. The Park District's costs kept going up, but service wasn't improving. So we privatized a great many functions, ranging from parking to garbage collection. Those changes reduced the public payroll from 4,100 to less than 3,000. They shifted power from the downtown bureaucracy to the individual park managers, and insisted that they work with members of the community to create the programs people wanted.

I think everyone in Chicago would agree that the parks have markedly under the new leadership. They have given the parks back to the people, acquired new parkland whenever possible, expanded programming and done a much better job of marketing the programs.

Beyond that - and this is vitally important - they have been willing to work with other government agencies, from the Army Corps of Engineers to the Chicago Department of Transportation, on projects of value to the people of Chicago.

This seems like something that should happen automatically, put we all know it doesn't. Too many administrators ask, "How will this program affect my department?" rather than "How will this program improve me quality of life of the people in my City?" Our campus park program - where we're turning the schools' asphalt playgrounds and and parking lots into parks - required ongoing cooperation and funding from the Chicago Park District, the Chicago Public Schools and the City, each of which has its own governing board and its own bureaucracy. It worked, because all the agencies were willing to view it as more than a school program and more than a park program. It was a people program.

Our campus park program worked because the three agencies involved were willing to view it as more than a school program and more than a park program. It was a people program.

I expect this kind of thinking from all my department heads. My Transportation Commissioner is responsible for street construction and repair But the purpose of his job is not to run as many cars and trucks through the city of Chicago as fast as possible. He's concerned, like everyone else, with quality of life. So the city Department of Transportation constructs the streetscape projects and median planters I mentioned earlier - as well as traffic-calming devices to make the city more pedestrian-friendly.

The city Department of Transportation is an active participant in Chicago's Greenstreets program, which works with the private sector, the state Department of Transportation, the U.S. Forest Service and the Morton Arboretum to bring more trees, plants window boxes and hanging baskets into the city. We also have a Landscape Advisory Task Force, composed of experts and lay people, which reviews all our landscape plans for public projects.

I know it can be very difficult, in some cities, to get government agencies to set aside their turf battles and work together for the common good. Some agency neads can get pretty well entreneched, and not every mayor has the power to replace them with people of his choosing.

But it can be done, if you can get the public behind you. All the programs I've been talking about have great public support in Chicago. The complaints usually come when one part of the city is perceived to get more improvements than some other Part.

People want attractive, livable neighborhoods, with good parks and comfortable public spaces. They want those of us in government to provide them, and they don't have time to deal with arbitrary governmental divisions.

FINALLY, YOU'RE PROBABLY wondering: How do we pay for all of this? The Chicago Park District is comparatively well-funded. It has its own governing board with the authority to levy taxes and create its own budget. It had plenty of money in the past. It just wasn't spending it properly. The District also received a lot of user fees - from the Bears and other groups that rent Soldier Field, from boaters who rent dock space and from gourmet restaurants in the parks.

Chicago is fortunate to have such a public-spirited business community, but yours may be just as generous. It can't hurt to ask.

We've been able to tap a number of other private sources, as well. The Cubs, White Sox and Bulls have donated millions toward ball fields, batting machines, and basketball courts. Businesses and merchants' associations often pay for flowers and landscaping in commercial areas. After all, their businesses benefit. As a condition of receiving the electrical power franchise in Chicago we required ConEd to contribute $25 million to a fund for energy conservation. Some of that money is paying for the rooftop garden on City Hall.

Like the suburbs, Chicago has imposed impact fees for park funding. They've raised $10 million since 1998. Chicago's parks have benefited from the generous support of foundations, most notably the Wallace Fund, an organization most of you are quite familiar with. The Wallace Fund contributed almost $2 million toward the Garfield Park Conservatory, its children's garden and other projects at the conservatory. The money was donated not to the Park District but 10 community-based groups, furthering the public-private partnerships that are so necessary for successful parks. And it leveraged another $4 million of public and private support. As a result, a conservatory that was in a horrible state of disrepair has become a treasure, and a strong anchor for further redevelopment efforts on Chicago's West Side.

We have received substantial private-sector contributions toward our 25-acre Millennium Park in downtown Chicago, just north of the Art Institute. About two-thirds of the cost will be financed through the parking garage, and the rest through private donations. So far, individuals and companies have pledged $100 million, and we expect between $25 million and $50 million more.

Chicago is fortunate to have such a public-spirited business community, but yours may be just as generous. It can't hurt to ask. Our Millennium Park will contain a new outdoor music pavilion designed by Frank Gehry; an indoor music and dance theater; a skating rink; a commuter bicycle center; restaurants; an underground parking garage; and ample green space for passive recreation.

Trees, flowers, parks, attractive open spaces - these things are contagious. When people experience them, they want more of them. And they're willing to pay for them, because they know they're getting something for their money.

We believe our efforts to make Chicago attractive and livable are generating a big return on investment. That return can't always be measured in dollars and cents, but in community pride, spirit and confidence. These investments have certainly improved the quality of life in Chicago, and I wish you the very best in your efforts to build a better future in your own communities. Thank you.

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COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space