The Last Four Miles: Completing Chicago’s Lakefront Parks

Virtually my first freelance job after being laid off by the Chicago Tribune in April, 2009, was to edit (and write portions of) a report for the Friends of the Parks titled “The Last Four Miles: Completing Chicago’s Lakefront Parks.” The aim was the fulfill the dream of Daniel H. Burnham and generations of Chicagoans by creating a lakefront park spanning the city’s entire thirty-mile-long shoreline. The report was a call to action.

When “The Last Four Miles” was published on June 9, 2009, I wrote about its vision and implications in the Burnham Blog for the Burnham Plan Centennial. (Five years later, much remains to be done.)

Here, in slightly edited form, is the opening challenge from the Friends of the Parks plan:

report cover

“The Lake front by right belongs to the people.”
Daniel Burnham, Plan of Chicago, 1909

The time is now.

A century after Daniel Burnham boldly proposed parkland for Chicago’s entire lakefront — essentially a single linear park for everyone’s use — the moment has come to commit ourselves as a city, as a region and as a generation to finish his work.

The moment has come to create parks in the remaining four miles of city’s 30-mile Lake Michigan shoreline.

The earliest Chicagoans recognized the need for open, green space — breathing space — at the lakefront as a tonic to the crush of urban life. In 1909, the publication of the Plan of Chicago was a trumpet blast to build on earlier efforts to create a healthier, more efficient, more beautiful city. Turning the entire lakefront into parks was a key proposal of the Plan.

We honor the vision of the civic leaders who supported and promoted the Plan. Even more, we honor the citizens of Chicago who voted 86 times to approve referendums to provide funding to bring the Plan to life.

Now the torch is passed to our generation.

It is our charge as citizens and leaders to complete Chicago’s lakefront park dsystem, to build on Burnham’s bold dream of a continuous playground for the people all along the lake.

A bird's eye view of Chicago and its Lake Michigan shoreline in "The Plan of Chicago" by Daniel H. Burnham and Edward H. Bennett

A bird’s eye view of Chicago and its Lake Michigan shoreline in “The Plan of Chicago” by Daniel H. Burnham and Edward H. Bennett

Today, Chicago’s 26 miles of lakefront parks are an unparalleled work of beauty and source of recreation. But they remain incomplete. Approximately two miles on the north lakefront and two miles on the south lakefront are undeveloped or blocked from public use.

In addition to expanding lakefront recreational opportunities for all, the completion of the lakefront park system will provide protection of the shoreline against erosion and guard public and private property from the buffeting of lake storms. It will foster the creation of aquatic and wildlife habitat which benefits the lake’s ecosystem, and give nearly 500 acres of new open-space to park-poor communities.

A section of Chicago's shorelines parks as envisioned in "The Plan of Chicago."

A section of Chicago’s shorelines parks as envisioned in “The Plan of Chicago.”

And it will knit the city, north and south, in an unprecedented way, and link with other Chicago and regional trail systems, helping to knit together the region.

To solve the knotty problems of development won’t be easy….and won’t be cheap. But the cost is likely to be significantly less than the $660 million needed for the renovation of Soldier Field, completed in 2003.

And we must remember that our lakefront is a legacy of those who came before us. As stewards of that inheritance, it is our charge to maintain and expand it for our children and our children’s children.

The moment for the last four miles — for completing the lakefront as one long park encompassing the entire Chicago shoreline — is now.

Patrick T. Reardon


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