63rd StreetWashington Park/Jackson Park

Jackson Park $12 million Ecological Restoration Project Starts Monday

By Spencer Barrett and Michael Bussey

Posted: Friday, Nov. 28, 2014

There are very few places on the South Side where people can enjoy a scenic outdoor area with historical significance conveniently.

But Jackson Park offers that — and more.

The park, located at 6401 South Stony Island Ave, provides a connection to the Lakefront trail, access to the museum of Science and Industry, the Phoenix Japanese Garden and a lagoon area.

Now, the Chicago Park District, in collaboration with the Army Corps of Engineers, will be starting an up to $12 million ecological restoration project in the park, scheduled to break ground on Monday.

Although, the design of the restoration is intended to expand habitat for native species in the park, there are many people, including residents, students, birdwatchers and scientists in the community that want to have a say in the way that this park changes.

“Maybe [the park could use] like a recreational center. You know maybe like a gym, somewhere where kids could go after school.” said Darius Gordon, a DePaul student, when asked about what he’d like to see done with the park. Gordon went to Kenwood Acadamy, a high school in the area and said that he and other students would often go to the park after school. The park is a popular destination for students.

The project is being financed by a combination of federal money from the Army Corps of Engineers and funds from the Chicago Park District. There are a number of private donors as well, including project 120, who desire to have a visitor’s center in the park.’

There are birding groups that want visual access to birds, fishermen who use the lagoon and ponds, and residents that may have issues of safety that they want addressed by the reshaping of the park’s landscape.

Lauren Umek, the Project Manager for the Department of Cultural and Natural Resources, works with the Chicago Park District and is responsible for the coordination of the many people and groups working on the project.  

“I think my most important role is not my ecological role but my role in community involvement,” Umek said. “I’m stepping back from those [ecological] roles and taking the role of cat-wrangler. I’m making sure that everyone’s on the same page and making sure nothing is a surprise.”

Community involvement brings those points of view together. A group called the Jackson Park Neighbor Advisory Council holds a public meeting every month which Umek makes sure to attend.

“I’m sure there’s people that I’m not talking to but I’m trying to be as open as possible,” Umek said. “One thing that I’ve learned is that there’s no way for everyone to be happy. There’s no single solution for everyone’s interest.

Paddy Woodworth is someone with plenty of experience in habitat restoration. His book, “Our Once and Future Planet,” takes a comprehensive look at ecological restoration and took 10 years to research. During his time in Chicago as a Fellow at DePaul University, he reviewed the Jackson Park area with Umek, who gave him an overview on the specifics of the plans for the area.

“The issues ‘restoration’ raises in a place like this are manifold and fascinating,” Woodworth said on the day that he had visited the park. “It certainly raises some parallel questions about cultural landscapes and how to treat them from an ecological point of view.

“As I understand it, Lauren sees her role as restoring native plants to the area, but she knows that it is also a site of great cultural/historical significance, and that many aspects of [Frederick Law] Olmstead’s design have to be respected to keep consensus support for a degree of restoration in the community. So non-native trees, for example, will remain if they were part of his plan, and are not invasive.

That link to Olmsted really adds a deep wrinkle to an issue that is typically only thought of from an ecological perspective.

Not only does this project involve balancing what different members of the community want the park to look like, but what the Historical Preservation Society thinks is important to keep for the historical significance of the area.  The work of Olmsted and his partner in design, Daniel Burnham, was known as the White City and was an important piece of the Columbian Exposition for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. 

That historical significance has a tangible policy impact.  The species that will be kept around for the restoration are not always native.

“The trees that are staying are weird.  If we were using purely ecological knowledge, there are nonnative trees that we would probably remove, like mulberries,” Umek said.  “The large ones were probably planted by Olmsted himself, so they’ll stay.”

The plan is to add 1.3 million native plants to the park to fit the ecological restoration goal.  This involves new planting as well as the removal of invasive plants already present in the park.

Turf grass, another quintessential Olmsted look does not quite fit into the area’s ecological significance.  The long open lawns of turf grass favored by the architect will be gradually changed to small-flowering plants and short shrubs that will mimic the views of Olmsted in a native sense.

Some of the most drastic changes will affect the lagoon habitat, including the addition of new ponds and the draining of the lagoon temporarily to remove non-native fish.  The controversy there is through the use of poison but at present, officials claim that there is not much of a fish population anyways.

It can be difficult to align all of these ideas for the project into one cohesive plan, but one things is certain, big changes are coming to Jackson Park.  The project kicks off in December with the draining of the lagoon.

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