I'm boning up on my landscape architecture history this week, preparing to be a docent when the Washington, D.C.-based Cultural Landscape Foundation comes to Chicago for a "What's Out There Weekend" exploring 25 parks June 11 and 12. If you have any interest in how Chicago's great parks came to be, sign up here for one of the tours or check out the many related events.
My assignment is to guide folks around Washington Park on June 11. Many people, even architecture buffs, don't realize that this South Side gem was designed by the pioneering landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and his partner Calvert Vaux. Olmsted planned it as a sylvan retreat from the city, with a broad, green meadow leading visitors down to the edges of a placid lake. His original plan called for a flock of sheep to keep the grass short, although the sheep didn't last and he was persuaded to find some space for sports. The broad green plain is still there, though not quite so sylvan, and on weekends the softball fields are used dawn 'til dark.
I'm relieved that I apparently won't have to tell my visitors that Olmsted's vision will be radically altered this summer. In April, park advocates including Friends of the Parks suddenly become aware of a plan prepared by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in January to "restore" the Washington Park lagoon as a wetland to create bird habitat. This would involve considerable regrading and planting tall marsh grasses around the water's edge, drastically changing the character of the park and the experience of visitors that Olmsted intended to create.
This $3.8 million plan drew a strong protest on April 17 from the preservationist National Association for Olmsted Parks. Only two weeks ago did the Park District hold a meeting to present the plan to Friends of the Park, the Washington Park Conservancy and others -- although the Corps of Engineers had already issued a notice that it planned to seek bids for work to start July 1. A park district spokesperson assured me Friday that this meeting meant the Park District was seeking public input.
But two months' notice is not a lot for proposing major alterations to any park, much less a work of historic landmark architecture with a national reputation. The plans were never made public on the websites of either the Corps of Engineers or the Park District, which hardly seems like transparency in government. And a private meeting with a handful of advocates, hastily called only after people started asking questions, doesn't feel to me like sincerely seeking public input. I can't help but w0nder whether somebody was trying to slip this one by.
Once they knew about the plan, park preservationists pushed back. After a week of negotiations between the Park District, the Corps and advocacy groups, Anne Haaker, Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, sent this email around Monday:
Thank you for the time and thought you have given to the Corps/EPA/CPD proposal to put sorely needed money in to Washington Park through addition of wetland features. Our agency had a phone conversation today with the Corps and the Park District and had to inform them that this plan is consistent with neither the Olmsted vision nor extant historic features that give testimony to it. It is imperative that significant funding is found for the restoration of this nationally significant park but the constraints of this EPA funding are not going to be able to be that vehicle. The combination of necessary wetland “outputs” required by the grant and the time frame constraints required our opinion that the grant monies be used elsewhere for construction of habitat for birds.
This tactful note goes a ways to explain some of the strange behavior in this case. Why one earth would you to want to "restore" the Washington Park lagoon as a wetland, when it never was a natural wetland? The lagoon was designed on paper and dug when the park was built in 1873.
Well, Washington Park is hard-used and well-worn and does need many kinds of restoration. Times are tough, and money to fix parks is hard to find. It sounds like the Army Corps of Engineers had some money from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in a fund that could only be used for restoring wetlands to create bird habitat. So my guess is that the Park District, dazzled by the prospect of any federal money at all in these grim times, figured it was a good idea to get that money for improvements to Washington Park by agreeing to let the Corps declare the lagoon a wetland and "restore" it.
Not that there's anything wrong with bird habitat, or wetland restoration. Nor with habitat re-creation -- creating areas as close as we can to natural landscapes wherever there is space for them, even if that space never held such landscapes before.
The Park District should be proud that it has found so many places for native species and wildlife. Just a mile from Washington park, the Wooded Island -- which for six month in 1893 was part of the world's most lavish amusement park -- is now a wooded bird sanctuary, with invasive species cleared out so birds can find the food and shelter they need among native trees.
A couple of miles south, there's a prairie "restoration" at Rainbow Beach -- right on the beach, where there certainly was never a prairie before, even if the beach itself were a natural shoreline. There's another prairie re-creation in Lincoln Park, which used to be a cemetery. And the Lincoln Park Zoo lagoon was recently successfully reworked as a bird-welcoming wetland. Bird habitat is especially important in Chicago because the city is smack-dab on the Mississippi Flyway, the great migration route that many species follow down Lake Michigan and the Mississippi to South America each year.
"They have really done some great restoration projects," I was told by Erma Tranter, executive director of Friends of the Parks. But in Frederick Law Olmsted's Washington Park, "the difference is the location. It's a landmark." The design is known the world over, and the proposed "restoration," far from restoring the park, "would significantly change everything about it," Tranter said.
I am a wholehearted supporter of natural areas restoration, or re-creation, where it's appropriate. As a volunteer, I have weeded that patch of beachside prairie at Rainbow Beach and I have even waded in marshy areas of Washington Park, planting native plants. But I also am a strong supporter of preserving great architecture.
And above all, I'm a strong supporter of governments doing the public's business in the open, where the public can participate in decisions about lands that are held in trust for the public. Sure, people may object. It's part of a public official's job description to consider and answer their objections.
Adam Schwerner, director of natural resources for the Park District, and others in the top leadership there care passionately about the parks and about the natural world. They have done great things to improve the parks, especially nature in the parks and gardens in the parks and art in the parks. In a time of deep budget deficits, all public officials have tough choices to make and often they have to settle for what they can get. But in this case, it was not worth the price of selling off the Olmsted heritage.
The one good thing that has come out of this is that friends of Washington Park have been galvanized. Advocacy groups are now talking about how they can work together to be better watchdogs for this park, the way Lincoln Park and Jackson Park have watchdogs. Hopefully, if the state preservation agency's refusal of this plan doesn't look like it will hold, they'll sound the alarm earlier.
I hope the Park District is able to find a more appropriate spot for a $3.8 million restored, or re-created, wetland. I hope money can be found to restore Olmsted's Washington Park, keeping the character of its visionary design. I'll be proud to tell visitors the story of this park and all the great improvements that have come to parks all over Chicago in the last couple of decades, including the welcoming of native plants and wildlife.
But I'll be grateful that this well-intentioned but misguided attempt to "fix" Washington Park has been blocked, at least for now.
Got a garden question? I recommend you call or e-mail the Plant Clinic of The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, the Master Gardeners of the University of Illinois Extension or the Plant Information Service of the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe .
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