Chicago’s green space: Inequitable for 100 years

By: Carly Graf
Medill Reports

This July marks 100 years since 17-year-old Eugene Williams drowned in Lake Michigan. The black teenager unknowingly drifted across 29th street while on a raft—crossing the unofficial demarcation between the white and black sides of a South Side beach. White beach-goers threw rocks at him and knocked him unconscious, causing the boy who couldn’t  swim to drown. No arrests were made despite eyewitnesses.

“Race riots that followed were representative of broader racial clashes over Black Chicagoans’ asserting their rights to recreational space,” said Brian McCammack, environmental history professor at Lake Forest College and author of Landscapes of Hope: Nature and the Great Migration in Chicago. “Similar clashes happened at Washington and Jackson Parks, among others, as African-Americans flooded into the South Side and, almost always, African-Americans were the victims of white aggressors.”

The story of Chicago’s response to the Great Migration—when approximately 500,000 black Americans moved to the city from the rural South in the decades after World World I—can be told in part through decisions about public parks and green space. They often serve as a proxy for larger policies of residential segregation such as redlining and restrictive zoning policies, according to McCammack. 

Disinvestment in neighborhoods spills over into their green spaces, which often suffer from poor maintenance or facilities, and a lack of programming. Neighborhood residents are then discouraged from using those poorly maintained spaces. It’s a vicious circle that works to distance communities of color from recreation in green space,” he said.

A black family evacuates a house after it was vandalized during the 1919 race riots that overtook Chicago. (Flickr)

The Chicago Park District, the oldest centralized park system in the country and one of the largest, has a litigious history marred with charges of racial discrimination. In 1982, the federal government filed a civil suit against the park district, accusing it of providing fewer programs and poorer facilities in black and Latino neighborhoods and compelling it to abide by 1974 federal legislation intended to fight discrimination in housing and community development.

Specific complaints included inferior indoor park facilities, fewer instructional programs, and insufficient funding, personnel and upkeep, according to the New York Times at the time. The park district decried claims of “willful discrimination” and attributed any gaps in services to population shifts and neighborhood transitions. Ultimately, the two settled on a consent decree with the park district agreeing to spend $10 million every year for six years on renovation, landscaping and new park development, predominantly in minority neighborhoods.

But the gap hasn’t closed convincingly, some say.

Similar complaints of discrimination echoed again last December when Friends of the Parks, the city’s largest non-profit park advocacy and preservation group, published a scathing report alleging that the park district favors white, wealthy neighborhoods by providing them with more capital investment, resources and programming.

Friends of the Parks helped compile the lawsuit more than 30 years ago, but this was the first spending analysis of such scope since the consent decree expired in 1989.

What followed was a highly public battle in which the Chicago Parks District vehemently opposed the report findings, calling the document “inaccurate, incendiary and divisive.” The Chicago Park District’s Chief Diversity Officer Jessica Maxey-Faulkner publicly lambasted Friends of the Parks for using, what she called, outdated and incomplete data as it pertained to spending discrepancies, residents’ proximity to parks and provided programming.

But Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Park, maintained the conclusions reflect what the group was told by residents in under-served neighborhoods, irrespective of funding figures.

As part of its response, park district leadership consistently referred to the district’s 2017 Master Plan. The comprehensive document analyzes past and present data and announces future goals. Currently, the Chicago Park District operates more than 8,800 acres of open space throughout the city, and it intends to impose the recommendation of the Trust for Public Land—which called Chicago one of the top 10 performers in green space preservation in 2018—to ensure every resident lives within one-half mile or a ten minute walk of green space.

The Friends of the Park report listed 16 areas where residents don’t have such access, all of which are concentrated in the South and West sides of the city, typically lower income neighborhoods with residents of color.

Washington Park, on the city’s South Side.

Research shows a direct pathway between green space and improved mental health, reduced risk of chronic diseases like obesity and diabetes and stronger social cohesion. Discussions of green infrastructure around Chicago, some say, continue to overlook the critical linkage between recreation and quality of life.

“These things—parks, bike lanes, fresh air—are taken for granted in wealthier communities, and they’re often disregarded when we try to figure out how to improve lower income communities. We need to look at the biological affects of our environment and think about how they may factor into how we address other pressing issues like education and violence,” said Amara Enyia, a public policy expert who ran in the mayoral primary.

There’s an exceptionally strong link between urban green space and the upside for disadvantaged populations, recent studies reveal, which begs the question from some of why the park district hasn’t worked to use investment in park land and recreational activity as a tool for social change. Instead, the parks look beat up and largely stay beat up.

“You’d think that they would want to invest in parks in the areas where we have real challenges with gangs and where there are kids who need productive things to do, but those are the neighborhoods where there’s the least programming offered,” Irizarry said.

However, to McCammack, this disconnect comes as no surprise. That’s because in Chicago, it’s those exact groups that have historically had their recreational opportunities restricted or disregarded, first by Daniel Burnham’s famous 1909 plan to focus on lakefront recreational development and almost simultaneously by the park district’s investment in small neighborhood parks with field houses.

“As black neighborhoods expanded, they enveloped many of the large 19th-century parks such as Washington Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, on the South Side, and Douglas and Garfield Parks on the West Side,” he said.

Today, the park district points towards uniform spending across its three city districts—about $30 million each—as defense against allegations of discrimination. The park district didn’t respond to multiple attempts seeking comment.

But the stark divergence of viewpoints between advocacy groups such as Friends of the Parks and the park district suggests fundamental differences in the end goal—equity versus equality.

“Equity is about putting more resources into the areas that have been harmed because of policies that disadvantage certain groups by virtue of their race or socioeconomic status,” said Enyia. “Disaffected communities require more. We can’t have a one-size-fits-all approach.”

The park district also refers to the conversion of Celotex, a former superfund site, into a nearly 22-acre park in Little Village, the largest project of its kind in the country, as proof of investing readily in communities of color.

As for claims of unequal activity programs, the park district asserts program needs are determined based on population numbers – where there are more people, there will be more extra-curricular programs. The district also maintains that the Friends of the Parks report inaccurately discounted nonprofit partnerships to supplement any shortcomings.

“Neighborhoods on the South Side shouldn’t have to depend on residents to bring that number up to the same baseline that’s been offered to North Side neighbors without help,” Irizarry said.

Historical context is imperative to the equity versus equality discussion, many say, as discrimination existed long before the 1983 consent decree. And contemporary projects such as the pending approval of the Obama Presidential Center in Washington Park and the possible conversion of parts of two existing Jackson Park golf courses into an upscale option are raising new concerns.

“Clearly inequities in access to green space still remain, and that speaks to the extent that recreational inequities stem from broader racial inequities—like residential segregation or employment discrimination—that are incredibly strong and persistent,” said McCammack.

Irizarry is pleased to see the two mayoral runoff candidates Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot have talked about equity in a way that leads her to believe they both know what it actually means and each supports a resource reorganization that may begin to rectify some of these longstanding issues.

But the solution’s not as simple as building a bunch of new parks or installing more fieldhouses, as evidenced by the construction of the 606 on the West Side. While the project beautified the area and spurred economic growth, it didn’t help many locals. Instead, the development jacked up prices and displaced many longtime residents, including Irizarry, who said she saw a $450 bump in her monthly rent at an apartment on the same block as the trail.

“Park planning shouldn’t be led by a resource development strategy, but really by a community development strategy,” said Irizarry. “Do you want Millennium Park as your neighborhood, or do you want a place where your kids can play?”

Chicago’s iconic Lincoln Park is a well-maintained haven for North Siders. (Flickr)