Written by Brian Bonanno, Sustainability Programs Manager Andersonville Development Corporation
Andersonville, Chicago’s former Swedish enclave, is one of those unique places that can only be described as a small town in a big city. Residents of the neighborhood can’t walk a block without running into someone they know and the neighborhood’s compact scale, diversity and wealth of locally owned businesses means that everything you would ever need can be found along a one mile long commercial stretch of Clark Street.
Even with it’s small town feel and eclectic culture there is one thing Andersonville lacks and that is access to public open and green space. This is not an issue unique to Andersonville; it is unfortunately very common for communities in Chicago and in cities all across the country to lack easily accessible park space.
Only recently have cities begun to recognize the benefits of having such space. Incorporating access to spaces separate from the hustle and bustle of busy city streets and sidewalks gives people a chance to let their guard down, observe their surroundings in a different way, perhaps notice a business they might not otherwise, maybe read a book, meet a friend, or just enjoy their neighborhood from a new perspective.
To draw attention to this shortfall in our community and with the hope of eventually making a small dent in it, the Andersonville Development Corporation set out in 2011 to find cost effective ways of incorporating more park space.
Our biggest obstacle being that we had no vacant lots or any actual open pieces of land in the neighborhood to work with. Thankfully it was at this same time, in some form of divine intervention, that our attention was pulled to San Francisco. Seeing the success of PARKing Day and the launch of their official parklet program, we quickly realized that we had all the space we needed to provide our community with a new park. We simply had to convince a community, in car-centric Chicago, that trading a few parking spaces for green space would not bring about “Carmageddon”.
Convincing business owners and residents to give up a few parking spaces for a parklet was no easy task. Even in Andersonville, a neighborhood with a reputation for being eco-friendly and progressive, it was and still is a hard fought battle. To sway the outcome of that battle we sought out as many ways to get community buy in as we could and slowly eased people into the idea bringing parklets to Andersonville.
To do this we put together elaborate one-day pop-up parks to get people excited about the idea of a more permanent installations, we connected local business owners with businesses in San Francisco that participated in the parklet program, and we ultimately launched a Kickstarter campaign that allowed us to raise money and gave members of the community a stake in the projects. Our Kickstarter campaign ultimately raised $7,000 but more importantly it gave us 150 invested champions of our project that we could look to for support when we needed it most.
Using this strategy we successfully installed Chicago’s very first parklet in the summer of 2012 and followed that with a second parklet in the summer of 2013. Both spaces have been very well received by the community and seen a fantastic amount of use in that time. Now that we had them for two seasons our focus has switched from rallying community support to maintaining them in an affordable way and providing more programming at each location so that we can seal them in the community consciousness as vital additions to the urban fabric of the neighborhood.
Part of that process for us will involve working with the city to make parklets a year round amenity. Here in Chicago, parklets must be removed and stored every fall to avoid conflicts with snowplows when winter comes. Installing, removing and storing the parklets each season along with the wear and tear that process inflicts on the pieces, can be very cost prohibitive for communities seeking to build one. Eventually we hope to replace each of our two parklets with a more permanent space, using materials that can withstand the Chicago winter, and provide affordable and accessible public space for our community on a year round basis.
The mission to bring lighter, cheaper, quicker park space solutions to Andersonville has not been easy and we have not yet been able to find a way to substitute for the benefits of full fledged community park, but we have started a very important dialogue in our community. That dialogue is shaping the way people in our community value the spaces they interact with or don’t interact with on a daily basis.
If a parking space can become a community space, who is to say a street could not become a permanent park. This thought is what keeps me motivated to keep pushing for more, so that our community continues to be an example of what livable, vibrant, and sustainable communities look like.