This is the first post in a new series about different efforts to reclaim unused spaces in urban areas.

A rendering of the future Bloomingdale Trail.

Chicago is on the verge of something big. The Windy City is working hard to redefine itself into an urban oasis. Ideas for parks and green areas are popping up left and right. Two that stand out are Bloomingdale Trail and Northerly Island Park. Both projects focus on reusing previously vacated civic space; Bloomingdale Trail will take over a former rail line, while Northerly Island Park reclaims a bygone airstrip on Lake Michigan. These projects  are indicative of a larger movement that we are noticing in cities across the globe to convert underused areas into functional destinations that people will revitalize urban centers.

The Bloomingdale Trail before improvements.

The elevated Bloomingdale Line served as an artery for the industries and manufacturers in Chicago during its peak use, distributing locally made products to the rest of the country and the world. The line’s use began to decline as the shape of Chicago manufacturing changed, and it dropped significantly in the late 1980s and 1990s. The line went dormant for a decade, and people of the surrounding neighborhoods began to support the idea of using it as public open space. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates was chosen to lead the design of the park. In their design, MVVA focused on using the corridor as an active space, connecting different neighborhoods together. They envisioned people using the trail for their daily commutes, biking or walking along it to the different rail lines the trail intersects. In keeping with this connection theme, MVVA allowed the trail to intersect with other parks along its path, providing a seamless transition in and out of the different neighborhoods. The parks serve as the main entrances to the trail, emphasizing the bond between the green areas. The most important aspect of the Bloomingdale Trail is its community support. People from neighborhoods all along the 2.7 miles of the trail offered their input at community meetings and events. MVVA took this advice and incorporated it into their plan, making Bloomingdale Trail truly a community project.

Northerly Island after Meigs Field closed.

Northerly Island Park began as a vision in architect and urban planner Daniel Burham’s mind. He saw the park as the first in a series of manmade islands stretching along the coastline of Lake Michigan. The park was used as a site for the World’s Fair in 1933-34, and had trails, green space, and a beach. However this publicly accessible space was converted to an airstrip in 1947, called Meigs Field.  The air strip continued to operate until 2003, when, in an intriguing twist of events, the then mayor shut it down and ordered the runways to be torn out. The space went mostly unused until 2010, when the Chicago Parks District released its Framework Plan for the island. The Parks District worked with JJR Landscape Architecture, Studio Gang Architects, and other organizations on the creation of the Framework Plan, laying out a strategy to convert the land back to a park over the next 30 years. The plan calls for many different zones on the island.The zones transition from active to passive and from urban to natural as one moves south away from the entry point and towards the farther reaches of the island. The park incorporates things like an outdoor music venue, camping areas, bird watching blinds, and a lagoon where swimmers and divers can explore the waters of Lake Michigan.

A rendering of Northerly Island Park.

These urban renewal projects are inspiring to us for their sustainable aspects of reclaiming brownfield sites and also for the big impact they can have by bringing dense urban populations together, ease transit and support wildlife. Over the next year we will continue to highlight urban cities and projects like these that we find inspiring. Contact us at if you know of a project that you’d like to nominate for a future article.