One of the most exciting demonstrations of public/private, landscape/civil engineering coordination and multi-citizen engagement in Chicago is “The 606,” the new pedestrian raised park. This project is about the future and the past. The post-industrial elevated railway has been reinvented to become a modern 21st-century piazza. At this moment the project is about 90 percent complete, yet open for business. It is sometimes called the Bloomingdale Trail.
The plan of the 2.7-mile, linear, elevated park runs from east to the west, penetrating four neighborhoods. Blair Kamin the Chicago Tribune architecture critic wrote, “So on the one hand, The 606 offers serenity and a relaxed atmosphere that’s in perfect pitch with Chicago’s muscular, unpretentious Midwestern vibe. In contrast to New York’s High Line, the ultrachic, hyper-crowded elevated park that wends through Manhattan, The 606 is down-to-earth, not otherworldly; modestly designed, not virtuosic; primarily aimed at locals, not tourists.”
For any city to remain healthy, it must be constantly changing and reinventing itself. The 606 is a monumental study of metamorphosis from static use into horizontal renewal. The entrances are teaming with walkers, runners, bikers, skateboarders, baby strollers and wheelchairs all seemingly going somewhere. The new park was culled from the 100-year-old obsolete freight route from the Kennedy Expressway to the Ridgeway West Trailhead on Lawndale.
What is fascinating is the quiet and peace we discover in this new world, 17 ½ feet above street level. Sound primarily travels linearly. Once you have scaled one of the nine access points, the street noise is dampened, leaving a calm, peaceful world. We discover a safe place, designed to attract urban dwellers who seek out relief from the stress, noise and danger of the streets below — a welcome respite where we hear the rustle of wind, birds chirping and the chatter of people enjoying a safe walk far above the hectic and dangerous streets below.
The linear park is beautifully designed, fully taking advantage of the vistas, landscape and ramped access points. The designers have created a unified design language of materials and lighting while exploiting the route’s surprising variety.
The 606 will always be compared to New York’s High Line, the first elevated rails-to-trails park, but clearly distinct from it. Matthew Urbanski the landscape designer from Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates notes, “The Highline is a bridge with a garden on it. This is a landscape” The plan is less flowery. The 606 industrial aesthetic is softened with informal green for contrast. A 14-foot-wide path is constantly weaving from one tract to the other, dramatizing the curvilinear at pedestrian scale. The pattern responds to the constant change of the neighborhood, whether it be adjacent to a baseball field, a dog park, a vista down one of the main streets, one of the dramatic bridges or an opportunity to introduce more green options for transportation.
Unique to this design team, Chicago artist Francis Whitehead from the School of the Art Institute was focused on the aesthetic and sustainability quality of the project.
The 606 (named after the first three digits of all Chicago zip codes) was uniquely funded by a Federal Highway Administration program called Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality, which provided $50 million of The 606’s $95 million budget. The balance of the funding came from $40 million in private donations and $5 million from the city and County. The apparent success of this project has stimulated interest in an addition of two more elevated rail parks.
We biked the new route, end to end, to see the terminations which are under construction but promise to be dramatic, with a children’s park at the east and spiral observatory at the west ends. Perhaps we could interest The 606 to extend the elevated concept to Oak Park; this would create a very cool western trailhead.
Garret Eakin, is an architect, Plan Commission member, and adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute.