Skip to main content

During this trying time for all Chicagoans, urban parks present us with a new paradox: we crave nature and restorative time outdoors—particularly with the arrival of spring—and yet, many parks are closed to maintain safe spatial distancing.

by Ian Spula

Curious to know more about Chicago’s historical precedent for widespread park closures and the links between parks and public health, we reached out to award-winning author, historian, preservationist and urban planner Julia Bachrach.

A frequent speaker and instructor at the CAC and other cultural institutions, Bachrach served as the Chicago Park District’s historian and planning supervisor for more than two decades. Now a consultant and avid blogger, she researches local architecture and designed landscapes, compiles historic surveys, works on landmark nominations and documents cultural resources.

Here’s an excerpt from our interview. To read more about the history of Chicago’s parks, check out Bachrach’s blog at

What’s the historical relationship between parks and public health, particularly in Chicago?

Parks and public health have been intertwined for centuries in cities around the world. Frederick Law Olmsted, creator of New York City’s Central Park, believed that large, well-designed parks would serve as an antidote to the smoky, crowded, and stressful conditions in the nation’s growing cities. In the late 1860s, park advocates on Chicago’s South Side commissioned Olmsted to create a visionary plan for a 1,055-acre green space later named Jackson Park, Washington Park and the Midway Plaisance. In Olmsted’s 1871 report for Chicago’s South Park, he explained that “designing a park in the environs of a rapidly growing” city would promote its “healthfulness as a residence,” and would be “beneficent” to the “whole community.”

Later in the 19th century, a German fitness movement called Turn-Verein (which helped inspire modern-day gymnastics and Pilates) had a profound impact on how Chicagoans utilized their parks. The city was a major hub for this movement, so “Turner” clubs—or places for social and political gatherings that also promoted active recreation—opened in various neighborhoods. These groups often held gymnastics festivals in Chicago’s large parks and encouraged the expansion of running tracks and natatoriums in the parks, starting with a Douglas Park facility built in 1896.

Has Chicago ever closed its parks to the degree we’re seeing now?

Not that I’m aware of, not even during the 1918 flu pandemic when spitting, dancing and large gatherings were banned and some suburban country clubs became makeshift hospitals. The polio scares of the 1940s and 1950s led to swimming pool closures in the suburbs, although pools remained open in the city’s parks. And, of course, today we have regular closures of public beaches due to bacteria levels.

How were Chicago’s parks utilized during past public health crises?

A couple of events come to mind. Over a century ago, when there were terrible outbreaks of cholera and tuberculosis, many victims of these diseases were buried in the City Cemetery at the edge of Lake Michigan. A physician named Dr. John Rauch warned that the deteriorating corpses could contaminate the drinking supply for the entire city. He believed that parks would serve as the “lungs of the city,” and rallied for the cemetery’s conversion into Lincoln Park.

Another area that would also become part of Lincoln Park (near Diversey Avenue and the Lake) was designated as “cholera grounds” in the 1860s for overflow treatment of the ill (not unlike what we’re seeing right now in New York City’s Central Park). About a decade later, a temporary wooden structure on a barge near Fullerton Avenue was built to serve as a floating hospital. In addition, the Prairie style structure that is now Theater on the Lake was originally the Daily News Fresh Air Fund Sanitarium. Lake breezes were considered very healing, so sick kids from the neighborhood would take a bus to the hospital for the day, and get fresh milk and healthcare.

How has the desire to create healing, or “restorative,” green space influenced park design in Chicago and elsewhere?

Park designers have always faced tension as they aim to create beautiful spaces for passive enjoyment while also accommodating the need for structured recreational activities, with ball fields, golf courses, swimming pools, etc. This issue is most acute in cities, where open space is a finite thing.

In the history of Chicago’s parks, Jens Jensen was really good at designing parks to meet both needs. He followed the precept that “if you can’t bring the city to the country, then you must bring the country to the city.” His work in Chicago’s parks—most notably Humboldt, Garfield, Douglas and Columbus—featured the sculptural layering of plants and use of lawns and waterways to define space. He often created outdoor rooms or sun openings. In some instances, he dotted them with trees to create shady nooks where older folks could watch children play in nearby fields. Jensen also took a strong interest in alleviating overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions in the city. Along with architect Dwight H. Perkins, he helped found the Cook County Forest Preserves, specifically as a natural refuge from the city.

Considering the obvious value of parks to public health—particularly during a pandemic—how can we meaningfully expand access to green space today in Chicago?

Although the city has around 600 parks today, there is, in fact, not enough open space for our population. In the 1990s, the City worked with the Chicago Park District and Cook County Forest Preserves to determine how and where new green spaces could be created. That initiative, underwritten with a grant from the Chicago Community Trust, led to the CitySpace Plan, which utilizes a per capita methodology. The minimum standard is two acres per 1,000 residents for each of Chicago’s 77 community areas.

In the more than two decades since the plan was adopted, the Chicago Park District has made great strides in developing new parks. While the public sector can’t afford the kind of labor-intensive landscapes that were created 100 years ago, there is a push toward “natural” parks. The City and Park District have been working together to acquire former industrial lands and improve them in ecologically healthy ways. One of the first examples was the transformation of the old Stearns Quarry in Bridgeport into Palmisano Park. New wetland preserves in the Calumet area, such as Big Marsh Park and Hegewisch Marsh Park, are others.

What do you think the future holds for Chicago’s parks?

Some urban planners are predicting that, because of COVID-19 and other future pandemics, large parks will be prioritized in the future to encourage social distancing. Personally, I don’t think this makes sense. Festivals and gatherings take place in the city’s larger parks, and these are the kinds of group activities we may have to avoid. I don’t think the answer is related specifically to size, but in the kinds of experiences people can have in parks. If people continue to have the opportunity to work at home in the future, perhaps parks will be used during different shifts since we won’t all be on a 9-to-5 work schedule. But no matter what happens, I think parks and open space will always be a high priority for Chicagoans.

As the stay-at-home order continues, what parks are on your mind?

Humboldt Park is one of my favorite places, with tremendous landscape design and great architecture in the park. If you’re looking for an alternative to the now-closed lakefront, you’ll find a lot to love in Jensen’s “Prairie River,” the Schmidt, Garden and Martin-designed boathouse and several fascinating monuments.

To help contend with the stress of the COVID-19 crisis, my family adopted a one-year-old dog from our neighborhood pet shelter. Our daughters named her Tippy Pickles Bachrach. I’ve been taking her on lots of walks, but I am looking forward to future adventures with her in the parks, especially once the lakefront reopens!