A Plan for America's Largest Urban Park

A new initiative will convert 140,000 acres in Chicago into a public recreation "hub"

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Courtesy: Millennium Reserve

The largest urban park in the contiguous United States is coming to Chicago.

A new project, backed by at least $17 million from the state, aims to turn 140,000 acres of under-used and post-industrial land along the Second City's southern rim into a public recreation hub called the Millennium Reserve.

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn hopes to add private funding to the project, figuring the reserve will boost the economy and create hundreds of jobs. Environmental groups have been calling for a makeover for the Calumet region for years. "The Millennium Reserve Plan represents the first viable, large-scale attempt to protect and enhance the Lake Calumet area through an integrated, cooperative approach to land and resource management," the Sierra Club of Illinois said in a statement.

In comparison, New York's renowned Central Park is a mere 843 acres. In fact, New York City itself has four or five parks larger than Central Park, depending on who's counting. Still, its attractions include a zoo and wildlife center, a lake, a concert arena and a world-class restaurant, as well as an endless list of film locations.

Chicago's largest existing park is Lincoln Park, a 1,200 acre lakefront stretch of ball fields and open space that includes a conservatory, a nature museum and a popular zoo. Though partially outside the city, the Millennium Reserve will put it to shame, upon completion. The first phase is scheduled to open in a few years.

Perhaps surprisingly, both these major cities lag in terms of park acreage per capita, according to a study released earlier this month by the Trust for Public Land. Minneapolis and Oakland top the list of park space in the largest U.S. cities, at about 13 acres per 1,000 residents, while New York and Chicago, at just above 4 acres per 1,000 residents, place 13th and 14th, respectively, behind Los Angeles and just above Newark, New Jersey. 

The largest urban parks in the lower 48 are Franklin Mountains State Park, 24,000 acres of rugged desert hills mostly outside El Paso, and New Orleans' Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, 23,000 acres of brackish marshes filled with alligators, pelicans and raptors. But these are less recreation hubs than nature and animal reserves. One local outfit has been adding "floating islands" to help preserve Bayou Sauvage coastline.

The largest urban park deserving of the name in the contiguous United States is probably Phoenix's South Mountain Park, at more than 16,000 acres. A dusty, craggy stretch of rocks and rolling brush, it was created from a parcel President Calvin Coolidge sold to the city in the 1920's. Today it's still mostly untamed, with rattlesnakes, lizards and a variety of terrain, though Phoenix's sprawl has nearly enclosed it.

Internationally, Table Mountain National Park in Capetown is one of the largest and most spectacular urban spaces in the world. At 60,000 up-and-down acres, the park is a stunner and a tourist highlight. Table Mountain itself is a national symbol on par with Rio's Christ the Redeemer.

But the big daddy of them all is Alaska's Chugach State Park. Technically within the municipality of Anchorage, it spills across nearly half a million acres and is the third-largest state park in the country. Chugach is a breathtaking coastal stretch of snow-capped mountains, with dozens of trails, three public campgrounds, several lakes and waterways and a fine spot for viewing Beluga whales.

Millennium Reserve will be no match for Chugach, but for those living anywhere near this flat, mostly post-industrial swathe on Chicago's southern edge, it will still be a dream come true.

Here's a look at how the Millennium Reserve stacks up against other urban parks of note:

About the Author

  • David Lepeska is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.