Courtesy: Millennium Reserve

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

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

Most Popular

  1. A photo-illustration of several big-box retail stores.
    Equity

    After the Retail Apocalypse, Prepare for the Property Tax Meltdown

    Big-box retailers nationwide are slashing their property taxes through a legal loophole known as "dark store theory." For the towns that rely on that revenue, this could be a disaster.

  2. A photo of a mural in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
    Life

    Stop Complaining About Your Rent and Move to Tulsa, Suggests Tulsa

    In an effort to beef up the city’s tech workforce, the George Kaiser Family Foundation is offering $10,000, free rent, and other perks to remote workers who move to Tulsa for a year.

  3. Equity

    Housing Can’t Be Both Affordable and a Good Investment

    The two pillars of American housing policy are fundamentally at odds.

  4. A photo of protesters carrying anti-Amazon posters during a rally and press conference in NYC.
    Amazon HQ2

    Amazon’s HQ2 Decision Was Always About Transit

    In the end, New York’s MTA and D.C.’s Metro were the only transportation networks capable of handling such an influx of new residents. But both cities will have some work to do.

  5. A mural of the Statues of Liberty and an American flag on a barn in Iowa
    Equity

    The Growing Inequality Between America’s Superstar Cities, and the Rest

    A new Brookings study documents the growing economic divergence of America’s superstar cities from smaller urban and rural areas.