It’s an ongoing challenge for the park-poor Little Village community: How to transform vacant, abandoned and sometimes polluted lots into green spaces that foster flowers and soccer games.
Students at the alternative design school Archeworks are tackling this big problem by thinking about small spaces.
Working with the non-profit Neighbor Space, they aim to replace unused land with “pocket parks,” to be designed and maintained by residents.
Founded by in the early 1990s by Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman and designer Eva Maddox, Archeworks pursues a unique mission. Its cross-disciplinary student teams work closely with community groups to address real-world social and environmental problems.
“In addition to design, a lot of the work here focuses on the building of social relationships, either with individuals, government or community entities,” says Kees Lokman, a landscape architect and a facilitator on the project.
Community groups welcome the help. They view park space as vital for the health of the densely populated and demographically young community.
“This is kind of a different approach for us,” says Christine Bronsing, health coordinator at Enlace, a community development corporation that is partnering with Archeworks.
“We’ve tried to get larger parcels developed for parks and haven’t had a lot of success, due to political obstacles and other factors.”
Little Village’s deficit in open space is well documented. According to city reports, it contains the least green space per capita of any Chicago neighborhood.
Last semester was all about research to prepare for the “visioning” process.
The seven students, who receive a professional certificate when they've completed the program, walked the neighborhoods, talked with residents and consulted dozens of city and census reports. They studied parks in the Chicago and other cities. They mapped out gang boundaries, schools, existing green spaces and areas of concentrated air pollution.
Kadi Franson, a 24-year-old artist from Pilsen, says she looks forward to resident's suggestions for incorporating the heritage of the primarily Latino community into park spaces.
“I’m very drawn to Hispanic culture and art—the colors, the craftsmanship, the family orientation,” says Franson.
Aaron Drake, 27, is a sail maker who studied political science in college, where he became “disenchanted with big government solutions” and excited about the potential for problem-solving at the community level.
He says the group has learned that it’s rare for community-managed parks to survive long-term.
“The key question for us is, ‘How do we get people to get excited enough to stay involved,” he says. “We don’t want to just put something in and find two years down the road that it’s in disrepair.”
The students adjusted course after a mid-term critique, says Chris Vandenbrink, 26, an architect.
“We zoomed out to focus more on how to connect the entire community,” says Vandenbrink. “We ultimately came up with a very layered grid that included alternative transportation routes and different ways to give the whole community access to green space.”
The concept of “safe streets” to provide passage between neighborhoods and parks will play a key role in this interconnectedness, says Vandenbrink.
One idea along these lines is to “green” 26th Street, a business thoroughfare that runs through Little Village.
This semester, the students will take their broad plans to the community through a “charette,” a multi-day, hands-on design roundtable with neighborhood leaders and interested residents.
As a preliminary step, they’re recruiting a steering committee and strengthening connections with groups like the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization and the Little Village Violence Collaborative.
At this point, they’ve identified four to five sites that could host community gardens or recreational space. They emphasize that residents’ input will be crucial as they get down to the design details.
“We’re hoping to get these charettes going and be breaking ground by Spring,” says Franson.
Jennifer Slosar is a Chicago-based freelance journalist. She covers environmental issues for the Daily News