New North Grant Park Plan Unveiled


October, 2011 Plan for North Grant Park

October, 2011 Plan for North Grant Park

Plans for the biggest renovation of Chicago’s front lawn since the dawn of Millennium Park are coming together as the date for the start of construction nears.

North Grant Park has been the subject of a series of serious meetings, public and private, over the  last few years.  This is an important piece of real estate that is used by millions of people each year, and the backyard to some of the city’s most influential homeowners.  It’s been a logistic and political nightmare for the people working to come up with a solution that will achieve the Park District’s goals while appeasing park users.

The impetus for all this hand-wringing is the fact that the East Monroe Parking Garage has serious physical problems.  The garage is underneath the park.  The problems with the garage are serious enough that the only way to repair the garage is to strip off the park in order to repair the garage’s roof.  It’s not an easy process, or a short one.  The Chicago Park District hopes to begin construction in the Fall of 2012, and finish it by Summer of 2015.  That means two full summers without a big chunk of very popular green space.

North Grant Park

The current plan involves renovating the area labeled “1” in the map above.  It’s an area between East Randolph Street and East Monroe Street, and between North Columbus Drive and the Cancer Survivor’s Garden.  The notion of renovating or upgrading Cancer Survivor’s Garden was killed by politics.  The idea of renovating Peanut Park and building a land bridge across Lake Shore Drive was killed by economics.

So what we’re left with is 20.6 acres, or about 74% of the totality of what is known as North Grant Park.  But in those 20 acres, the New York firm of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates sees a world of possibilities.

Gone are the boulevards, allées, and geometric layout that made the park resemble a formal English garden.  In are organic shapes, meandering paths, and surprises around each corner.  Out is the flat expanse of parkland.  In are rolling hills and basins that are both functional and entertaining.

That seems to be a key to the plan.  Though many of its aspects appear whimsical or put in “for the hell of it,” nearly everything serves a purpose.  

Proposed layout of hills for North Grant Park

For example, the edges of the park are lined with undulating mounds.  These aren’t mere topographical whimsies. The hills give people places to stand so they can get great views of the city skyline, Lake Michigan, and the rest of Grant Park.  They also provide shelter from the relentless winds that so often sweep across this space from Lake Michigan.  And they act as a natural sound barrier against the constant noise from cars on Lake Shore Drive and Columbus Drive.  Compared to other cities, Chicago is a noisy town, in large part because of the freeways that we allow to burrow through its core.  It’s a big reason that heart of Berlin sounds like a leafy suburb compared to the heart of Chicago.

The designers of the new park have also gone to great lengths to meet the needs of the various types of people who use the park.  For young urbanites with children, there are an array of activities aligned from the northwest corner down to the southeast corner.  For older people who use the park as a quiet escape, peaceful settings can be found running from the northeast corner to the southwest corner.  The remaining spaces are available for civic and other events.

“We want to create a plan for the park that is more diverse, more stirred up. As you’re walking through, you get to make choices — forks in the path — as you go through, about areas that are active and areas that at passive,” said designer Michael Van Valkenburgh.

MVVA is also going out of its way to make the park useable and interesting all year ’round.  While the specifics haven’t been entirely worked out, some of the firm’s projects in other cities have included things like rock walls that drip water in hot summer months, and turn into ice waterfalls in the winter, ice mazes, and various art exhibits formed from ice and snow.  

The ice skating rink at Daley Bicentennial Plaza will likely remain, but in a much more interesting form.  Instead of a white rectangle that people navigate in a circle, like a half-crazed zoo animals, the firm has proposed creating an “ice ribbon” that meanders through the park, letting skaters see different things as they journey through the park.  It will no longer be the equivalent of NASCAR on blades (“Go fast, turn left”).  In the summer, that space could be used for cafés.

All of this, of course, comes with a price tag.  The Park District has $35 million for the project right now.  If it needs more, it would court corporate and individual sponsors like it did with Millennium Park.

Construction will be a long process, but the changes when it’s all done will be dramatic enough and interesting enough that it will be like the city has been given a whole new park, and in many ways that will be true.


  • Trees, hills, rocks, and other natural elements will be used to combat heat, wind, and noise.
  • Playgrounds will contain both traditional equipment (swings, slides), and modern playforms (bridges, basins, soft things).
  • Plan includes hills, trees, meadows, picnic areas, formal entries, flower gardens, kite flying spaces, natural areas, woodlands, vistas, gathering spaces.
  • Paths will meander through the park.  They will be bordered by hills and other features to keep people on the paths and prevent them from creating “goat tracks” across the lawns.
  • Paths and entrances curve, in order to pique the curiosity, but not so much that they seem scary and foreboding.
  • Lots of evergreen trees will be used, in order to make the park more inviting in the winter.
  • While parks are, by definition, natural areas, they have to also include places where people can gather.
  • North Grant Park should be the anti-Millennium Park.
  • Lots of opportunities for children to get wet and cool off in the Summer.
  • Active landscapes to entertain children.
  • Passive landscapes to enjoy the quiet of the park.
We’ve included a number of slides from MVVA below.  You can download the firm’s entire presentation as a big fat PDF from the North Grant Park web site by clicking here.


Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at

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