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A Renaissance in the Windy City

A warm summer afternoon in Chicago beckons workers out from their offices. Image © Gensler

Downtown Chicago is going through an urban renaissance. Companies are moving back, apartment construction is booming, and hotel stays are increasing.

These new urban inhabitants are digital native residents of an established concrete jungle. We have learned that they expect a hybrid urban environment, different than what has been here before. It needs to be as flexible as the apps screen on their iPhones. They expect pedestrian friendly streets, bicycle accommodating traffic lanes, a place to sit in parks and plazas, temporary pop-up-galleries, and food trucks. While technology has become ubiquitous, the space is what attracts them.

Recently, Gensler has been focusing on Chicago’s urban environment as it relates to some of the youngest of these urbanophiles: the college student.

Long gone are the static benches up and down streets in the Loop—in fact, good luck finding one. State Street is one of the widest, most densely populated streets in the city of Chicago, and yet I can’t find one place to sit. In 1996, the bus mall was removed and the current iteration of streetscape was created. At my first Chicago Loop Alliance meeting three years ago, I asked the question, “Why can’t I sit on State Street?”

New York has a long tradition of trading zoning accommodations in return for public space dedication. These pale in success to the newest parklets dotting the city in traffic circles, Times Square, and Columbus Circle.

Other cities across the country—New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles—have added seating in urban areas. The added seating has correlated with a decrease in crime. Some attribute the sense of community that a few extra seats create as part of the reason: Community members tend to protect the spaces they value as important.

Through the support and encouragement of the Alderman’s office, CDOT, City Hall the department of Cultural Affairs, and the Chicago Loop Alliance, this project, now called the Gateway, became a reality. On Friday, June 7 there was a press conference that officially opened the plaza. The din of road noise and CTA trains made it hard to hear the remarks at the press conference, but that is okay—we are in an urban environment. Through populating this left-over urban space, we have created a space where digital native residents, nearby workers, and students can gather. It is ultimately up to them to determine how the space will become a place that is meaningful. Only time will tell.

To document this urban space, the Chicago Loop Alliance is embarking on a photo journaling research project that will chronicle the use and activity zones over the summer. What do you think? Are there spaces around you that need an intervention? What would you want in these new urban spaces?

Image © Gensler

David Broz is very involved in his community, sitting on nearly a dozen not-for-profit boards and committees, ranging from "Placemaking in the Loop" to "Multicultural Scholars Program at the University of Kansas." A common thread runs through his work and his volunteer efforts: the desire to create great spaces to live, work, and play that respond to today's social and economic realities. Contact him at david_broz@gensler.com.

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