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With the New Museum Campus Vision, Chicago Could Become a True “City in a Garden”

It is hard to imagine another location on earth quite like Chicago’s Museum Campus. Three world-class institutions sit side by side, devoted to the study of the earth, heavens, and water. Views capture what sets Chicago apart as a global city – where one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes meets a people’s park and architecturally renowned skyline. No matter what happens at Soldier Field in the future, the Museum Campus has and always will play a formative role in crafting the spirit of Chicago. Yet we still fall short when thinking about that spirit and Chicago’s motto, City in a Garden. Now, a new plan offers opportunities to bring nature back to the Museum Campus: creating a recreational and restorative urban nature retreat that educates through integrated stories of people and the rich environment in which we live. This new vision of the Museum Campus can truly make Chicago “A City in a Garden” and a destination for its residents and global visitors.

With this new vision comes a renewed sense of place. Most Chicagoans know the Museum Campus as the narrowly defined areas around Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, the Adler Planetarium, and sometimes Soldier Field. The new vision encompasses a broader campus, including Northerly Island, going west to DuSable Lake Shore Drive and the McCormick Bird Sanctuary to the south, all under the ownership of the Chicago Park District. The plan also puts the Museum Campus in context with the other magnificent public spaces, entertainment, and natural areas along the lake and downtown, proposing transportation connections between existing systems and places to increase accessibility. With this plan, the Museum Campus seamlessly integrates with the entire lakefront—from Grant Park through the Burnham Wildlife Corridor to the Obama Presidential Center and beyond—creating directional and interpretive signage and coordinated pedestrian and bike trail systems for an easier and more enjoyable experience for all.

Most exciting is the proposed rewilding of the campus, restoring the ecological integrity of Northerly Island as a powerful outdoor laboratory of nature-based solutions to climate change. Restoring larger areas of the campus with native plants and trees will create beauty and minimize expenses to the Park District and museums, and create much-needed habitat for migrating birds. In addition, moving the Huntington Bank Pavilion to an area on campus better suited for entertainment will create a therapeutic and recreational urban retreat for residents and visitors alike. The terminal at Northerly Island is ideally situated to become an environmental learning center for students, families, and visitors and the focus of a Great Lakes Climate Lab. The Climate Lab should build on the strengths and expertise of the three institutions and bring in multiple partners such as local universities, not-for-profits, and regional and national leaders. Imagine the opportunities for placemaking and creative interpretation with three world-renowned institutions to interpret earth, sky, and water on one campus surrounded by the native beauty of the prairie! The Campus can serve as a model for the entire lakefront and across the Great Lakes.

This vision for the Museum Campus will only be successful with increased accessibility and transportation solutions. This is especially true for the communities to the west. The plan aptly calls for pedestrian and bike connections across DuSable Lake Shore Drive, including access to Northerly Island from the 18th street bridge and Waldron Drive. In addition, it recommends dependable Bus, trolley, and bike options are available to all Chicagoans year-round so it can be a place everyone can enjoy. To ensure that, the City’s next steps must include broad public engagement leading to a comprehensive overall plan that makes the campus inviting to all Chicagoans and visitors.

Chicago became world-renowned when it protected its lakefront and created the Museum Campus. Now, we can create a new model for the world – an economic engine for our city and a community park that centers natural climate resiliency, education, and entertainment for all. Let’s live up to our motto as a true City in a Garden.

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