Wild in the City: Chicagoland's Urban Ecology

Planned Parks Take Root

For the next several years, the aptly named Lake Park languished. The prevailing Victorian sensibilities viewed the natural wetland shore as a bleak swampland, ill-suited to recreation. In 1865, two things occurred that raised the park’s profile and forever altered its landscape. In an homage to the recently assassinated president, and in an effort to garner public support for the development, Lake Park was renamed Lincoln Park. 

The same year, Swain Nelson, a prominent Scandinavian-born landscape architect, was contracted to design both Lincoln Park and Union Park on Chicago’s west side. Nelson’s whimsical designs turned the sparse Midwestern savanna into a European ideal. The native landscape of prairie grasses and swampy marshlands was transformed. Tranquil ponds were dug and rolling hills were formed from the excavated material. These carefully planned green spaces proved popular with the public, leading the state in 1869 to establish the South, West, and Lincoln Park Commissions to oversee the establishment and management of public parkland and boulevards. 

By now our little sapling had grown into a full-fledged tree, probably more than 30 feet tall but still far from its full height. One of the winding paths of the new Lincoln Park would pass under its wide branches, casting gentle shade on the men in derby hats and women in high collared dresses strolling underneath. Rather than a place to see the native landscape in its raw form, these parks were designed around a heavily manicured ideal of the natural world. Its emphasis was on recreation—ponds allowed for pleasure boating while winding, shaded paths encouraged leisurely strolls. 

This emulation of a European model was common in emerging American cities, eager to establish themselves as heirs to the cultural legacy of the great Old World capitals and sensitive to being perceived as boorish pioneer backwaters. Many years would pass before conservation entered into the popular consciousness. 



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