Placemaking Projects in Greater Chicago
With its rich history, diverse population, and thriving cultural scene, the city of Chicago and its surrounding suburbs offer several compelling examples of strong placemaking initiatives.
Illustrating the city’s commitment to placemaking, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) issued a report including best-practices advice and guidance along with a series of local case studies representing placemaking projects of various scopes and sizes.
Common Elements of Successful Placemaking Initiatives
The report lists the following common elements of successful placemaking initiatives:
- Open Space: Parks, gardens, and other natural spaces contribute to community character by providing opportunities for recreation, gatherings, and events, and complement other community anchors.
- Programming: Events and programs that spark civic engagement and community involvement contribute to a sense of place.
- Historic preservation: Leveraging historic preservation and repurposing historic structures can create unique destinations.
- Public art: Murals, sculptures, performances, and other forms of public art can be accessed by all members of the community, helping to establish a sense of place.
- Street life: Making streetscapes more vibrant, friendlier, and safer can benefit multiple community partners.
- Architecture: In addition to historic structures, thoughtfully designed modern architecture projects can contribute to a sense of place by helping to create unique destinations.
The report also highlighted a series of featured projects.
Three Oaks Recreation Area
Located about 50 miles northwest of downtown Chicago near Crystal Lake, the Three Oaks Recreation Area is an innovative example of the creative re-use of a former industrial site. The area was formerly a gravel quarry, abandoned after four decades of mining. As a result of the extraction activities, the water table was exposed, creating two lakes. After the mining was completed in the late 1990s, the City of Crystal Lake took over the property and launched an ambitious $14.37-million plan to create a recreation area.
Today Three Oaks is a go-to destination for watersports enthusiasts, offering a recreation beach, scuba diving lessons, and a host of aquatic activities. During winter months, the park transforms into a winter sports lover’s paradise with sledding hills and more.
More than just an example of creative and adaptive re-use of an underutilized asset, the recreation area is also an important economic engine, supporting more than 100 jobs.
Sembrando Bajo el Sol
Taking its name from the Spanish words for “Sowing in the Sun,” 6062Trees: Sembrando Bajo el Sol is a community garden and pocket park carved out of a vacant concrete lot in the Little Village neighborhood. Organizing for the garden began in 2008 as local nonprofit groups came together to consider possibilities for this West Side location. The site now serves as an allotment garden, where families, individuals, and organizations can come together to cultivate their own healthy foods or to take gardening classes.
A popular community gathering place, the park also draws visitors to its playground, rain garden, and community theater space, and to admire a mural installed by local artists. The project’s success can be attributed to the efforts of the local nonprofits who came together to provide funding, management, and programming support, such as Enlace Chicago, NeighborSpace, Positive Space, and the Midwest Ecological Landscaping Association.
The town of Harvard, located about 75 miles northwest of Chicago, is home to the Starline Factory, an excellent example of how a historic preservation project can turn into a remarkable opportunity for placemaking. In 1888, the Hunt, Helm, Ferris & Company constructed the factory building to manufacture agricultural tools for local farmers. It evolved over the next century as the region’s manufacturing economy changed. At the time it closed its doors in 1994, it served as a metal coating facility operated by Chromalloy America.
A former employee of Chromalloy America, Orrin Kinney, purchased the vacant building in 2000, saving it from demolition. With assistance from the city’s incubuator-style business investment program, he spent more than a decade transforming the historic building into a flexible, 278,000-square-foot office and event space complete with an artisan market and a pub. Today the building is a destination for artists and art enthusiasts, entrepreneurs, and members of the community.
Plainfield Historic District
The town of Plainfield, located 35 miles southwest of downtown Chicago, boasts a turn-of-the-nineteenth-century Main Street vibe with its unique architecture and active historic preservation program, giving the area a strong sense of place.
The first settlers arrived in the Plainfield area in the 1830s, thanks to the construction of a sawmill on the nearby DuPage River. The town continued to thrive into the twentieth century. In 1940, it was best known as the crossroads of Route 66 and the Lincoln Highway—then the two longest highways in the world.
The town’s four-block historic district evolved over the course of more than 100 years, from its earliest settlement days through the 1960s. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2013 in recognition of its vibrant Village Center, historic churches, and dozens of businesses reflecting a range of architectural styles from Greek Revival to Queen Anne.
To create—and preserve—this unique sense of place, the town launched a complete streetscape renovation effort in 2009, installing new concrete sidewalks, parkway areas with multi-colored brick pavers, pedestrian crossings, planting beds with stones walls, period gas‐light‐style streetlamps, and street furniture, and starting a Façade Matching Grant Program to help maintain building exteriors. A Heritage Tree Recognition Program was also introduced to celebrate the town’s significant trees by entering them into a special registry.
The town also developed historic walking tours to help tell the community’s story, with QR codes posted on buildings throughout the neighborhood to serve up interpretive information about noteworthy sites. With its appealing sense of place, Downtown Plainfield has become a popular destination for dozens of community events each year, including festivals, parades, and races.
Plainfield’s recognition on the National Register of Historic Places delivers other benefits, helping to protect historic properties and making them eligible for federal tax credit programs for rehabilitation costs. With its aesthetic appeal and immersive sense of place, local businesses and institutions enjoy economic benefits from visitors and locals who come here to shop, dine, explore, and take part in events.
Boxville in Bronzeville
Boxville is an example of an urban incubator project that brought a renewed sense of place and vitality to Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, the historic commercial and cultural center of the city’s Black community.
Once a thriving urban district, Bronzeville suffered a downturn in the late twentieth century after its stockyards and steel mills closed, prompting other businesses to decamp to other areas as well.
The Boxville concept started in 2014 when local entrepreneurs retrofitted a shipping container and opened it in the neighborhood as the Bronzeville Bike Box, providing neighbors and commuters with a local source for bike sales and services. Three years later, the concept expanded as community developers and architects retrofitted and repurposed additional shipping container boxes into an open-air retail mall. In the process, they created an innovative space where entrepreneurs could test-market their products by renting shipping containers or single tables.
Initially serving 15 local businesses, Boxville quickly grew into a thriving weekly market and doubled its footprint in 2018 by adding a community gathering and event space, dubbed Neighborhood Square. Shipping containers are arranged around the square, with seating, street art, and music all contributing to Boxville’s unique and distinct sense of place.
Today Boxville operates year-round, with 17 shipping containers hosting up to 20 businesses, ranging from bicycle repair shops to food trucks to fashion designers, with space also available to community organizations and non-profits. Featured businesses pay very low rent with no long-term commitments, providing them a chance to test out their business ideas with limited risk.