Camping Comes to Downtown Chicago

Northerly Island Plan

Ever wish you could go camping downtown?

A relatively obscure peninsula of undeveloped land that juts into Lake Michigan just east of Museum Campus has been in the news a lot this week. You might remember it as the controversial Meigs Field, a small airport until one evening in 2003 when former mayor Richard M. Daley literally destroyed it under cover of darkness.

Current mayor Rahm Emanuel defended his predecessor's decision last week, and then this week, he and the Chicago Park District unveiled an exciting, creatively financed, $4.3 million plan to both ecologically restore Northerly Island for native wildlife and transform it into an "urban camping hub for familes, children, and at-risk youth," as seen in the rendering above. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will start relandscaping the southern end of the peninsula this very fall, and next year 900 camping permits will be available.

If you've visited Northerly Island in the last ten years, you probably weren't too impressed. It's not all bad: there are a few trails through the prairie grasses that are enjoyable enough on bike or on foot (as detailed in my book), several beautiful sculptures, a good number of birds (swallows, terns, gulls, and martins, to name a few) and great views of our famed skyline. It is a very peaceful, austere place to visit.

But still, the site remains a fairly unremarkable plot of grass, as you can see below. Camping there now would be about as fun as camping on Soldier Field, but without the stadium to block the wind.

Northerly Island, Today

This fall, Army Corps Engineers will close the southern 40 acres of the peninsula for a year, while they complete Phase One of the project: installing "a pond, hydraulically controlled through Lake Michigan ground water, multi-purpose trail, nature trails, boardwalks, camping areas, viewpoints, rolling hills, native plantings, and tree plantings."

In all, the first phase of redevelopment should last from November 2012 through the spring of 2014. The new camping programs, as well as educational outings presented by the nearby museums, will begin next year.

Instead of a relatively featureless prairie, the new Northerly Island will consistent of 6 interdependent ecosystems. The pond will be protected from invasive species in Lake Michigan like carp, to allow smaller organisms to thrive, such as salamanders and turtles. The wetland will hopefully attract native wildlife like herons and wood ducks, similar to the Lincoln Park Zoo's newly restored Nature Boardwalk.

Long-term, the city also hopes to build a lagoon at Northerly Island, surrounded by man-made reef islands, where they can install underwater cameras for wildlife viewing and a sunken ship for scuba divers.

After the plan was announced, Greg Hinz of Crain's Chicago Business panned the idea as "underwhelming," adding that the site "needs to be developed for heavy use, not the sort of passive, nature-y stuff better suited to, say, the Indiana Dunes, or Cook County Forest Preserves." He suggests using the space for soccer fields and water facilities.

But there are soccer fields a few miles north in Lincoln Park and Oz Park, and the new plan for Northerly Island includes plenty of swimming, canoeing, and kayaking areas. To get to the nearest Cook County Forest Preserve, however, is a twelve-mile trip up I-94. And good luck reaching most of them via public transportation.

Creating a space for campers, hikers, birders, and kayakers so close to downtown, where any and every Chicagoan is just a short walk from nature, is a bold, game-changing plan for the city that will further distinguish it from its rivals, a plan that Daniel Burnham--the man whose 1909 Plan of Chicago inspired Northerly Island in the first place--would've been proud of.

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  • Great idea!

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    If the Park District was really smart they'd find someplace to build a SAFE RV Park. They have harbors for boats but fail to realize how many land yachts exist in the US.
    Tent camping is a start but we older people don't care for sleeping on the ground any more.

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