The Broadest Shoulders in Town: Mayor Richard M. Daley Views Parks and Open Spaces as Crucial to His City's High Quality of Life

Parks & Recreation, October 2010 | Go to article overview

The Broadest Shoulders in Town: Mayor Richard M. Daley Views Parks and Open Spaces as Crucial to His City's High Quality of Life


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IN 1989, WHEN HE WON THE FIRST OF HIS SEVEN TERMS of office as Mayor of Chicago, Richard M. Daley saw a city being depleted by a suburban exodus. The "livability" that made the suburbs appealing lay long dormant in Chicago. Attention to education and the livability characterized by parks and open space suffered in the decline. Daley's success in battling to improve Chicago's public schools is legendary; but just as deep, and more visible were his efforts to "beautify" the city.

"Treers, flowers, parks, attractive open spaces: These things are contagious," he told a conference of the Urban Parks Institute in 2001. "When people experience them. they want more of them. And they are willing to pay for them. because they know they are getting something for their money.

Over Daley's 21 years m office, Chicago has seen remarkable changes that have made the city more livable, as well as sustainable. In addition to opening dozens of neighborhood parks and play lots and renovating older parks Chicago now has two new major destination-worthy parks--the $475 million Millennium Park and Northerly Island. The city has planted more than 300,000 trees, promoted rooftop gardens (including one a top City Hall), and overhauled its streetscapes. His After Scholl Matters program linked high schools with nearby parks and libraries in his belief that "education must extend beyond the six-hour school day and the nine-month school year."

The Chicago Park District administers the city's parks and recreation system. With an annual budget of $385 million, it's the largest park district in the country, enjoys the distinction of being an independent taxing authority, and is considered a separate agency of the city. The Mayor of Chicago appoints the CEO of the Park District, and in 2004 Daley named Tim Mitchell its chief executive.

The son of another legendary Chicago mayor, Richard J. Daley, the younger Daley grew up in the Chicago neighborhood of Bridgeport, the fourth of seven children. After earning a B.A. from Providence College and a law degree from DePaul University, he entered the world of elective politics. He served in the Illinois Senate from 1972-1980 and then as Cook County State's Attorney. Daley took office as mayor on his birthday, April 24, 1989. In 2005, Time magazine ranked Daley number-one in its article on the top five U.S. mayors.

In looking back on his youth in the Bridgeport neighborhood, Daley sees some formative connection with his advocacy for parks and open space.

"Growing up, my siblings, friends, and I--like many children--spent countless hours playing in our neighborhood park," Daley says. "Today, children and families still use parks as a primary source of community recreation. Particularly in a big city, children need open space to run and play as well as connect with their natural environment. Parks provide those opportunities."

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While critics decry what they see as a pro-business, downtown bias, his record on creating parks and open space is much broader in reach. Early on, Daley won widespread admiration for ending a practice of favoring development of park and recreation resources in wealthier neighborhoods. In a fully developed city, but one with less parkland per capita than many major U.S. cities, Chicago had to get creative in order to expand its system of parks. Working with the school system, they tore out asphalt from playgrounds and added shrubbery, benches and more playground equipment. Daley likens these projects to "campus parks," where school children use them on weekdays and neighborhood residents use them on weeknights and weekends. That program alone totaled more than 100 park campuses. His NeighborSpace program targeted empty lots and river edges as sites for small parks and gardens.

It's a policy, if not a philosophy, that having parks in as many neighborhoods as possible is essential to a higher quality of life for Chicagoans, he says. …

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