The Express Lane

Chicago’s elevated rail park, the 606, was conceived and funded as transit infrastructure.

By Zach Mortice 

Eighty thousand people across four neighborhoods live along the trail.
Eighty thousand people across four neighborhoods live along the trail.

For a relatively new landscape typology, elevated rail parks suffer from no shortage of claims about what they can do for cities. Namely, they can renovate decaying infrastructure, add green space to dense urban areas, improve public health by offering more opportunities for exercise, and honor, rather than demolish, historic industrial landscapes in neighborhoods under immense pressure to remove them.

Beyond New York’s famous High Line, a new generation of elevated rail parks is adding a very practical use to the list, one quite divorced from typical ideas about recreational park use: They can become transit and commuter corridors.

Newly opened this weekend, Chicago’s new elevated rail park, called the 606 (named for the first three digits of Chicago zip codes), will offer landscaped paths to harried bicycle commuters and recreational amblers alike. The park will run 2.7 miles on the former Bloomingdale freight rail line, which has been closed since the 1990s, from the far west side almost to the River North central business district. It is said to be the first such park to combine pedestrians and cyclists along its whole length. The landscape design is by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates.

Indeed, the park is largely funded as a transit system. Most of the 606’s $95 million cost is funded by a Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) program for projects that reduce traffic congestion and air pollution. A $50 million chunk from the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) program is a small part of approximately $2 billion the CMAQ program gives out each year. The CMAQ program is often used to fund technical infrastructure upgrades (such as smokestack scrubbers), but it also funds nature trail development. Few elevated rail parks have received funding from this program, though the High Line did receive $3 million. According to figures provided by the FHWA, $50 million is one of the largest CMAQ funds awarded to an individual project. The city of Chicago and Cook County are providing the 606 with a combined $6 million, and nearly $40 million comes from private fund-raising.

The trail stretches from the city's west side to within a few miles of the River North central business district.
The trail stretches from the city’s west side to within a few miles of the River North central business district.

The Chicago Department of Transportation applied for the CMAQ money, and expects that the 606 will take 300 cars off the roads each day and cut airborne volatile organic compounds (VOCs) by one kilogram per day. The CMAQ program is focused on reducing air particulate matter and VOCs, but not carbon emissions.

How the 606 will function as a workaday piece of transit infrastructure is largely a matter of how well it will integrate with the surrounding neighborhoods. The roughly 80,000 people living along the 606 will have 12 access points, four of which are surrounded by parks either built or renovated for the reopening of the rail line. And it’s well situated in terms of public transit, intersecting with five bus lines and six surface bike paths. One entrance is a few blocks from a Chicago Transit Authority Blue Line station, and the 606’s eastern end terminates at a park next to a METRA commuter rail station. A two-lane bike path (with one lane in each direction) runs atop the entire length of the 606, flanked by rubber track jogging paths on each side. The paths take up about half of the 606’s 30-foot width, leaving the rest for landscape design, seating, and art installations.

Whereas the High Line is primarily an aerial experience (and doesn’t allow bicycles), the 606 sits on a low-slung concrete embankment. Many of the 606’s access points are designed as gently sloping ramps and parks that blend into the elevated rail line, which will let people gradually rise onto the 606, never completely disconnecting from the surrounding urban context. It’s a far more organic and neighborhood-integrated approach than the 606’s New York cousin, which abruptly hefts visitors up several stories onto a fantastic steel relic of industrial New York. The dour concrete of the 606 brings to mind transit grayscapes, like freeway entrance ramps, rather than a heroic viewing platform. And if the 606 is more prosaic, it also promises more practical value for its users. Art, both visual and performative, will be omnipresent, and there will be several venues for site-specific educational programming.

Transit has been at the center of plans for the 606 from the beginning. Early conversations about the project, says Matthew Urbanski, ASLA, a principal at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, focused on delivering a low-maintenance and efficient elevated trail, more “transit extrusion” than park. But feedback from people in the nearby neighborhoods made clear that they wanted a fully developed park, too. Urbanski began to look at ways to alter the topography of the rail bed, and that “was the first key to turning it into a landscape architecture project,” he says.

Beth White, the Chicago regional director for the Trust for Public Land, the nonprofit group that is leading development of the 606, says that community dialogue helped the development team realize that a park and a transit corridor weren’t mutually exclusive. “As we worked through the process, people came to see that it wasn’t an either/or proposition—it was a both/and proposition,” she says.

Several other elevated rail parks are also integrating transit capacity into their plans, with some pursuing the same transit funding strategies as the 606. The QueensWay project in New York City is the 606’s closest parallel, and, at 3.5 miles, could be the longest elevated rail park in existence when it’s complete. Running through a similarly dense neighborhood (322,000 people live within a mile) and one of Queens’s largest parks, the rail line was formerly the Long Island Railroad Rockaway Beach Branch, unused since 1962. The QueensWay effort is also being led by the Trust for Public Land. It will feature pedestrian and bike paths and similar approaches to neighborhood engagement. Shifts in topography are a key part of the design by the team of the architect, WXY Architecture + Urban Design, and the landscape architect, dlandstudio. The park will begin at grade, rise up an embankment, drop below grade into a trench, and end on a High Line-style steel trestle. The QueensWay is currently in a fund-raising phase, and the Trust for Public Land is also pursuing federal CMAQ money (as have some conventional surface rails-to-trails projects in the past).

Where the idle infrastructure exists, the argument for these linear parks is straightforward. “Often, the only places you can create these connections are with abandoned rail lines,” says Adrian Benepe, Honorary ASLA, the Trust for Public Land’s senior vice president and director of city park development. He calls it “working in the margins.” For the 606, the rail line’s elevation more than 100 years ago allowed untrammeled access to the Midwest’s industrial heart with nary a crosswalk or surface street to slow the way. Today, this same unfettered access is still attractive. “Paradoxically, because of that separation, it’s now a wonderful public space,” Urbanski says. And there is nowhere else in the region, White says, where you can ride a bike nearly three miles without having to cross a street.

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based architectural journalist. The former managing editor of the AIA’s AIArchitect, he’s written for Architect, Architectural Record, and Chicago Architect. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @zachmortice.

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Credit: Courtesy the Trust for Public Land.

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