Unofficial wilderness in south side Chicago: the future role of disused railroad embankments

This project will assess the impact of disused, overgrown railroad embankments on bisected South Side communities, and the potential for these undesignated spaces to serve the city once again.

Of the ten largest cities in the US, Chicago has the fewest parkland acres per resident. This is due to the city’s historic perception of nature in purely economic terms: parks were often merely a last-resort use for degraded land. The disconnection of people from nature in Chicago was propelled by its extensive nineteenth century railroad network, connecting traders of natural resources from the Great West with cities on the East coast. Nature was subjected to the claims of the city. This exploitative relationship was sustained by industrial success; the industrial decline of the mid-twentieth century has produced a series of disconnected post-industrial urban wildernesses that make claims on South Side’s urban fabric, turning the historic city-nature relationship on its head. These wildernesses take the form of rewilded, inaccessible raised embankments, such as those that once constituted the Kenwood line, which ran through the Grand Boulevard neighbourhood.

Currently these rewilded infrastructures fragment the surrounding built environment by disregarding the city grid, leading to awkward triangular plots that become unofficial parks. How could rewilding or de-wilding processes be used to push the existing condition towards either the safe, formalised park archetype, or its wild, criminal counterpart, the city wilderness? This research aims to establish whether re-inhabitation or exclusion is the most appropriate way forward for these unusual sites, by consulting with residents, charities, councillors and policy-makers. It will also investigate the specific factors surrounding rail-to-trail conversion projects that lead to gentrification, as can be seen with the High Line in New York and the 606 in west Chicago, and ask whether this is inevitable.

The overgrown embankment of the former Kenwood branch, in South Side