The City in a Garden

A Photographic History of Chicago's Parks

Progressive Era: 1900-1920

progressive-eraBy the late 1890s, it had become apparent that the existing parks could no longer satisfy the needs of Chicago's growing population. The city's tremendous industrial expansion had enticed vast numbers of European immigrants to settle here. By 1900, nearly 750,000 people, almost half of Chicago's population, resided in the central part of the city, more than a mile away from any park. At that time, there were 846 city residents per acre of parkland. 1 Living and working conditions were intolerable, and in order to survive many immigrant families had to put their children to work. If children were lucky enough to have time off, there were few clean or safe places in which to play.

In 1898, reformer and photojournalist Jacob A. Riis, of New York City, addressed this issue at a meeting of the Municipal Science Club held at Hull House, Jane Addams' influential settlement house in Chicago. Focusing on the need for additional breathing spaces in Chicago's tenement districts, the club inspired the creation of a Special Park Commission by Mayor Carter Harrison the following year. Early commission members included social reformers Graham Taylor and Charles Zueblin, businessman Clarence Buckingham, Prairie school architect Dwight H. Perkins, and landscape architects Jens Jensen and Ossian Cole Simonds. The Special Park Commission sought to study Chicago's existing open spaces, create playgrounds in the city's most densely populated neighborhoods, and develop a systematic plan for parks and recreational areas throughout the metropolitan area. Over a one-year period, Jensen and his friend and colleague, Perkins conducted an exhaustive study, recommending a whole series of new parks and playgrounds and the protection of thousands of acres of forest, prairie, and marshland. Jensen and Perkins's influential report, published in 1904, led to the formation of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County a decade later.

The Special Park Commission at first created municipal playgrounds in the city's most densely populated neighborhoods. A major budget reduction in its second year, however, severely limited the commission's ability to acquire and improve land. In response, the agency began working cooperatively with the Board of Education and the three park commissions in order to achieve its goals. The South Park Commission took the lead, acquiring a site near the stockyards and opening experimental McKinley Park in 1902. Providing ball fields within a beautiful landscape, the new park also introduced features that had not previously existed in the South Park System, such as a playground, swimming lagoon, and changing rooms. In July of 1902, more than 10,000 people attended McKinley Park's dedication ceremonies, and the new site gained immediate popularity.


1. Dwight Heald Perkins, Report of the Special Park Commission to the City Council of Chicago on the Subject of a Metropolitan Park System. Chicago: 1904, p. 39.