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Big Marsh Park: A Change for the Better

(Lake Calumet and the surrounding wetlands from the late 1800s to now, provided by the Chicago Historical Archives and the Big Marsh Organization)


Big Marsh Park, located in Chicago, Illinois, has been undergoing a massive transition throughout the past decade. Highlighted in AIA’s Blueprint for Better campaign, Big Marsh Park is one of Chicago’s largest environmental reclamation projects. The park consists of approximately 300 acres of natural wetlands off the banks of Lake Calumet. In the past, the region was home to several Native American tribes, including the Illini, the Potawatomi, and the Algonquin Nation. Throughout the 1800s, several industrial towns emerged along Lake Calumet. For decades these industrial manufacturers would dump their waste into the lake’s drainage basin. Along with the industrial waste, several landfill sites were constructed within close proximity to the lake. In the 1900s, Lake Calumet became home to the Port of Chicago and has been managed by the Illinois International Port District since.

Over the years, the lake and wetlands ecosystem began to disappear due to increasing human pollution. In the 50s, the communities surrounding the lake began advocating for more environmental regulations. Organizations such as the “People for Community Recovery” and the “Southeast Environmental Task Force” are primarily responsible for ending the use of landfills within Chicago’s city limits, which went into effect in 1986. While this helped reduce some of the pollutants, there were still several operating factories, which were negatively affecting the ecosystem.


Since the early 2000s, the Chicago Parks District has been acquiring the lands surrounding Lake Calumet such as Indian Ridge Marsh, Hegewisch Marsh, Steelworkers Park, and Marion Byrnes woods. In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) included the Lake Calumet region in their “superfund list” after conducting a variety of environmental tests. This list consists of sites across the U.S. that have been affected by environmental pollution. These areas are often extremely hazardous and are restricted to the public. However, news of Lake Calumet and the surrounding regions containing hazardous elements brought much-needed attention and funding to the area.

(Ford Calumet Environmental Center, captured by CCC Holdings, Inc)


Matthew Freer, who works for the Chicago Park Districts as the assistant director of Landscape, Cultural, and Natural Resources, mentions that the City of Chicago's objective was to transform Big Marsh Park into a thriving public park. The goal for the Chicago Parks District was to create an environment in which industry, nature, and culture all coexist. As clean-up efforts began, the ecology slowly returned to the landscape, and so has the wildlife. In 2016, Big Marsh Park was opened to the public for recreational use. The first phase of construction for the park consisted of a 45-acre bike park, with tracks, jumps, and paved trails. Another region of Big Marsh Park has been designated as an “Important Bird Area of Illinois”, and has paths built specifically for bird-watching. The most recent addition to Big Marsh Park is the new visitor's center. The Ford Calumet Environmental Center (FCEC), designed by architect Jeanne Gang, is the product of the joint venture between the Ford Foundation and the Chicago Parks District. The center was constructed at the entrance of the park and opened in the Spring of 2020. Inside, guests can learn about the History of Big Marsh Park, as well as information regarding the plants, animals, and habitats that make up the region's ecosystem.

(Big Marsh Park in 2016, provided by the Big Marsh Park Organization)


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