A Porch for Chicago Union Station? - Metropolitan Planning Council

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A Porch for Chicago Union Station?

courtesy of University City District

Philadelphians enjoying mini-golf and yoga at The Porch.

If you’ve ever been to Chicago’s Union Station, this may be hard to envision, but I’m asking you to try: Imagine walking out of the station and, instead of facing a wall of taxis, buses and honking cars all jockeying for position, imagine meandering down a block-long blissed-out zone of lounge chairs, beer gardens, and mini-golf.

Philly Union Station users don’t have to imagine; they are living the dream with The Porch, a rectangle of happiness amidst the hustle and bustle of the city’s transportation hub. Wait, I take that back … it’s not just for people using the station, which is a sign of great places: They’re never just for the users of the space in immediate proximity. You don’t have to be killing time before your train arrives to enjoy The Porch. On a nice day, you might go there during your lunch hour to eat your PB&J, or listen to music after work, or buy some veggies for tonight’s dinner. As the The Atlantic Cities’ recent article on the Porch described it, it is “a Porch for an Entire City.”

What is it exactly? The Porch is a 50-ft.-wide, block-long plaza created out of a former parking lane and underused sidewalk. Following the Project for Public Spaces’ lighter, quicker, cheaper mandate, the plaza’s organizers created the entire thing for $275,000 in capital resources, thanks to creative ideas such as using former livestock feeding troughs as planters. Throw in a few tables, umbrellas for a sunny day, and movable chairs, and you have yourself an urban experiment. (I could, by the way, do an entire post on movable chairs. The return on this low-cost investment is the sense of control over one’s destiny – or at least, control over one’s lunch hour). Now that The Porch has become a huge draw for station users and nearby workers alike, organizers have secured funding to continue building it out in phases, with potential uses including retail space, a landscaped wall to buffer noise from traffic, and public art.

While I’m delighted that this place exists at all, and thrilled for the example it sets of starting out small and low-key and building on its energy and interest, I’m also jealous. I want a Chicago Union Station Porch, or Deck, or Patio or whatever. Our station can be a destination, too. If you look at the before pictures of Philly’s Union Station, it looks incredibly similar to our own with its stark, imposing façade surrounded by traffic. Philadelpha’s station was not blessed with some amazing surroundings that we don’t have. The city simply re-thought the best use of all that concrete and programmed the mess out of it.

Happily, in Chicago we are seeing signs of this already, in small-scale, neighborhood-level installations like the

A recently unveiled People Spot in Andersonville

Ariel Ranieri

Chicago Dept. of Transportation’s People Spots. People Spots are temporary platforms that are typically within a parking lane, thereby expanding the sidewalk, creating seasonal space for outdoor seating, and effectively creating a destination in what otherwise would have been a vehicular holding pen. We’ve also been working with CDOT for the past several years as they re-imagine a Chicago Union Station with not only more technical capacity, but the capacity to be a destination as well. As part of CDOT’s study, they are mapping pedestrian flows and analyzing the surrounding market to help determine where draws like Chicago’s own Porch might best be located.

Amenities like People Spots are effectively miniature versions of The Porch, and what we learn from them can be applied to progressively more wide-reaching projects. Start small, experiment, and tweak.  And don’t forget the movable chairs.

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