Industrial reuse is no longer just for hipster coffee shops that use recyled wood and iron bars or trendy apartment buildings that place old transit cars on their roofs. Cities and other municipalities with heavy industrial pasts or presents are beginning to turn former industrial sites, such as steel mills and refineries, which are often expansive and difficult to reuse as commercial spaces, into public parks and attractions. By repurposing these spaces for public use, cities can revive the surrounding neighborhoods and create energetic and positive green spaces out of abandoned ones. This system not only promotes a better future for these locales by providing park space, but also maintains the history and legacy of these places, both the bad and the good, in order to help people learn from the past. Because industrial sites tend to be located in low-income areas and communities of color, where residents have been exposed to environmental threats from pollution as well as economic decline, the remediation and reuse of industrial sites also stands to contribute to advancing environmental justice.
Here in Chicago, the city has many significant historical industrial sites that could be reused. In fact, redevelopment centered around the historic town of Pullman, which was declared a National Monument in February of 2015, has already begun. Pullman’s significance is due to the physical structures which remain, such as the clock tower and homes, whereas other sites, such as the Steelworkers Park and adjacent lands, could be reused and revitalized as a large public park, since the land is now cleared except for concrete retaining walls. Steelworks Park occupies part of the former site of U.S. Steel South Works, which first opened in 1882 as the North Chicago Railway Mill Company, but the mill went through a number of name changes. The steel mill was placed at the meeting place of the Calumet River and Lake Michigan in order to facilitate the transportation of goods, and the town surrounding the mill, South Chicago, became home to many immigrants seeking well-paying jobs at the mill. Unfortunately for residents, the mill began to shrink in the 70’s and ultimately closed fully in 1992. As jobs were cut, the region became more and more economically depressed, and with the mill closed the neighborhood spiraled even further as the site itself was abandoned.
The notion of turning abandoned industrial sites into parks is not new, but it is innovative, and I strongly recommend Chicago and the Park District work to turn Steelworks Park into a more significant recreational space that unites Chicago’s history with the future use of this land. A number of notable examples of industrial parks and museum sites serve to show how Chicago’s Steelworks Park could be planned to best serve the goals of historic preservation alongside recreation.
One example is the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area. Called the Steel Making Capital of the World, this region near Pittsburgh in southwestern Pennsylvania produced steel for famous projects such as the Brooklyn Bridge and the Empire State Building. In 1996, the National Heritage Area was established by Congress to be 5,000 acres of land for purpose of “preserving, interpreting, and managing the historic, cultural, and natural resources related to Big Steel and its related industries”. In this way, the site has helped increase tourism and economic development based on the region’s notable industrial past. What is notable is that the Rivers of Steel is not simply a historic region with museums, but it also incorporates cultural conservation along with recreational development. The site has the mission of explicitly “connecting people to their environs” in a way that the inside of a museum cannot, while also maintaining true to the spirit of local communities.
An international example of an industrial park is the Landschaftspark located in Duisburg-Meiderich, Germany. This site was once home to a steel and coal producing plant, but has been renovated as a giant public park with a diverse set of recreational landscapes. Concrete bunkers have been turned into intimate gardens, old gas tanks are now pools for scuba divers, concrete walls are used by rock climbers, and centerpiece of the former steel mill has been turned into piazza. The site was crafted in 1991 by Peter Latz in such a way to preserve as much of the existing site and infrastructure as possible, requiring innovative reuse methods and reclamation processes to ensure the safety of the site.
An important predecessor to Katz’s work is the Gas Works Parks in Seattle, Washington. In similar fashion to Landschaftspark, the park allows people to walk around old industrial buildings, these being the remnants of the sole remaining coal gasification plant in the United States. The site incorporates numerous pieces of the old plant, some of which stand as ruins, while others have been repurposed and painted to createchildren’s play structures. Since the site was intended for people and especially children to interact so closely with the historic structures, extensive remediation occurred to ensure the safety of park-goers.
Using these parks as guides, the Steelworks Park has a bright future of adaptive reuse as a large public park in the southside of Chicago near a neighborhood that needs economic revitalization. Some work has been done to create walking paths through planted trees, in an effort to rejuvenate the natural components of the site, but more can be done to make the place interactive For example, one of the South Works sites’ remaining physical structures, a large ore wall, (seen below) could be used as a climbing wall, similar to the one found in Landschaftspark, and the open space surrounding it could become sports fields or natural areas. This means that Steelworks Park has the potential to be Chicago’s next ambitious park project, following the likes of Grant Park, the 606 trail, and Northerly Island.
Other images of the Steelworkers Park site.
South Works 1970:
South Works 1996
 Kaplan, Jacob. “South Works”. ForgottenChicago.com. May 22, 2016.
 “Mission”. Riversofsteel.com. Accessed May 22, 2016.
 “Architecture and Nature”. En.landschaftspark.de. Accessed May 22, 2016.
 “Gas Works Park”. The Cultural Landscape Foundation. Accessed May 22, 2016.