Chicago's El Line Could Become A Park, Just Like NYC's High Line

Chicago’s El is as famous as its hot dogs and pizza. But what can you do with an old line of track?

Even though it’s not the only city in the world to stick a train track above street level, Chicago is famous for its El (elevated) train lines. You’ll never hear a person in the city take "the subway" somewhere—even if their route technically runs underground. It’s always "the El."

So maybe that’s why, even though New York beat Chicago to it, Chicago’s plans for the Bloomingdale Trail feel so significant. The project, which is being designed by ARUP and still seeking funding, proposes to convert a 2.7-mile stretch of abandoned elevated track into a park in the sky (or, okay, a park that’s just a bit off the ground). It will make room for bikers riding up to 20 mph as well as pedestrians. And the view should be spectacular.

A skeptic might say that it’s less an ambitious project than it is a purely practical one. The existing rail line hasn’t been in use for over a decade, and the decade before that, it was only running about one freight a week. Yet at the same time, it’s an incredible infrastructure that runs through popular Chicago neighborhoods: Several miles of steel have been bolted and concrete has already been poured. As is a persistent problem in the U.S.’s relatively young infrastructure, these valuable urban build-outs can either rot (and eventually cost money to deal with the remains), or they can be retrofitted and repurposed. They’re just a redesign away from obsolescence.

In the Bloomingdale Trail’s case, it’s already a path on which people exercise and explore—even though it’s technically trespassing. A $100 million (or so) investment will make it safer, increasingly usable, and far more beautiful. As a Chicago native, I’m a bit biased to see the project work out. And I’m also curious, once you get up into the park, um, how will you get down?

[Hat tip: Inhabitat]

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  • @chicagogardener

    You're a little confused. The Bloomingdale Trail (now renamed The 606, and due to be dedicated June 6, 2015) has nothing to do with Chicago's El, or elevated train system.

    The 606 has been constructed on an old abandoned freight train line, built on an elevated embankment with viaducts.

    The elevated rapid transit system, commonly called the El (or L), runs on a steel framework above city streets (except for a few places where it goes underground and becomes a subway). It is entirely separate from the freight and passenger railroad system. The freight line that is now The 606 was never a part of the El.

  • Howard Freeman

    This is great stuff.  Getting up into and down from The High Line is still a little mysterious, even for those of us who have been around it for a while.  Hard to remember what streets the stairs are on except for the north and south ends.

    Are there commercial opportunities along the way that would benefit from people coming off it and allow people to go up?  We have Chelsea Market about 1/3 of the way along.  With 2.7 miles, I'd think you'd need quite a few reasons for people to leave and join the trail.

  • Joke Tissot v Patot

    Chicago is not the only city with these kind of plans. I live in Rotterdam, Netherlands and the same plans are there. A railway track is replaces by a undergroundline ans is now unused. It will be very nice.

  • Wilson Torres

    I dig it! I'm all for revitalization/beautification of unused urban space.

  • Will Capellaro

    @ It’s always “the El.”

    Not really, I've mostly heard that term from non-Chicagoans. Maybe it's a northsider thing. We just call
    them trains, the CTA, or the specific color line. "Subway" is not off
    the table, especially your route is all underground - very possible
    depending on your commute.

  • Ojo

    I lived in Chicago for 6 years and my wife is from there and "Subway" is definitely OFF the table. Nobody says "taking the subway" in Chicago and most people do call it the El. 
    This park idea is also genius, I would just guess once it got to the city council, there would be too many unions and too many croneys fighting for the contract, it would end up never happening. That's Chicago. 

  • Jbraem

    I actually run this trail about once a week in the summer. It's a really unique/undiscovered part of the city but the trash, broken glass, rough terrain & occasional sketchy characters probably make it pretty unappealing to the average park visitor.

    The idea of doing a big makeover has been floated for years. I think it would be great if it happened, but it's hard to picture the political will or budget coming together for an ambitious project like this given Chicago's current cash-strapped state.

    Re: getting down from the trail... it's a bit tricky at the moment & involves climbing through a hole in the fence in several locations, but presumably if it was fully built-out there would be ramps as shown in the images.

  • Howard Freeman

     Agreed re: the political will.  Took NYC's High Line a while, and Mayor Giuliani's deputy (finance officer) was against it in addition to private developers.  Only when Bloomberg got behind it did it take off.  And now, $2 billion+ in private investment has been poured into the neighborhood. Some neighbors don't like the extra noisy foot traffic on weekends, but consensus is that it's a win all around.