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Albany Park Multicultural Sculpture Park and Healing Garden

Cristina Silva

Placemaking Principle #5: Develop a vision

Photo courtesy of the North River Commission

For the past year, a pair of large art installations have claimed a home amidst the trees and otherwise bare park space at Argyle and Lawrence in the Albany Park community.  ‘‘Happy Family” and “Come. Unity.” are the first round of sculpture pieces that will rotate annually and adorn the area as it transforms from Ronan Park into the community-planned/managed Multicultural Sculpture Park and Healing Garden.  The art installations, created by local artists to reflect the culture and community of the residents, are one of several enhancements that will realize the vision of the Multicultural Sculpture Park and Healing Garden.  As the park plan unfolds in phases over the next few years, the planning stands out as a process in which resident culture is integral, the space is managed and designed by locals, and planned elements of health and well-being are intentional. 

"Happy Family" sculpture installation created by Shencheng Xu.

Photo Courtesy of the North River Commission

The concept for the Multicultural Sculpture Park and Healing Garden began in 2006 as residents voiced a desire for more quality parks in their community during a comprehensive planning meeting led by the North River Commission (NRC). Among many topics that emerged as part of the residents’ vision for their community, the desire for a healing garden to help local refugees from war-torn countries received resounding support—an idea initiated by Kompha Seth, co-founder and president of the Cambodian Association and lead project partner. Since then, residents, local organizations and institutions have been directing their community efforts into a plan to revamp the currently underutilized open space into a culturally rich and thoughtfully designed healing garden and park.

Located on over five acres, the future park is in development in what is currently an underused section of the Chicago Park District’s Ronan Park.  Despite being highly accessible, the park in its current layout has not functioned as a useful space for the community and was thus ripe for the project.  As Rebecca Rico, park project coordinator for the NRC, states, “We needed underutilized green space, we needed high visibility in the neighborhood, and we needed close proximity to our project partners that were actually going to maintain it—the Lawrence Hall Youth Services and the Cambodian Association members. And so this was the space that came out.  This was like a forgotten park. No one used it and it’s because the park was not planned very well. There was no real space that is open enough to use for anything in particular.” Once fully installed, the Multicultural Sculpture Park and Healing Garden will give the area entirely new life through its multiple garden areas and pathways designed with the theme of healing, annually rotating sculptures made by local artists, a celebration plaza, and access to the existing wooded Riverside Path that runs along the Chicago River through the community.

Albany Park sees the garden creation as an opportunity to not only enhance park space, but to embrace the experience of its community members and celebrate their differences. Known as one of the nation’s most diverse communities where over 40 languages are spoken, Albany Park has historically served as an entry point for immigrants and refugees from Asia, Central America, Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East.  While each group’s story is unique, NRC’s dialogues with immigrant residents have revealed a similar need to heal and reflect upon the trauma of leaving behind poverty-stricken or devastated regions.  Kompah Seth, of the Cambodian Association of Illinois, recognizes the healing garden as a place that will “help bring unity, peace, and harmony to the community,” as local Cambodian residents will use the garden to help heal from the distress suffered in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge genocide. 

Multicultural Sculpture Park and Healing Garden ground-breaking event, May 19th, 2011.

Photo courtesy of the North River Commission

The art installations, healing gardens, and ground-up planning process reflect proactive steps towards balancing an ethnically diverse and mixed income community.  However, the spirit of inclusivity reflected in the plan goes beyond garden design.  Collective input from residents and local organizations has been at the forefront of community planning since 1962 when the NRC began bringing together locals, businesses, and institutions to address community issues and to create long term visions.  In 2006, NRC was chosen as a lead organization in Local Initiatives Support Corporation’s (LISC) citywide arts initiative, part of Chicago’s multi-year Arts in Action Plan called “Building Community through the Arts” (BCA).  With the support of this funding, NRC was able to bolster the community’s goals in the area of arts, culture, parks and open spaces, and respond to the articulated need for a community park/healing garden. The planning process took hold as the NRC asked local organizations and residents to draw up their vision for a park through which local art, healing, and community building would be nurtured.  As the number of community stakeholders grew, so did ideas about how arts and culture could benefit the residents and foster a supportive local network.  Through dozens of community meetings, workshops, and design charettes, park planning was deeply rooted in a community-based process. 

The project has also been reliant upon a collaborative of core organizations and individuals including elected officials, the Cambodian Association of Illinois, Northeastern Illinois University, Lawrence Hall Youth Services, the Peterson Garden Project, and the Chicago Park District—to name a few.  The consortium of groups including Albany Park residents, local institutions, community development organizations, schools, associations, and surrounding businesses will continue to be central to the planning and implementation process through their unique involvement in park committees whose coordinated efforts will realize all aspects of the space: community garden building and maintenance, sculpture art rotation, cultural and educational programming, job training, event facilitation, and garden governance.

Photo Courtesy of the North River Commission

Further reflecting the park’s themes of building cooperative cultural bridges, the NRC has successfully hosted free “Summer Concerts in Ronan Park” since 2009, attracting diverse audiences of over 2,000 residents to the park.  The concerts, along with the sculptures, represent how the arts are being used as a tool to build community relationships and to provide affordable cultural opportunities in the early phases of the park’s development. Additionally, this summer the lot to the west of the park will be used as a community urban farming space, where 140 beds will be used by local families to receive training in food production and nutrition by the Peterson Garden Project.

In the same way that the park elements are intended to promote cultural connection, they are also a tool for economic development.   As the enhanced public space gains leverage as a cultural hub, it has the potential to attract more outside visitors and impact the community economically. The park will not only provide residents an environment to enjoy, but the park activities can help surrounding local businesses grow. The convenient location of the park along Lawrence Avenue allows visitors easy access to local businesses, shops, and restaurants, among other community amenities.  More, the park’s cultural events, ongoing development, maintenance, and programming also incorporate local businesses, institutions, and organizations into the park’s cultural activities.  For example, local restaurants have the opportunity sponsor the Ronan Park concerts and include restaurant coupons for community residents in the concert programs.  Also, the edible community garden being constructed this summer in the empty lot next door to Ronan Park may sell some of its summer harvest to the local restaurants.

Multicultural Sculpture Park and Healing Garden rendering by local architect, Tannys Langdon.

Photo courtesy of the North River Commission

For residents, the variety of opportunities to connect with the space builds community and emotional investment, enhances wellbeing, and garners community pride. As further versions of the park unfold, visitors can attend annual summer music concerts, admire sculpture installations and visit the adjacent community farm.  While creating a community park is a commendable task in and of itself, the planning and implementation efforts evident in this process are uniquely guided by a high level of community involvement and collaborative governance.  The park may take a few more years to be completed; however, as is often the case with making artwork, sometimes the end product is in essence a celebration of the process taken to get there.