Aug 24th 2020

On the Right Track: College of Architecture Students Imagine Former Railways as Community Spaces

South of Chicago’s downtown, in the city’s Englewood and Kenwood neighborhoods, sit two long-abandoned railroad tracks. The first is a two-mile embankment between 58th and 59th streets formerly used by Norfolk Southern Railway; the second is a series of former “L” stations, now sealed, that once served the people of Kenwood until its closure in 1957.

Although an urban forest has overtaken these spaces, the vestigial infrastructure remains, presenting new opportunities for community spaces for the residents of these neighborhoods. During the spring 2020 semester, the Chicago Department of Planning and Development (DPD) partnered with the College of Architecture at Illinois Institute of Technology to launch its Living Tracks design studio, investigating these spaces and their potential for redevelopment.

The studio, led by Assistant Professor Maria Villalobos Hernandez and Planning Commissioner Maurice Cox, brought together architecture and landscape architecture students from all degree programs at the college and represents the beginning of the DPD and college’s collaborations as part of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s INVEST South/West community improvement initiative. The studio also engaged students with community organizations and residents through workshops.

From using native plantings to remediate soil in post-industrial sites to building recreational infrastructure on the former railways, the proposals from the College of Architecture students aim to provide useful opportunities and spaces for neighborhood residents while acknowledging the historical, cultural, and socioeconomic nuances of the area.

One of the proposals, created by recent graduate Migel Santos (B.ARCH. ’20), calls for renovating the Indiana station on the Green Line, which runs parallel along the former Kenwood Line. The renovation would transform both elevated platforms into a gateway to the surrounding neighborhood, creating public and private spaces that would flank the line. In October, Santos was selected to present the proposal during Open House Chicago 2020.

“Maria took our class to community-engagement meetings where we got to experience working and designing with the stakeholders of the neighborhoods,” says Santos. “Looking back now, I feel the Kenwood project was a great culmination of my five years of experience at Illinois Tech.”

Further, the work of the Living Tracks studio has been applied to the city’s efforts to redevelop a massive vacant lot in North Lawndale. Diamantina Sanchez (B.ARCH. 5th Year) worked with DPD to develop a Request for Proposal for the West Side neighborhood using the same research and design methods applied in her own proposal in the studio, referencing the railway lines in old Sanborn maps of the area to inform architectural and landscape forms.

“The old Sanborn maps had the old train lines that extended from the main portion [of the railway] going into the land, and there was this sort of elegance of those lines,” says Sanchez. “We used those things to divide up the land, and so there are two designs on that site from old train track lines that came into the lot. We were able to divide up the north section of the parcel into three sections because that was how it was originally divided up when there were larger factories there.”

The students will continue to present their proposals into 2021 to community organizations such as Grow Greater Englewood and the Growing Home, among others, that seek to create food economies and develop green businesses in South Side neighborhoods. The partnership provides community organizations with research and methodology for transforming these areas, while also giving students an opportunity to work outside of a classroom setting.

“Our job is to contribute to capturing and expanding the imagination of the public and embrace the aspirations of the community. We’re committed to searching for open and inclusive approaches that don’t settle for anything less than the best,” says Villalobos. “Once you start the conversation you can only go up from there.”

All student proposals can be viewed at the Living Tracks website, along with more information about the Englewood and Kenwood neighborhoods and the history of the former rail lines that served as the project sites.

First image: Rendering for "Junction Grove" by Diamantina Sanchez (B.ARCH. 5th Year).
Second image: Rendering for "The Time of Your Life" by Miguel Santos (B.ARCH. '20).
Third Image: Rendering for "Urban Stitches by Seong Cheol Kim (B.ARCH. '20).