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A Community Vision for Beaubien Woods

The Chicago Community Trust is currently funding ten community-led riverfront projects through their Our Great Rivers grant. This piece is the second of a ten-part series highlighting these projects.

If you travel south on the Bishop Ford Freeway you’ll see an exit for Beaubien Woods, a 279-acre Forest Preserve of Cook County (FPCC), right before you leave the City of Chicago. One of the few Forest Preserves in Chicago, most of which are located in the suburbs, Beaubien Woods provides access to the Little Calumet River and Flatfoot Lake.

Beaubien Woods’ unique position inside Chicago creates a special opportunity to unite people and the natural environment within city limits. With new funding from the Chicago Community Trust (CCT) through the Our Great Rivers grant, FPCC has embarked on a new planning and community engagement process to develop a vision for the future of Beaubien Woods.

Located in the Riverdale community of Chicago—not to be confused with the Village of Riverdale—Beaubien Woods is adjacent to several communities, including Altgeld Gardens, the largest Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) development, Golden Gate, Eden Green, Concordia Place, Riverside Village and Pangea Lakes. Riverdale itself is sandwiched between rail lines, industrial sites, a Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Plant, the Little Calumet River and the Bishop Ford Freeway.

In addition to its complicated geography, the Riverdale community has a rich, complex history. In the mid-1800s a Dutch abolitionist named Jan Ton owned land at what is now 134th St and St. Lawrence, near the Little Calumet River. Ton’s farm was a station on the Underground Railroad.

Altgeld Gardens was built in 1945 and was originally built to house African-American workers at Far South Side steel plants and factories as well as veterans returning from World War II. Residents have historically been engaged and involved, particularly with environmental activism; Altgeld Gardens is considered a birthplace of the environmental justice movement. In 2016, 130th Street was renamed Hazel Johnson EJ Way to honor the legacy of the “Mother of Environmental Justice.”  

Beaubien Woods is divided by a rail line and surrounded by fencing, and currently mainly utilized for fishing or for its boat launch. Over the past seven years there has been an annual Beaubien Woods celebration, and since 2005 the Field Museum and other partners have led monthly stewardship workdays. The CCT grant provides the opportunity to build on this programming and existing partnerships with a focused planning and community engagement process to guide the development of a 10-year action and vision plan for Beaubien Woods.

Volunteers canoe on the Little Calumet River for Chicago River Day. Photo courtesy of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture

“Beaubien Woods is a hidden gem in our Forest Preserve system and one of our few sites that provides access to the Little Calumet River. Our goal with the Great River Chicago project is to get community input and build partnerships to ensure Beaubien Woods provides a welcoming and exciting nature experience to every visitor,” said Kindy Kruller, Senior Planner with the Forest Preserves of Cook County.

Unlike most Forest Preserves, Beaubien Woods is uniquely situated close to several residential communities. Earlier this year, the Forest Preserves, in partnership with CHA and MPC, convened an Advisory Committee of community leaders, organizations, and project partners to provide input and direction for the planning process. In 2013, CHA completed a master plan for Altgeld Gardens, which includes the goals of becoming more pedestrian friendly and expanding amenities. As a community partner, CHA is building on its goals by exploring how the Little Calumet River and Beaubien Woods can be more connected and inviting to residents.

FPCC and partners have been meeting with community groups and leaders over the past several months. The first significant step towards developing an action and vision plan was a community design workshop and open house on May 10-12. The team met with community members, shared ideas and explored Beaubien Woods and the Little Calumet River. Sightings included a coyote and bald eagle!

On Friday, May 11th committee members and a large technical team of Chicago area planners, architects, landscape architects and designers convened at the nearby Carver Military Academy. The team rolled up their sleeves and got to work developing short- and long-term plans to restore the ecology of the area; provide greater connections to Beaubien Woods, the Little Calumet River and the Riverdale community; address the needs of the surrounding community; and build on the ongoing work and existing plans in the area.

Beaubien Woods & Little Calumet River Ideas Workshop Open House. Photo courtesy of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture

Friends of the Chicago River held Chicago River Day on May 12th and with MPC coordinated a cleanup at Beaubien Woods to coincide with the open house. Volunteers removed litter from Beaubien Woods and used canoes to clean up the Little Calumet River. The day culminated in a public open house, where community members met with the technical team and reviewed and provided feedback on design and programming proposals.

A volunteer removes debris and invasive species. Photo courtesy of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture

Over the summer, FPCC and partners will sift through and refine ideas, while continuing to engage with the community and offer more programming at Beaubien Woods, including paddling, movies and a river day in August. At the southern end of the city, a community oriented and connected vision for a vibrant Beaubien Woods is emerging.

Visit the Beaubien Woods page to see upcoming events. 


Read our blog post about the Northwest Trail Outdoor Museum, another Our Great Rivers grantee project. 

Miriam Savad is a former research assistant at Metropolitan Planning Council, and currently works at the Chicago Housing Authority.