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Big Marsh Park: From Industrial Relic to Green Space and Outdoor Recreation

Friends of Big Marsh is a non-profit organization in Chicago working to change this for communities on the Southeast side, and they’re starting with Big Marsh, a park built in a 297-acre Natural Area on the eastern shore of Lake Calumet that was reclaimed from industry and recreated with the hope of being an oasis for the community.

It’s a micro­cosm. Big Marsh offers a real­ly unique oppor­tu­ni­ty for peo­ple in these com­mu­ni­ties, and from all over the city, to be as big a part of these metro areas that they can be. They can unite us — a convergence.” ”

— Paul Fitzgerald, Executive Director, Friends of Big Marsh

As people tried their best to follow Covid-19 safety precautions, green space and public parks became a refuge for people throughout the pandemic. Forced to social distance from others, outdoor and open-air environments allowed citizens to safely leave their indoor bubbles and connect with others for fresh air and a sense of normalcy without being as worried about contracting the virus.

A lack of adequate communal spaces in disadvantaged communities meant even less opportunities for people to safely meet and socialize, something crucial to one’s well-being.

"It's really between five different neighborhoods with limited existing access," said Paul Fitzgerald, Executive Director of Friends of Big Marsh. "Part of our work is to demystify the space, bring people out, and study the benefits for community residents. And this nearly 300-acre natural area in particular runs programs that try to connect some of our young people via local parks, their neighborhood parks, and get them out to big parks."

Friends of Big Marsh is working with the Chicago Park District to help make Big Marsh a positive influence on public health and economic development in the Calumet region. The organization began as a grassroots campaign to build a bike park at Big Marsh Park and was led by community cycling advocates and other partners.

Their work has since expanded and is now focused on complimenting the work of the Chicago Park District through innovative programming. This programming includes Big Marsh Bike Ambassadors at Trumbull Park, a community cycling and mapping program focused on getting the young people who live near Big Marsh involved with the park and active in their communities. Friends of Big Marsh is actively working to expose the park to new people and create a community, creating opportunities to connect like 2019’s “Bike BBQ,” which offered a family friendly event every weekend.

The organization is also working with Northwestern University to study and measure the benefits of visiting local natural areas for individuals in specific neighborhoods.