ABA Journal: Modern Law Library : Can the raucous history of Chicago's lakefront teach us how to preserve land for public use?


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Chicago's lakefront with its parks, museums, beaches and public spaces is an accident of history. But can we take lessons from that history to create sustainable and environmentally responsible public spaces? Joseph D. Kearney and Thomas W. Merrill look at the political, commercial and legal wrangling–some of which involved very strange bedfellows–that led to the development of lakefront land and its preservation for public use in their new book, Lakefront: Public Trust and Private Rights in Chicago.

From the enigmatic Aaron Montgomery Ward, who amassed a massive fortune that funded his legal battles to keep the lake views from his flagship store, to the rapscallion "Captain" George Wellington Streeter, whose squad of armed squatters long held the land that now forms the neighborhood of Streeterville, Kearney and Merrill share the backstories of a number of the historical figures who helped make the Chicago lakefront what it is today. They also dig into one of the city's most ambitious engineering projects: reversing the flow of the Chicago River to carry its sewage away from Lake Michigan–to the dismay of the cities downstream. Quirks of urban history and competing public and private interests led to landmark cases which created legal doctrines still in use today. And the legal wrangling is far from over; in recent years, a Star Wars museum proposed by George Lucas and the presidential library of Barack Obama have both run into lawsuits over how lakefront land can be used and developed.

In this episode of the Modern Law Library, Kearney and Merrill discuss the shenanigans that ultimately gave the city and the state of Illinois one of its most priceless parcels of land and preserves it for public use. They also discuss how they envision other local, state and federal entities could use some of this history when designing land use regulations and protecting resources for public use.

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