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Urban trailblazer

Urban trailblazer

Above, an aerial view shows cyclists entering the western end of Chicago's The 606 at Ridgeway Avenue on the 2.7-mile elevated trail's opening day last June. Below, Beth White speaks at the opening, which was the culmination of a decade-long effort. (Photos courtesy of The Trust for Public Land)

A passion for transforming cities fueled Beth White’s 10-year effort to create one of Chicago’s most innovative spaces

By Daniel P. Smith

Last June, more than 50,000 people turned out for a daylong celebration recognizing the launch of The 606, one of Chicago’s most heralded public projects. For Beth White (MA ’83), that summer day provided a mix of joy, satisfaction, and relief.

As director of The Trust for Public Land’s Chicago office, White spearheaded the $95 million project that birthed the innovative park space—part urban playground, part alternative transportation corridor, part work of art—from a dormant freight line touching four Northwest-side neighborhoods. Over a decade, White guided the project from its infancy to completion, leading a coalition of city leaders, community organizers, artists, engineers, and more. As the ambitious effort’s de facto project manager, White—who earned a master’s in urban studies from The Graduate School at Loyola—led the team through land acquisition, a $40 million fundraising effort, design, and civic engagement. 

“This became the 800-pound gorilla in our office and I was in the catbird’s seat,” she says. “We all knew we had to pour passion and persistence into it and create an inclusive, collaborative process because if people didn’t believe it was their park, then it wouldn’t be well used and well maintained.”

Since its debut, the 2.7-mile trail has earned more than a dozen local and national honors. Among them is the National Planning Excellence Award for Urban Design from the American Planning Association, which hailed The 606 for setting “a new standard for [U.S.] park planning.” Along the way, White has earned her own reputation as one of the country's leading urban park planners, and in 2011, President Barack Obama appointed White to serve on the National Capital Planning Commission.

‌But most importantly for White, The 606 has emerged as a cultural and recreational gem for Chicagoans. “I’m appreciative because not everyone gets to work on something like this,” she says. “It was a rich experience and resulted in something very special that people will enjoy for years to come.”

For White, that’s always the professional and personal hope. She believes open spaces are critical to the health and vitality of cities, and she has a longstanding passion for helping communities through holistic, creative approaches.

White credits her time as a research assistant at Loyola working on The Local Community Area Fact Book with professors Mike Schlitz and Jimmy Fuerst as the spark that fueled her urban planning career. “This is where I got hooked,” she says, “and where I began to understand how looking at community information could inform urban planning in rich, valuable ways.”

After nearly three decades in Chicago’s dynamic civic scene, including stints with the Chicago Housing Authority and Chicago Transit Authority, White relocated to Houston in June. As head of the Houston Parks Board, she’s now tasked with overseeing the city’s daring $220 million Bayou Greenways 2020 Project, which includes renovating existing parks and future green space planning.

The move also represents a homecoming for White, a Gulf Coast native, who was excited to tell her 88-year-old mother that she’d finally be “coming home.” She admits it was tough to leave Chicago, where she developed many friendships and warm memories, but she sees a lot of opportunities ahead in her new role.

“With the scale of what’s happening in Houston, it’s like an urban planning lab,” White says. “There is not a lot of vacant land in cities, so you have to get creative, and I love pushing for more sustainable investments in quality of life.”