Lincoln Park Zoo: Defining an Urban Zoo


Character and ambience are often noticed subconsciously, defining the feeling of a place; contributing to the brand.  Most people recognize historical charm or modernist style, and may understand their predilection for a certain design aesthetic.  Oftentimes, these predilections are borne from a person’s associations with comfort and happiness, as in a childhood home or the neighborhood where two people met and fell in love. Main EntryThe same associations can be true in zoos.  Guests come to the zoo with a whole host of preconceived notions, from their ability to correctly identify a brown bear from a sun bear to their favorite hamburger toppings.  This means that, just like the many styles of residential homes, zoos also have a variety of styles--endearing themselves to some visitors, while disaffecting others.

Because zoos cannot be all things to all people, they must clearly define themselves.  And, as often is the case in architecture, taking a cue from their context (i.e. an urban zoo just north of downtown Chicago) may prove to be a well-received approach (although just as in architecture, juxtaposition from context may also be a successful strategy, i.e. the wilds of nature in the middle of New York City).

Lincoln Park Zoo is an example of using context as a guide for physical planning and aesthetic, and, in so doing, is the prototypical Urban Zoo.

Opened in 1868, Lincoln Park Zoo is one of America’s oldest, and its long history is reflected in its physical plan.  Nestled inside Lincoln Park, the zoo’s roots trace back to the addition of a pair of swans to a park pond, quickly followed by the acquisition of a bear.  As such, the zoo is a reflection of the 19th century urban park in which it was derived with grand walkways, formal gardens and ornate buildings.

This was (and still is) a place to escape the congestion and grit of early city life.  A place to recreate with the family, to socialize with friends.  A place to take time, to stroll slowly, to enjoy the softness of a green lawn under bare feet.  This was an urban park that just happened to have animals.

Today, the Zoo is more than simply a ‘park with animals’.  And although the historic aspects have been maintained out of respect (and out of requirement--monetarily and preservation-wise), the Zoo has moved squarely into the 21st century.  The Regenstein Center for African Apes is highly regarded around the country as a leading facility for gorillas and chimps in captivity, both in the physical design as well as the husbandry practices.

The Regenstein African Journey utilizes compelling visual storytelling and theming to transport Chicagoans to jungles and savannas in a rich indoor and outdoor experience.  Portions of the Small Mammal House are fully immersive and spectacular, and the Pritzker Family Children’s Zoo, including the indoor Treetop Canopy Climbing Adventure, is an inventive and playful walk through the woods, pairing physical play with small animal exhibits.

Alas, the historical nature of the Zoo does create challenges.  Despite renovations, many of the original indoor exhibits (termed ‘houses’ as in Lion House, Bird House, etc.) leave much to be desired.  The Kovler Lion House is especially depressing, with cage after small cage housing medium to large cats, including the namesake.  Although the indoor stalls do connect to outdoor exhibits, the negative perception from the indoor visual (and smell of years of stale cat urine) ruins any chance of a positive impression.  Similar in layout, but far less offensive, are the Bird and Primate Houses in which cages have been updated and refurnished and theatrical lighting added to soften the original historic nature.  The Zoo did cleverly reuse an old animal exhibit building, however, converting from its original use into a centrally located restaurant.

Additionally, the urban-ness of the Zoo is in itself limiting. Ironically, getting to the Zoo is somewhat challenging with $20 parking and no convenient L stop. The towering skyscrapers will never be hidden allowing a total escape into the wild. The 35-acre site is landlocked, and without acquisition from the neighboring park, will always fight for space with itself.  The historic buildings preclude demolition, and, in fact, the site itself may have historic preservation issues for future demolition, as has been the case in other zoos with bear pits and allees.

But the in the end, these limitations are what make Lincoln Park Zoo, Lincoln Park Zoo.  The history, the urban park-like setting, the city looming just outside the gates.  City-dwellers find solace in the escape, tourists appreciate the zoo for being apropos.  For its character, its ambience.  For being…so Chicago.