"There is no justice in history. If there were, the name Jens Jensen would be as familiar as Aldo Leopold, Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey, icons who put their stamp on the Midwest,"
Rick Kogan, Chicago Tribune
Few know his name today but his ideas about making city life healthy, green and just are right for our times. Today, 50% of the world lives in a city, that number expands to 70% by 2035. But where are the leaders who can help our cities become livable? Jens Jensen made this the point of his life's work when Chicago was considered the worst place on earth to live. The 21st century is seeing the fastest period of urban growth in human history. Today, more than ever, we need an icon like Jens Jensen to inspire citizens, business and civic leaders to make the modern city livable.
Jens Jensen (1860 - 1951) came to the U.S. from Denmark seeking a second chance - to marry the woman he loved, to make a life, to make a difference. He dedicated his life to making the modern city livable by championing the preservation of our greatest natural areas and for equal access for all citizens. Chicago in the late 19th century was the fastest growing city in human history and considered the worst place on earth to live. Jensen's parks were designed to be naturalistic play spaces for adults and children, most of whom lived in destitute squalor.
The New York Times called Jensen "the dean of landscape architects." He left his mark on the Midwest and states in the south and east, with over 600 landscapes that he designed in the prairie style, which he originated. His American Garden was a watershed moment in landscape architecture history - it was the first to use all native flowers and it was his first hit with the public.
His philosophy was entirely democratic - parks and the living green need to be close to all people, regardless of race or income. All citizens deserve the right to be near nature. He felt then, as we do today, that nature creates community, a stronger sense of self-reliance, easy access to food, decreased obesity rates and most of all, sanity.
In the 1900s Jensen began the battle over issues we still face today: poverty, park and food deserts, and crooked politics. He reimagined the native prairie in the parks he designed for the workers, giving them the same benefit of nature as their upper class bosses. Though he worked for Ford, Insull, Armour, Walgreens, Julius Rosenwald, the 'titans of industry,' "my heart," he said, “belongs to the people.”
Jensen’s greatest act, that made him the nation's greatest unsung conservation hero, was stopping the industrialization of the entire Indiana shoreline by Andrew Carnegie and JP Morgan, to turn it into a national park. Jensen used his art and entertainment as activism - he staged the 1914 Pageant of the Dunes - 1000 actors portrayed the history of the land to 70,000 in what would become a combination of Woodstock, Earth Day and Lawrence of Arabia all rolled into one.
To create a sustainable Chicago, his “Plan for the Greater West Side” included a walkable community center, community gardens and verdant boulevards. His plan could easily be the basis of a sustainable urbanism plan for today’s city, making him an icon for just, healthy green cities.