Breathing New Life Into Chicago’s Riverwalk

SLIDESHOW: Previously in Chicago, bridges marked the dividing line between blocks and there was no pedestrian access underneath.

The ‘Windy City’ provides a ‘greenprint’ for how a disused dumping ground can become a community Mecca.

In Chicago, St Patrick’s Day is a vibrant affair. Every year since 1962, the River Chicago is dyed an astonishingly vivid green for the Gaelic celebration, drawing crowds of 400,000 to toast with Irish whisky and pints of Guinness.

It’s a light-hearted tradition underlying the river’s murky past. In the mid-1950s, Chicago’s river was practically an open sewer, a dumping ground that ran through the heart of the emerging city. In an attempt to identify the source of the pollution, a chemical green dye was poured into the river to show up problem areas.

But the issue was never properly addressed and Chicago’s river remained an unloved scar on the face of the city until the last decade, which has seen its rubbish-strewn, inaccessible riverbank renovated and reclaimed into The Riverwalk, a mile-and-a-half-long civic space embracing the whole community. The park was designed to utilise derelict infrastructure and reconnect the daily experience of the city with the river. It has provided a model for how to turn an engineered industrial channel into a point of pride and recreation.

As a girl growing up in Chicago in the 1950s, Carol Ross Barney, award-winning founder of architectural studio Ross Barney Architects, always wondered why the river was even called a river. “To me it just resembled a litter-strewn canal,” she recalls, speaking at Hong Kong’s Business of Design Week. “And I never knew why they bothered to dye it green when it was already green.” So when her company won the mandate to transform the river bank into a linear community park, it was a matter of personal pride.

Joined by teams from landscape architects Sasaki and Jacobs/Ryan Associates, Alfred Benesch Engineers and with support from various technical consultants, the project took 15 years to complete and cost just under US$200 million but it was a constant journey of re-educating, re-assuring and persuading risk-averse government officials, and even Congress, to accept their plans.

The park stretches eight blocks from Lake Shore Drive to Franklin Street in Downtown Chicago; north is a major shopping area and south is the central business district, affectionately known as ‘The Loop’. At the time, bridges marked the dividing line between blocks and there was no pedestrian access underneath. “We thought the most important thing was that this park was a continuous walkway,” says Ross Barney. “But you literally need an act of Congress to make changes to the river. So, in the end, the city went to Congress, which eventually granted permission to make under-bridge connections between blocks,” she adds.

With that hurdle out of the way, Ross Barney moved onto the next. The task at hand was technically challenging. The design team needed to work within a tight permit-mandated 25ft-wide build-out area to expand the pedestrian programme spaces and it had to account for the river’s annual flood dynamics of nearly seven vertical feet. So the team created a long, linear park and, rather than a path composed of 90-degree turns, the team reconceived it as a more independent system — one that, through changes in its shape and form, would drive a series of new programmatic connections.

Soon, each of the eight individual blocks took on a different personality. “The division between the streets is so strong, in the end we decided to dedicate each block to a unique activity,” explains Ross Barney. Floating gardens, a bridge and fishing piers created recreational activities, and connected the downtown area. “We brought the city down to the river,” says Ross Barney.

One block became Marina Plaza, where people can moor their boats, which, at US$50 per half hour, has become a good earner. A wine bar overlooks the mooring point where people sit and sip the aptly named Riverwalk Rose, a delicious wine that sold out in the first few weeks of opening, recalls Ross Barney.

Another block is called The Cove, where you can land and rent kayaks and private watercraft. “People also do river tours, which is another major source of income,” says Ross Barney. They brought the level of the dock down to 6in above the river, with no railings. Although it took a lot of persuasion to allow this, the dock now has a beachy feel, says Ross Barney.

“The next block we call the River Theatre. We brought the city down to the river. People just sit and watch other people and their dogs. It has made walking a new sport in Chicago Downtown.” The Theatre Block has amphitheatre seating and a sculptural staircase linking Upper Wacker Drive.

The block at North Michigan Avenue is planted with rocks and native shrubs, alluding to the past and acting as an entrance to the tour boat docks due east. At Bridgehouse Museum Plaza, a museum is dedicated to the Chicago River’s history, while Wabash Plaza has a generous open lawn and tiered seating as a backdrop to the Chicago Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The final three blocks opened last October, and Ross Barney refers to one as The Swimming Hole. “We always wanted to have a place where you could touch the water. Although the river is still not swimmable, we decided we would make a place where you could at least have that impression.” The studio built an interactive water fountain for children to play in and provided changing rooms for parents and kids in the nearby arcade. “Visually it is kind of wonderful as it looks like the fountain is flowing from the river.”

Ross Barney is proud of the Riverwalk and what it has done for her native city but still wishes she were able to swim in the river. “I want the river to be clean; the fact that you still can’t swim is terrible. But it’s slowly starting to happen, there’s a couple of rowing clubs now, wildlife is returning. We’re looking at the river in a new way.”

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