For much of the past century, the bank of the Chicago River was a place that people avoided. Running through one of America’s most architecturally spectacular cities was a body of water so foul-smelling it earned the nickname “the stinking river.” An late 1800’s decision to reverse the natural current of the river away from Lake Michigan left the water flowing sluggishly, if at all.
Tell anyone who lived through the river’s peak trash-heap years in the ‘70s and ‘80s that it’s now a destination spot, and they might react with disbelief. My mother is one of those people. When I informed her I was writing about a project to revitalize the Chicago River, she wrote back: “Yikes! It’s all sludge, right?”
Well, yes, in a way: Chicago’s pervasive stormwater remediation issues mean that heavy rains send the contents of the city’s overtaxed sewer systems straight into the river. That’s a problem that will take years and billions of dollars to fix.
But the Chicago Riverwalk, a 15-year-long revitalization project whose final installment opens to the public this week, has been instrumental in reframing the river as a public asset. The mile-and-a-half-long Riverwalk stretches through the downtown Loop area from Lakeshore Drive to LaSalle Street. Since the first section opened in 2009, the Riverwalk has pulled visitors to its many new restaurants and bars and public sites, like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza. Carol Ross Barney, the founder of Ross Barney Architects, worked with Sasaki Associates on the design for the project. In a press release, Ross Barney said that the goal of the Riverwalk is to “return the river to Chicago and return Chicagoans to the river.”
As the Riverwalk enters its final stage, its success has spurred a citywide push to reinvest not only in the Chicago River, but the Des Plaines and Calumet rivers as well. Ross Barney consulted with the nonprofit Metropolitan Planning Council on the plan for Great Rivers Chicago, which lays of a vision for transforming all three bodies of water by 2040. CityLab spoke with Ross Barney about the Chicago Riverwalk, and why the city needs to start reclaiming its whole aquatic network.
What was the state of the river infrastructure when City of Chicago commissioned your team to come on board the project in 2001? What did you want to accomplish?
Historically, the river is the reason Chicago exists as it does today. It created a crucial transcontinental shortcut from St. Louis to Canada, making Chicago an important transfer city, and eventually a port city. When the architect Daniel Burnham drew up his plan for Chicago in 1909, he knew that the river was no longer so essential to the transportation of goods and people, but he still saw it as a civic asset. He imagined the confluence where the branches of the river came together downtown as a beautiful promenade. Burnham worked that concept into his idea for Wacker Drive, the major street along the river; he wanted to create a two-level roadway, united by a walkway along the riverbank. Wacker Drive was built bi-level, but the promenade element never happened, for a variety of reasons, one of which being that the river itself was pretty disgusting.
When the City rebuilt Wacker Drive 15 years ago, they decided put the funds left over from that project toward realizing Burnham’s vision, and they brought our studio on board to design it.
What were some of the challenges you faced in recreating this century-old vision?
The big problem was that the riverbank infrastructure wasn’t continuous. You couldn’t go down there and walk along the river. What you had to do was go down 25 feet of stairs from Upper Wacker, walk along the river for one block, come up another set of stairs, cross four lanes of traffic, then go back down. Nobody was going to do that. So we had to figure out how to make it connect. Parts of the river already had a 15-foot wide dock extending out into the water, but to connect all the sections under the bridges, it would have to be wider.
But the channel of the river, like every other navigable body of water in the United States, is controlled by Congress; a piece of environmental legislation dating from 1899 called the Rivers and Harbors Act states that no person or municipality can alter the profile of a waterway without congressional approval. We played with the idea of temporary construction, like floating walkways, to circumvent the need for a permit, but it just wasn’t practical. We went to Congress and got approval to build in 2003. The first phase, which we built between 2005 and 2009, set up the framework for the second and final phases. We built a stainless steel canopy for the whole Riverwalk, so it’d be bright and airy, but still protect the pedestrians from any runoff from the bridges. When Rahm Emmanuel became mayor in 2011, he secured a $100 million loan from the U.S. Department of Transportation to complete the project, which will be paid back with revenue generated by vendors along the Riverwalk. So the whole thing will be done at no cost to Chicago taxpayers.
What has the public reaction been like so far?
It was crazy this past summer—it’s so crowded during after-work hours with people lining up to by $13 glasses of Riverwalk Red at City Winery. I guess people didn’t even know they needed a Riverwalk until they had one. But the thing we’ve heard over and over is that cities need this kind of connective, beautiful infrastructure to truly be good places to live.
That’s a particularly potent statement in the context of everything happening in Chicago. We’ve heard all throughout this election cycle that Chicago is a divided city, plagued by violence and disinvestment. What role do you see the Riverwalk playing in the city at large?
The violence people have written about in Chicago has arisen because socially and economically, we’ve divided our cities, and that needs to be healed. While the Riverwalk can’t do that by itself—it’s created jobs and amenities, but it’s not a solution—it’s a step toward creating the types of physical assets that are really important to forming a sense of community.
The Riverwalk area is concentrated downtown, but you’re also involved in the effort to revitalize all three Chicago-area rivers. How will this project work to bridge some of the divides you see in the city?
Chicago has about 26 miles of public shoreline along Lake Michigan; we have around 150 miles of riverbank. Right now, they’re these sort of fallow lands where industry once sprang up, but they’re some of the most developable plots in the city. The rivers extend through so many neighborhoods; any future recreational development around the rivers is going to be an asset for the people who live around them. They have huge potential to provide amenities to the city and pull it together.
Obviously, we need to start with cleaning the water; that will be a huge and ongoing project. But in the Great Rivers Chicago study, we did five case studies showing what could happen in disparate neighborhoods around the river, even with smaller-scale projects. One of those took place along the south branch of the Chicago River, which is the most stagnant section, and the most industrial. The surrounding neighborhood, Little Village, is one of the most underserved in Chicago. The city had recently built a new park there, but it was right along a stretch of the river that smelled so bad they couldn’t use the park. [In conversation with neighborhood stakeholders this past year], kids told us they called it “Ass Creek.” So we came up with the idea to start pumping the river water to give it a current, which helped a lot with the smell, and proposed a wetlands park that would continue to treat the water and create this nice public area in a place that people used to want to stay away from.
Projects to revitalize rivers and their surrounding lands are taking off nationwide: Boston recently made the Charles swimmable, and D.C. is making over its historically polluted rivers. Does your work draw inspiration from these projects, and do you think other cities can learn from Chicago’s efforts?
Both ways. I think they can learn from us, and I think we have a lot to learn. So many cities are dealing with these abandoned riverbeds, now that industry has left the center of cities. American cities are getting denser; amenities and infrastructure will be so important for supporting that. These riverlands have really not been utilized for close to a century. Figuring out what to do with them is a problem that has huge opportunities, and the time to act on them is now.