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Chicago’s new Riverwalk offers a vision of the future of urban parks

The city’s new waterfront gem shows how urban public spaces are evolving

Chicago’s Lakefront Trail is arguably one of its finest civic asset, a cherished 18.5-mile linear park that showcases the beauty of Lake Michigan. Grant Park, which sits adjacent to the Lake at the center of the trail network, is often called Chicago’s front yard. This weekend, with the opening of the final stages of the city’s ambitious new Riverwalk, Chicago gains a new signature public space, part of a growing effort to transform the city’s river system, and redevelop its so-called backyard.

A new 1.5-mile stretch of revitalized and redesigned riverfront, under construction since 2009, wraps around the city’s downtown Loop, running from Lakeshore Drive to Lake Street and turning the banks of the Chicago River into a civic gathering space, park, and transportation corridor. The second and third sections of the Riverwalk, a collaboration between Sasaki and Ross Barney Architects—a firm led by Carol Ross Barney, who spearheaded the initiative and has been working on the project for more than two decades—also showcase how this new series of walkways, staircases, and event spaces represents the cutting-edge of landscape architecture, and the many ways that urban parks are evolving and changing.

Gina Ford, design principal at Sasaki, says this project represents a championing of versatile infrastructure: it not only offers recreation, but added ecological benefits, and helps with stormwater runoff, all while maintaining the river in a way that allows barge traffic. It’s part of a larger trend towards turning urban waterways into multifunctional spaces. Recent projects such as Houston’s Buffalo Bayou and the Play the LA River initiative are also helping residents rediscover and redefine the urban waterfront.

Curbed spoke with Ford about the ways the Riverwalk represents a sea change in how city parks are designed today.

It’s not just about new space, it’s about new programming

A gorgeous new riverfront promenade would be welcome anywhere, especially in the heart of a big city. But the Riverwalk designers aimed for something more, creating a series of separate areas with designated functions that they call “rooms,” block-long areas spaced between the bridges that cross the river. This approach turned the waterfront into multi-use civic gathering spaces lined with amenities, including a theater, kayak dock, zero-depth fountain, and interactive nature area. Going beyond simply connectivity, the rooms give the spaces identity.

“The form invites a different type of programming,” Ford says of the Riverwalk’s layout. “It’s meant to be a beautiful contribution to the urban landscape, and boost economic development and tourism. But it’s also a great asset to city workers downtown, to come in and just sit and enjoy the sun and the river, to play in the fountain.”

Landscape architects are today’s urban planners

Ford also looks at the Riverwalk as part of a broader transformation of public space taking place the city, including the new 606 bike trail, a rails-to-trails project on the near northwest side, the renovation of Navy Pier, and the opening of Maggie Daley Park, which features an ice skating ribbon and playground. These are profound projects that create playful, interactive public landscapes, part of catalytic urban change, according to Ford.

“There’s a return of people to the city, so downtown spaces are trying to be both great tourist destinations, which enhance the city’s image and identity, as well as spaces that serve the needs of the new residential population,” she says.

Architecture is important, says Ford, but landscape and park design, and accessible streets, can make a huge impact with a relatively small investment (or in this case, make the most out of a small sliver of land). A few years ago, Sasaki conducted a State of the City survey, asking 1,000 urban dwellers about their experiences downtown. When respondents were asked about where they experienced their favorite city moments, 67% of them were in public spaces.

Transportation is (still) key

Daniel Burnham’s famous 1909 plan of Chicago, a pioneering example of urban planning, actually called for a riverfront promenade where today’s new Riverwalk stands. It wasn’t built for various reasons, but the new riverfront parks and paths live up to his vision for a civic circulation path that connects different areas and creates an entirely new way to get around the city (as well as a more aesthetically pleasing connection to boats and water taxis).

“One of the real innovations of the park was figuring out how to accommodate path and place, and balance the needs of moving as well as stopping and enjoying,” says Ford.

That presented a challenge, especially considering the designers worked with a relatively narrow space, just 25 feet wide in some parts. But the resulting continuous walkway really does knit together different parts of the city. It’s a much shorter version of the way the High Line in Manhattan isn’t just a space to gather and appreciate, but one that’s part of a pedestrian’s everyday routine.

New parks require new types of funding

The transportation benefits of the Riverwalk not only help Loop workers get around, but ultimately were the reason the project got off the ground. The Riverwalk took advantage of a $99 million loan provided by the federal Transportation Finance Innovation Act. This is just one of a number of funding mechanisms being used to build new civic infrastructure, including public-private partnerships and cross-department municipal collaborations. Cities are recognizing that the park departments can’t do all this alone, and when properly organized, these types of collaborative efforts pay huge dividends.

“Parks like this need to demonstrate value and revenue potential, in a way,” says Ford. “There’s a High Line effect, where the park impacts surrounding areas and businesses. It can make a lot of money for the city with a small investment.”

To promote sustainability, tell a story

The Chicago Riverfront, owing to its history as an industrial shipping corridor, has long been derided as a polluted backwater. Until recent efforts cleaned up the waterway, there was a running joke that when the river was dyed green for the annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration, it was cleaner than it was the rest of the year.

The river today is exponentially cleaner, an opportunity Riverwalk designers used to connect visitors with nature. The waterfront has been lowered to meet the river, and numerous activities, including a kayaking cove, help get people on the water and enjoying the waterway. One of the recent sections that opened last weekend, the Jetty, includes fish habitats and wetland plants that allow visitors to get close and personal with wildlife. Visitors can see how plants and animals are thriving in a riverway once mocked for its lack of cleanliness. The Jetty isn’t an idealized version of nature, says Ford, rather it’s reflecting the urban context and telling a contemporary story.

“There’s a growing awareness of climate, flooding resiliency, and sustainability, but often, unless you really connect people with urban rivers, they can just walk right past them,” says Ford. “We want to tell a story with this park that helps them see it not as an industrial conduit but as a beautiful place in their city. We want to show them nature, let them touch and experience it, ad become stewards. That’s how you change people’s minds.”