Architect: Ross Barney Architects
Owner: City of Chicago; Department of Transportation and Department of Fleet and Facility Management (2FM)
Transforming derelict infrastructure, the 1.25-mile Chicago Riverwalk represents a new chapter for the city’s public space and the reinvention of urban life. This project has activated the city’s waterfront and generated a wealth of economic, recreational, and ecological benefits.
Conceptually, the park references the infrastructure that defines it, and the design creates nine distinct rooms in the spaces between the iconic bascule bridges spanning the Chicago River. The Cove, for instance, is inspired by beach landscapes and the burgeoning use of stand-up paddleboards and kayaks on the river, while the Jetty comprises a series of piers and floating wetland gardens replete with interactive learning opportunities.
"Subtle moments of education and insight into the ecology of the river, educating visitors and residents." ~ Jury statement
Working in technically challenging conditions, the design team was constrained to a permit-mandated 25-foot-wide buildout area. To create a continuous path and weave the series of rooms together, a series of connections were designed to carry pedestrians beneath the bridges. These structurally independent elements shield users from the open roadways above with the added benefit of filling the space with light and movement. To pull them off, the team and city received Congressional approval to allow the alteration of an active channel.
Beyond connecting Chicagoans to the river in radically new ways, the ecologically sensitive project has played a key role in improving water quality. Forty years ago, the number of aquatic species stood at merely seven; today, according to the friends of the Chicago River, that number has risen to 75 and continues to increase. Throughout the Riverwalk, design approaches to the landscape are evident in the 100 different species of native plants and trees thriving on the water’s edge. The project’s resiliency was on display when it was flooded weeks after its official opening, and just 12 hours after the water receded the park was clean and reopened.
Sparking regional and economic interest, the Riverwalk has become a major selling point for an influx of new development in Chicago. Since the project’s first phase, it has helped generate nearly $7 billion in construction value, and the city has seen a number of new projects work to make the river even more accessible.
"It is the reinvention of urban life that brings attention back to the waterfront." ~ Jury statement