The Main Branch of the Chicago River has a long and storied history that in many ways mirrors the development of Chicago itself. Once a meandering marshy stream, the river first became an engineered channel to support the industrial transformation of the city. Chicago’s phenomenal growth into a major urban center is due, in large part, to its strategic location on the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. As early as the 1600’s the river and the lake were major trade routes. By the City’s incorporation in 1837, the river had already been established as a desirable location for industrial development.
Following the famed reversal of the river, in which the city reversed the flow of the Main Branch and South Branch to improve sanitation, architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham introduced a new civic vision of riverside promenades with the addition of the Wacker Drive viaduct. The goal of embracing the river as a recreational amenity seemed impossible years ago given the river's high levels of pollution. But today that vision is becoming a reality. Recent improvements in river water quality and the increased intensity of public recreational use signal growing life along the river, demanding new connections to the water's edge. Under Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s leadership, the role of the river has been evolving with the Chicago Riverwalk project—an initiative to reclaim the Chicago River for the ecological, recreational and economic benefit of the city.
Although the idea of a Riverwalk was included in Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago, the first installment didn’t happen until the 1970’s. The Riverwalk Esplanade between Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue was originally dedicated as park to the City in 1972 from the Illinois Central Railroad together with a plat of subdivision to create Wacker Drive as part of the Rails to Trails program. $12 million in capital improvements were made to this portion of the path in 2019. New path, landscaping, lighting, railing and seating are included in this work. The design team lead by Mueller and Mueller with the landscape architecture firm of Site Design Group wanted to emphasize the transition from a natural park like environment on the east end near Lake Shore Drive to the very urban civic space of Michigan Avenue and create nods of space for public seating surrounded by landscaping and establish the entrance plazas as special spaces. A submarine memorial designed and funded by a group of Navy volunteers commemorates the twenty-eight submarines manufactured in Wisconsin that used the Chicago River, to the Illinois to the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico and on to the Atlantic Ocean to the Panama Canal and the Pacific Ocean and on to the war efforts after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Other updates that occurred in the Esplanade in 2019 include; the creation of the Community Marketplace with seven new permanent kiosks and one newly developed concession locations, 10,000 square feet of “play” space, 94 new LED dark sky compliant light fixtures, 3 public restrooms, approximately 150 new tree plantings from 35 different species (19 new to the Esplanade section of the Riverwalk) to increase the diversity of the urban tree canopy, and 20 types of furnishings from the Riverwalk palette increasing public seating by +500. The design team also wanted to highlight the various activities happening in each section of the area and established the Civic Market west of Michigan Avenue for the Community Marketplace, the Dock between Michigan and Columbus, where the cruises boats operate, and the Playground between Columbus and Lake Shore Drive.
Moving west of Michigan Avenue, Riverwalk design and engineering began as part of the design of the Wacker Drive Reconstruction project in the 1990’s. The intention of the Riverwalk Project was to complement the new roadway and bring residents and visitors down to the river level. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial originally was located in a median on Upper Wacker Drive. This portion of the roadway was reconfigured and the memorial was relocated between State Street and Wabash. The memorial was dedicated on Veterans Day 2005. The underbridge connections at Michigan and Wabash were completed in 2009. In addition to reconfiguring the roadway, the City of Chicago had to formally redefine the navigational channel of the Main Branch of the Chicago River. Working with The Volpe Institute and waterway stakeholders, including Friends of the River, the United States Coast Guard, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, tour boat companies and others, the build-out limits were established: 20’ beneath each bridge, 25’ between each bridge and 50’ between Franklin and Lake Streets. The United States Congress approved the build-out into the waterway in 2004.
Mayor Emanuel worked with the United States Department of Transportation to identify funding for the continuation of the Riverwalk through Federal program called the Transportation Infrastructure Finance Innovation Act (TIFIA). $98.6 million dollars was secured to construct the final segment on the Main Branch of the Chicago River. Revenues generated by the concessions program and tour boat fees are pledged toward repayment of the loan over the next thirty years. State Street to LaSalle was completed in May of 2015 and LaSalle to Lake was completed in the fall of 2016. Using the iconic bascule bridges of Chicago to establish “rooms” each block is unique with design inspiration coming from river typologies.
The task at hand was technically challenging. The design team, for instance, needed to work within a tight permit-mandated 25-foot-wide build-out area to expand the pedestrian program spaces and negotiate a series of under-bridge connections between blocks. Further, the design had to account for the river’s annual flood dynamics of nearly seven vertical feet.
Turning these challenges into opportunities, the team imagined new ways of thinking about this linear park. Rather than a path composed of 90-degree turns, the team reconceived of the path as a more independent system—one that, through changes in its shape and form, would drive a series of new programmatic connections to the river. With new connections that enrich and diversify life along the river, each block takes on the form and program of a different river-based typology. These spaces include; The Marina (State to Dearborn) which has public seating and vendor space and recreational boat docking, The Cove (Dearborn to Clark) which is lower to the water for easy kayak access, plantings in this block can tolerate being submerged by river water during rain events, The River Theater (Clark to LaSalle) includes a sculptural staircase linking Upper Wacker and the Riverwalk offers pedestrian connectivity to the water’s edge and seating, while trees provide greenery and shade, The Water Plaza (LaSalle to Wells) features a fountain offering an opportunity for children and families to engage with water at the river’s edge, The Jetty (Wells to Franklin) showcases a series of piers and floating wetland gardens as an interactive learning environment about the ecology of the river, including opportunities for fishing and identifying native plants and finally, The Confluence (Franklin to Lake) an accessible walkway and new marine edge creates continuous access to Lake Street and a great lawn provides a space for the public to sit and watch the river flow by.
As a new connected path system, the Chicago Riverwalk design provides both continuity and variety for a park visitor. The distinct programs and forms of each typological space allow for diverse experiences on the river ranging from dining opportunities to expansive public event programming to new amenities for human-powered craft. At the same time, design materials, details, and repeated forms provide visual cohesion along the entire length of the project. Paving, for instance, mirrors the contrasts of the existing context: A refined cut stone follows the elegant Beaux-Arts Wacker viaduct and bridgehouse architecture, while a more rugged precast plank flanks the lower elevations and underside of the exposed steel bridges.
The award winning Chicago Riverwalk is a key component of Building on Burnham, Mayor Emanuel’s comprehensive plan to invest in the Lakefront, the Chicago River, natural areas and recreational opportunities in neighborhoods across the city. Under the Building on Burnham plan, 985 acres of parks have been acquired and 5.5 miles of waterfront access have been developed with continued plans to acquire additional parkland and further develop the waterfront in the coming years.
Since 2011, the Chicago River has been transformed into the city’s next recreational park, with vast opportunities for residents and visitors to access and enjoy the river at almost every mile. The Chicago Riverwalk covers 1.25-miles through the heart of the city and continues to offer new and improved ways to enjoy Chicago’s waterfronts and architecture.