Like many industrial cities around the world, which once positioned their factories along the water, new spaces have been created for reinterpretation after the relocation of the polluting industries. Since 2011, the City of Chicago has been transforming the eastern waterfront along the Chicago River into a recreational area for its residents. The waterway was originally constructed as a canal to support the industrial development of the area. Chicago’s location on Lake Michigan has grown the city into a major urban center. Years later, after sanitation was improved by the reversal of the river flow, urban planner Daniel Burnham envisioned a green boardwalk along the water in the 1909 Chicago Urban plan. However, parts of Burnham’s extensive green plan had to wait until recent improvements in the city’s water quality.
The design team led by Müller+Müller Architects, in conjunction with Landscape Architecture firm Site Design Group wanted to highlight the transition from a natural park-like setting on the east end of Lake Shore Drive to the urban civic space of Michigan Avenue. Using Chicago's iconic bridges as a backdrop, unique outdoor rooms have been created, inspired by river typologies. The different programs of each typological space provide diverse experiences along the riverfront. At the same time, the materialization, detailing and clear design language ensure a visual coherence over the length of the project.
Vegetation surrounds the entrance plazas and seating areas creating a green refuge from Chicago’s urban streetscape.
150 trees from 35 tree species have been planted to increase the diversity of urban tree species. The more than 500 new seatings emphasize that the riverfront is a place to stay and enjoy. There are playgrounds, kiosks, a theater and even moorings for boats. Annual flooding in parts of the riverwalk can reach up to 2 meters (7 feet) high, the planting design into account through flood resistant planting.
For the last section of the Riverwalk East, Site Design Group has chosen products from Streetlife's extensive and versatile collection. Rough Drifter Structures and Picnic Tables refer to the mooring posts from the harbors. These contrast with the slender Solid Skirt benches, which offer the visitor a view over the water. The small Surf Isles along the path mimic the rippling water at the river edge. In addition, a large undulating platform is based on these Surf Isles; this has been further developed as a custom solution in collaboration between Streetlife and Site Design Group. A wide range of Streetlife products are implemented across the site that are related through the same signature.
Spanning 2 km (1.25 miles) through the heart of the city, the Chicago Riverwalk continues to offer new ways to enjoy the waterfront and architecture. Under the Building-on-Burnham plan, a total of 985 ha. of parkland has been acquired and 9 km (5.5 miles) of waterfront development has been completed, with future plans in the pipeline in the coming years.