A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT
SINCE ITS COMPLETION IN 2016, THE RIVERWALK—A 2-KILOMETER-LONG PEDESTRIAN PATH ALONG THE CHICAGO RIVER—HAS BECOME ONE OF THE CITY’S MOST POPULAR ATTRACTIONS. ARCHITECT CAROL ROSS BARNEY, WHOSE NAMESAKE FIRM
HEADED THE PROJECT, REFLECTS ON THE RIVER’S SIGNIFICANCE— AND HOW THE PROJECT IS INSPIRING FURTHER CHANGES.
Chicago thinks of itself as a city on a lake, but actually it’s a city on a river. The river is why Chicago is here: It was a quick connection from the Mississippi River Valley to the Great Lakes. The Chicago River was an industrial river—it served the stockyards—but in time it became an open sewer. As the city shifted away from its industrial past, it left behind polluted land and waterways, and infrastructure that wasn’t useful anymore. Today, slowly but surely, the Chicago River is being cleaned up.
Architects and planners dreamed about the Riverwalk (chicagoriverwalk. us) for generations. There’s a drawing of what it might look like in famed urban designer Daniel Burnham’s plan of Chicago from 1909. Just before 2000, city officials realized that they had to renovate Wacker Drive, the two-level road that runs along the river on the South Side, and there was enough money left over from that project to start thinking about the river. Ross Barney Architects developed the design of the Riverwalk over a period of 15 years with a broad team of collaborators.
What people refer to as the Riverwalk covers eight blocks downtown. It’s a bit like the High Line in New York City, an industrial space that was left over—it was originally the docks that served the Loop. There are playgrounds and public artworks and restaurants and cafés along the Riverwalk, but it’s more park than people think. In fact, one of the nicest things about it is that it has really encouraged riverside development.
I’ve worked on some projects that are pretty high-profile and pretty emotional, like the replacement of Oklahoma City’s Murrah Federal Building. But this one has been kind of astonishing. It’s so popular that it has exceeded people’s expectations. It’s become a symbol of the city. If I see an ad about Chicago on TV, nine out of 10 times it shows the Riverwalk.
In the wake of the success of the Riverwalk, the city’s planning council offers grants to other communities that want to plan riverfront environments. It’s an equal-opportunity river. It goes through depressed and affluent neighborhoods. This is a chance to extend green space in a more just way.
The Chicago River offers a range of activities, from architectural tours to kayaking.
Mirrored canopies over the Riverwalk.