May 15, 2018
THEME: Technology + Innovation

Chicago’s Third Nature

This story begins with a canoe trip and ends with a robust design proposal for a new beach along the Chicago River. What happened in between? Why did you just tell me the ending in the first sentence of this blog? Why a canoe and not a motorized boat? Wait a minute, did you just say “beach” on the Chicago River?

Allow us to explain…

Spurred by an initiative curated by the City of Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development in collaboration with the Metropolitan Planning Council, Perkins+Will was invited to participate in the River Edge Ideas (“Ideas Lab” for short). Almost immediately, our office set out to explore the Chicago River from its most revealing vantage point: water level.

Paddling down the North Branch from North Avenue towards downtown on a tranquil and sunny morning in May using our Omni landscape architecture partner’s canoe (thanks, Michael!), we realized this is a different (or at least uncommon) way to explore the city. It is also powerful and telling. Vast view corridors offer new perspectives on building and spaces that abut and define the river, incrementally building the quilt work of neighborhoods that comprise Chicago. Natural (or pseudo-natural) areas are juxtaposed against industrial, commercial, and residential (including house boats). We observed a river that is both wild and tamed, lively and tranquil, beloved and ignored. A river that represents the paradoxes in this city (rich and poor, polluted and clean, noisy and quiet, natural and human-made, high-design and no design).

Photo Courtesy of Axel Olson

Photo courtesy of Todd Snapp

Photo Courtesy of Todd Snapp

In embracing the Metropolitan Planning Council’s vision of transforming the river to be “inviting, productive, and living” as part of the Our Great Rivers plan, we recognized the immense environmental, economic, and social asset the river is to the city. We agree with Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s sentiments that “our Chicago River will be Chicago’s great recreational park. If the lake is our front yard, then the river is our residential backyard.”

As massive new investment flows into riverfront redevelopment, we thought we would first look to the past to plan for the future.

Revisiting Nature’s Metropolis

What was Chicago like before humans? How did it grow to become an economic engine? Why do all railroads seemingly lead to Chicago? What drew people to the city? Why isn’t Saint Louis or Milwaukee or Cincinnati bigger than Chicago? These are all central questions asked by Professor William Cronon in his seminal geographic and economic history book, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West.

Photo courtesy of the Chicago Lithographic Company

In Cronon’s writing, he posits Chicago as a central place that maximized the economic value of its hinterland through agriculture, timber, and meatpacking industrial prowess, and harnessed the power of the best technology of the 19th century—the railroad—to concentrate the exchange of goods. He defines the term “Second Nature” as the transition of natural environment—“First Nature”—to a human-made landscape dedicated to resource extraction (think cropland, timber land, cattle yards).

Photo courtesy of the Detroit Publishing Company

While Cronon also details the powerful effect of boosters and the rise of merchandising (e.g. Sears, Montgomery Ward, etc.), he focuses mostly on the transition of Chicago as a natural place, to becoming an industrial place. The flow of the Chicago River was reversed. Curves in the river were straightened. Refuse was dumped into the river with reckless abandon. Large swaths of downtown Chicago were raised high above river-level. Railroads and streets bridged over the river in a way that reinforced a “river wall.” By the 1910s, the Chicago River was little more than a necessary armature of industrial Chicago—a far cry from its natural form experienced by Native Americans and Horatio Du Sable, Chicago’s Haitain-American founder. But, enough about the past, let’s look to the future –our Third Nature.

Photos courtesy of Openlands

Third Nature

Third Nature is a design strategy for the Chicago Riverwalk. Beyond prescriptive design guidelines or one over-arching design solution, Third Nature envisions the riverwalk as a dynamic place that enriches the human experience, supports social equity, and improves the ecosystem. From an experiential perspective, Third Nature creates a phenomenal experience with connections (both literal and figurative) across the river. Seven essential elements help achieve Third Nature and these elements form a rubric — or way of evaluating future riverwalk designs:

  1. Project a future – what can the riverwalk experience show us that we haven’t already experienced?
  2. Reveal a history – how can the riverwalk illustrate elements of Chicago’s past?
  3. Cross the river – in both literal or phenomenal/perceived ways, how can the riverwalk connect across the river as much as it does to lead people alongside the river?
  4. Connect paths—from sidewalk, street, bridge, or tunnel, how can the riverwalk connect previously disparate paths?
  5. Engage the river—how can people interact with the water? Fishing, kayaking, viewing platforms, swimming?
  6. Improve ecosystem—If the riverwalk is not doing something to improve water quality, habitat, or other needed environmental improvements, then it is not doing enough for the future of the city.
  7. Feature movement—Incorporating physical movement adds a dynamic element to the riverwalk experience, enhances views and experience.

To break down Third Nature and address its seven essential elements , Perkins+Will created three design schemes — The River Opera, The Urban Thread, and The River Beach — to impact three distinct sites along the Chicago River:

The River Opera

The River Opera seeks to open the Civic Opera Building to the river. Openings in the Civic Opera Building facing the river create a connection between the riverwalk and the performances within the theater. Four outdoor boxes frame these openings and oscillate vertically throughout the day to create an ever-changing performance. The boxes create different vantage points into the theater in one position while all aligning at street level to foster connections between Washington and Madison Street. The movement itself drives a water purification system that cleans river water by filtering it through vertical cylinders for use with the building’s thermal systems. This “performance” is viewable via a glass-walled, partially submerged riverwalk that permits views below river level. Opposite the Civic Opera Building, a retractable stepping plaza along Riverside Plaza provides a public viewing platform, creating a dialogue between the theatrical performances of the Opera House and Chicago’s finest street performers.

The Urban Thread

Built in the early 1960’s, the Congress Avenue Interchange along with the Interstate Highway system dramatically changed Chicago, marking a shift from a rail-centric city to the automobile era. The highway, off-ramps, and bridge created barriers that still today divide neighborhoods. The Urban Thread prioritizes pedestrian and bicycle circulation by stitching together various levels of infrastructure, green space, and activity spots. It provides for a continuous riverwalk. The weaving path curves vertically and horizontally to bring pedestrian access to multiple levels, unifying existing and future green spaces, and providing direct access to the river. Programmed spaces include kayak launches, fishing areas, dog park, art sculpture plaza, river theater, reflecting pond/ice rink, and cafes.

The River Beach

The River Beach reveals a prehistoric sand bar and creates the first swimmable beach on the Chicago River in modern history. A key element of this concept is water filtration. The surrounding natural wetland cleans river water that is pumped into the system when the sliding pedestrian bridge rotates. As the water moves through the wetland filtration system it becomes clean, clear, and flows into the swimming hole. At the bottom of the wetlands, clean water drains from the swimming hole back into the Chicago River. On a regular interval, bridge movement maintains water circulation through the system and enables a navigable waterway. During storm events, the wetland system can be drained to increase storm water storage capacity and mitigate negative impact to Chicago’s combined sewer. The rotating bridge connects to a new trail on the west side of the river, wit the St. Charles Air Line Bridge fitted with a timber skeleton and observation deck that allows visitors to take in views of the city and surrounding neighborhoods.

Towards an Equitable River

Third Nature is part of Perkins+Will’s ongoing investment in improving the river, river edge, access, and environment. As the Ideas Lab transitions into its second exhibit at the Chicago Architecture Foundation through June 2018 and the City of Chicago prepares to revise the riverwalk design guidelines, we are carrying forward the conversation about our ideas for transforming the river, linking up with entities like the Apple Store on Michigan to lead a guided tour for how to reimagine the north side of the downtown riverfront, and cultivating relationships with organizations like the Chicago Central Area Committee and continually nurturing our partnerships with the Metropolitan Planning Council, DPD, and the Mayor’s Office – all in the hope of improving the Chicago River for the next generation.

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