Construction Update
Northerly Island

Northerly Island construction

Northerly Island used to be a magical place for planespotting.  Then it became a nice place for birdwatching.  These days, it’s a great location for construction equipment enthusiasts.

That’s because the southern 40 acres is being transformed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as part of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Since Northerly is an artificial island, to truly “restore” the island, the Corps could rebuild Chicago’s Rainbow City from the Century of Progress exposition.  But in this case, the modern definition of “restore” is being used, which means give the island to the fish and the birds.

From as far away as Soldier Field, it’s possible to see the new rolling hills being shaped for this ambitious project.  Unfortunately, there’s no information on the Chicago Park District’s web site about how far along the plan has come.  There’s just a link to a document from 2012 stating that everything should be done right about… now.

Still, it does give us an idea of what to expect:

  • A modified landscape and grading plan to accommodate more camping areas: The hills will be reshaped to provide new and expanded camping groves and will accentuate the view corridors from Northerly Island to downtown. In particular, the sight lines will correlate with the celestial calendar, aligning the visitor experience with constellations overhead. Lastly, the increase in elevation of the hills will prevent bird strikes at McCormick Place. Birds need prominent topography as a visual cue to compel them to land and avoid crashing into structures such as large buildings.
  • A deeper wetland (pond) that will reduce broad mud flats and help develop habitat: This will establish a habitat for the endangered mud-puppy salamander. Part of the installation will include educational and awareness video display of underwater habitat with a live feed to the Shedd Aquarium. The pond will also serve as an estuary non-game species of fish. The deeper wetland will result in a habitat that is more likely to be wet during dry periods through its hydraulic connection to Lake Michigan. This creates a more consistently wet habitat for birds travelling along the migratory flyway that need to rest at Northerly Island.
  • Additional trails, boardwalks, and a bridge at the south end: Public access will be increased to the wetland area, hills, camping grounds, and other locations of the park site. The formalized access paths will allow the public to interact with landscape and wildlife without disturbing the mesic prairie and wetland plantings. The paths and boardwalks will also enhance ADA accessibility. The installation of a bridge at the south end of the park that will complete the path system.

Northerly Island construction

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at

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