Wild Plan Advances For Greening the Chicago River

The second community meeting about Wild Mile Chicago was held recently, and enthusiasm is growing for a project that would have seemed a few McNuggets short of a Happy Meal a decade ago.

Anchored on the banks of the Chicago River in the Goose Island area, Wild Mile Chicago envisions a mile-long “eco park” running along, and into, the industrial waterway.

Don’t get too excited. This image that’s been circulating in the local media is just an aerial photograph that someone outlined with a green highlighter. No rendering was done.

What has turned this fantasy into a near-reality is a trio of recent events. First, a shift in the urban planning zeitgeist so that cities no longer turn their backs on rivers, and instead embrace them as part of the city. Second, the increased flow of people who want to both live in downtown Chicago and have near-immediate access to nature. And third, the combined exodus and expulsion of heavy industry from the Goose Island area with its subsequent rezoning to accommodate knowledge workers and the coffee shops, gluten-free yoga mat pop-ups, and free-range avocado toast safe spaces that come with them.

If all that sounds too granola to be true, it’s not. There’s some important names behind this, including SOM and the Department of Planning and Development. So it looks like this is actually going to happen.

Which is a good thing. Greening the river is also cleaning the river. Chicago used to hold swimming races downtown. Now the people most often seen in the Chicago River are kayakers warned not to get any of the water in their mouths. It says something about your river’s water quality when even the mob won’t dump bodies there anymore.

A vision of what Wild Mile Chicago might look like, from the community presentation. The trees floating in rubber rafts is fun. It would be quite the spectacle if one or more of them get loose and float down the river.

If completed as currently envisioned, Wild Mile Chicago will run from Chicago Avenue up to North Avenue, initially along the channel portion, but eventually expanded to both sides of Goose Island.

It’s not supposed to be a park like the “rooms” of the downtown Chicago riverwalk. Wild Mile is more like a linear wildlife refuge, with people taking a back seat to making space for critters. This is good for the creatures because it gives them a plane to live. And it’s good for people because the sad truth is that from aquatic plants to zebra mussels to dolphins, wildlife is an excellent pollution filter.

But Wild Mile is about more than just pollution. Turning the Chicago River from an industrial canal back into a river helps with flood control. The old thought was that waterways should be streamlined and channelized to move excess water out of the way quickly making it the problem of whomever is downstream (Saint Louis sued Chicago over this once). Today the thought is that, as much as possible, storm runoff should be captured before it becomes a problem. Plants are awesome for this. They slurp up water like they need it to live. And planting trees is a lot cheaper than building another deep tunnel or water treatment plant.

If you happened to be in Vancouver for the 2010 Olympics, you may have experienced this and not known it. The city built swales all around its shiny new athletes' village to handle stormwater runoff.
If you were in Vancouver for the 2010 Olympics, you may have seen the swales built around the athletes’ village to help with stormwater runoff.

Wild Mile has been in the works for a number of years, and was approved by the Chicago Plan Commission two years ago (though many media outlets just discovered it last week and act like it’s something new). But now that we’re headed toward the third public meeting about this project, it’s starting to seem like less of a bunch of words on paper, and more like a real chance to heal some of the sins of the city’s industrial past.

If you’d like to know more, the Wild Mile web site is a little light on details. But another community meeting is coming up next month at a date and time not yet determined.

Author: Editor

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

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