Connecting the city centre with the waterfront, Chicago Riverwalk is a multi-use public space that extends along lower Wacker Drive edging the river flowing through the vibrant city of Chicago, USA.

The new mix of concessions and public activities has transformed the former industrial zone, creating a dynamic and highly functional space that forms a 2.4km promenade promoting community engagement.

“The swampy Chicago River gave birth to arguably the greatest city of the 20th century,” says architect and design leader Carol Ross Barney. 

“In Chicago’s formative years, the river was its lifeline, brimming with traffic. Burnham built his 1909 plan on a civic waterway and promenade along the river. We were entrusted with the responsibility to finally complete that vision and transform what had become a postindustrial leftover into a 21st century urban waterfront.”

Developed by Ross Barney Architects in collaboration with planning and design firm Sasaki, the large-scale public space project was completed in three phases, beginning with the development of the area from Michigan Avenue to Lake Street, which included the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Wabash Plaza and the Bridgehouse Museum Plaza.

Meeting at river level, these structures coalesced into stages 2 and 3, which comprised a range of programs stretching from State Street to Lake Street and formed the full scope of the masterplan, generating a series of “distinct civic spaces” within the river region that provide unique user experiences.

In addition to the marina and river theatre developed in stage 2, the final programs created included a water plaza with sundeck and children’s fountain, a jetty, and an interactive learning environment that encourages education about the ecology of the river through a series of piers, floating wetland gardens and ‘fishing holes’.

An integral link from the streets above down to the river is provided via a block-wide set of stairs together with a wheelchair accessible pathway geometrically woven into the structure, ensuring all users can access the waterfront’s varied amenities. Future plans include a public swimming pool, once the river’s water quality has improved and is suitable for swimming.

“This project capitalises on existing infrastructure,” says Gina Ford, design principal for Sasaki. “The end result is an ecologically sensitive design that improves water quality, enhances visitor experiences and serves as a revenue generator for the city.”

A green refuge in a concrete landscape, Chicago’s new urban park gently transitions from busy city streets to more contemplative spaces near the river to allow residents and visitors alike to enjoy the full beauty of the Windy City.

Chicago, Illinois
Architects Ross Barney Architects
Collaborative Partners Collins Engineering, Jacobs Ryan Associates, Sasaki Associates and Alfred Benesch & Company
Photography Iwan Baan and Kate Joyce Studios