Gazing at Chicago from the east, it’s impossible to ignore the city’s towering skyline. But the latest gem on the southwest shores of Lake Michigan won’t be made from glass and steel—it’s prairie grass and wetlands.
Northerly Island, a 91-acre peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan just south of the Loop, was promised a visionary makeover from Studio Gang and landscape architects JJR in 2010. Now the Chicago Park District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are preparing to break ground this fall.
The plan is to cultivate six distinct ecosystems throughout the park, to the tune of $6.65 million. From oak savannah to deep-water lagoon with underwater vegetation, the Corps will open each area of the island as it is completed.
While the project includes a concert pavilion and will still house the Adler Planetarium, Northerly Island is imagined as an oasis for nature in a state that has eradicated nearly all of the tallgrass prairie for which it was nicknamed. It’s a deferential vision of environment as architecture.
Formerly home to the Meigs Field airstrip, the manmade “island” (it’s connected to the shore by a small causeway) was planned by Daniel Burnham as the northernmost in a string of five islands extending south to Jackson Park. It was the only one actually built.
While work may begin soon on Northerly’s latest transformation, the plan calls for 20-30 years of development and ecological rehabilitation. The first portion—the island’s southern half—may be open for use within five years.