Few people, architects or otherwise, have thought about the Chicago River as much as Ross Barney Architects. The firm’s experience includes the ever-growing Riverwalk in Chicago’s downtown, studies for the river as a transportation corridor, and extensive time spent working with the city on major infrastructural projects. When given a charge to propose a speculative project for the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s 50 Designers, 50 Ideas, 50 Wards exhibition, it took the chance to expand on a project that had been floating (pun intended) around the office. The result is an urban natural space where there is currently a smelly abandoned channel in the city’s Little Village neighborhood.
The South Side neighborhood is one of the most underserved, in terms of public space, in the entire city. Even worse, the neighborhood has the Collateral Channel, which once connected the natural channel of the Chicago River to the Shipping and Sanitation Channel. The natural Chicago River no longer exists, so the stagnant body serves no one. As the canal is no longer used, it is no longer dredged, which has led to its polluted bed having a severe methane-leeching problem. This, in turn, has prompted the local nickname of Ass Creek, due to the intolerable smell that bubbles up and wafts over Little Village.
Ross Barney Architects saw more than just a putrid nuisance in the Collateral Channel, though. Instead, the office took the opportunity to connect to a project the Chicago Department of Transportation is already spearheading called the Little Village Paseo. The Paseo is planned to be a linear park that will take the place of a former rail line through the neighborhood. So Ross Barney envisioned turning Ass Creek into Ass(et) Creek, a place where the community could directly interact with the river. Ass(et) Creek proposes to continue the Paseo to the river via the channel.
Though Ass(et) Creek is a speculative proposal, the work on the channel and the movement toward the river is already beginning. The city has started to pump water through the channel, and other studies have been done in an attempt to counteract the smell. Yet if anyone has experience with working with the river in Chicago, it is Ross Barney. The office has spent well over a decade working the city’s Riverwalk, navigating the politics and construction issues associated with building in water.
Ross Barney Architects see Ass(et) Creek as larger than just a luxury amenity. The big picture includes bringing access to clean recreation and athletic spaces to an area that needs it. From there, the firm imagines a new water-taxi stop at the site that would provide the neighborhood with a direct connection to the downtown. The relationship of Chicagoans to the river would be quickly reversed from odorous disdain to point of pride.
The vision of a Chicago River that is clean enough to swim in is shared by many, including the mayor and even President Obama. Though that day might not be right around the corner, it is coming, and Ross Barney Architects is ready to give everyone a place to jump in.
This article was part of our Oct. 12 issue which focused on how water is shaping today’s landscape architecture and urbanism. Communities face deluges and droughts—for some, the stakes can be survival itself, but others see opportunities for decadence. To explore these stories from around the U.S. and the world, click here.