It has been over a decade since Chicago began to redevelop its downtown riverfront, with Ross Barney Architects and Sasaki leading the design. With the recent completion of Phase III, the new mile-and-a-half public park known as the Riverwalk is now open. Divided into separate “rooms” between the famed bascule bridges, the Riverwalk provides a series of new programs for the downtown.

While the dream of swimming in the Chicago River is still far from reality, Chicagoans are now able to get closer to the river than ever before. Since the completion of phase two, the Riverwalk has become a favorite gathering space for downtown business people at lunchtime and a weekend hotspot for tourists. New restaurants and bars provide outdoor seating along the water, while kayaks can be rented for those looking to get up close and personal. A grand staircase-ramp between upper Wacker Drive and the river, known as the River Theater, can often be found filled with people sitting, reading, exercising, or simply people-watching. Those with their own boats can pull up to multiple tie-ups, drawing many large yachts from Lake Michigan. Part of phase three includes large floating planters, as well as one of the most anticipated additions to the Riverwalk, a large interactive water plaza. 

Water Plaza. (Courtesy Carol Ross Barney)

Water Plaza. (Courtesy Carol Ross Barney)

A major challenge in realizing the continuity of the Riverwalk was connecting the separate rooms. The seemingly simple task was made more complicated by the fact that pedestrians frequently pass under the bascule drawbridges, whose permeable decks see some of Chicago’s heaviest traffic. In order to separate the public from the mechanics of the over one-hundred-year-old bridges and shield them from any falling debris from the road above, Ross Barney Architects designed canopies to cover the floating paths between the rooms. These canopies are wrapped in metallic paneling, reflecting the dappled light off of the water.


(Courtesy Kate Joyce Studios)

(Courtesy Kate Joyce Studios)

Along with Ross Barney Architects, a large team was brought together to realize the project, including Chicago-based landscape architects Jacobs/Ryan Associates, with Massachusetts-based Sasaki acting as prime consultant. Outside of the design, Friends of the Chicago River and Great Rivers Chicago advocated for the Riverwalk. Both groups are dedicated to remediating the river, with a goal of a clean, swimmable river by 2040.

Ever since the opening of the first sections of the Riverwalk, the new park has been showered with praise and awards. This year, AIA Chicago gave the Riverwalk with its highest honor, a Distinguished Building Honor Award. In addition, the project was awarded the 2012 Divine Detail Award by AIA Chicago, the 2010 Architect magazine “Move” Citation, and AIA Illinois’s 2007 Daniel Burnham Award, among others. Most recently the Riverwalk was awarded The Architect’s Newspaper’s 2016 Urban Design Award.

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