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Floating trees and trails will transform North Branch canal into Chicago’s newest eco-park

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The project gets more than a million dollars in new funding

A rendering of the South Reach area with a naturalized edge.
SOM

A modular plan for an eco-park along the Chicago River’s highly polluted North Branch Canal is getting $1.4 million more in city funding so designers can implement a two-block floating boardwalk.

At initial community meetings the project team presented a plan that could be constructed in sections. The design team from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) will now get to build a floating riverfront pathway between Weed Street and Eastman Street. On the south end, the path will open at REI’s riverfront store where there’s a kayak launch and picnic tables.

In 2018, Urban Rivers installed floating gardens, and now it’s testing out floating trees for the canal. As the project gets more funding, other access points, floating habitats, a naturalized shoreline, a mural, and educational programming will be added.

The Wild Mile project follows in the footsteps of recent projects like the Chicago Riverwalk, 312 River Run, and Southbank Park. The investments are the latest examples of the renewed interest in the Chicago River by City Hall, developers, and residents. As the waterway continues its transformation, it has shifted from a polluted industrial sewer to the city’s “second lakefront,” (a designation given by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel).

Current Mayor Lori Lightfoot introduced a City Council measure to fund the proposed boardwalk with the city’s Open Space Impact Fees (OSIF) program. The financing mechanism collects fees paid by nearby residential developers whenever projects fail to provide open space on-site.

27th Ward Alderman Burnett secured some initial funding for the start of the Wild Mile project. Last year, he worked on getting City Hall on board and said he’ll “do everything to make sure this thing comes to fruition.”

The mayor’s ordinance also authorizes $40,000 in funding for a study of the Chicago River that covers both the north and south branches. It will evaluate current conditions and identify “priority locations” for new river access points, underbridge connections, and trails, according to a statement from the Chicago Department of Planning and Development.

Another $40,000 will fund a similar study for parts of the river on the Lower West Side around Park 571, Canal Origins Park, and Canal Riverwalk Park. It will examine the best opportunities for pedestrian trails and river access.

The small changes to the North Branch canal are helping to change the industrial, underutilized part of the river. Since the canal is not a natural waterway, it was man-made in the 1850s for commerce, there are hard concrete edges, corrugated steel, and a lot of pollution.

The design for Wild Mile brings an ecosystem into the river by adding an artificial shoreline, shallow water, and more textured vegetation. That’ll help attract pumpkinseed fish, catfish, frogs, butterflies, herons, and purple martins. It might even bring around otters, which, yes, have been spotted in the river.

Educational programming is also a big priority—the eco-park is a perfect opportunity for an outdoor classroom. Down the road, the team wants to connect with nearby students and show them what’s in their city with volunteer and stewardship opportunities.

Last summer the Shedd Aquarium partnered with Urban Rivers to do kayak tours teaching people about the river ecology, native plants, and how wildlife can thrive. It was wildly popular and people couldn’t believe how what was in their own backyard, said Cheryl Mell of Shedd at a community meeting in April.

This rendering shows the areas that Wild Mile hopes to improve.
SOM

The floating design and easily moveable pieces are deliberate. The canal is a waterway that has federal oversight, which means the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has a say in what gets done. They’re charged with keeping the canal navigable—an order that came from Congress in 1886, explained Colin Smalley of USACE. While the agency is on board with the vision, it can’t allow anything that conflicts with their responsibility.

So that means planned elements like islands, aeration waterfalls, and art installations will have to wait. The short-term work around is permitting the more flexible parts of the plan rather than more permanent designs like the naturalized edge.

The long-term solution would mean getting Congress to deauthorize the federal channel when they review Water Resources Development Act which happens every two years. The Chicago Riverwalk went through a similar process, but back then it took 10 years to change, Smalley said.