Urban Rivers Plans a Mile of Floating Gardens on Chicago River by 2020

Sourced from REI Co-Op Journal

If Babylon was remembered over the millennia for its hanging gardens, perhaps Chicago will be known for its floating ones.

Urban Rivers, a nonprofit founded by Zachary Damato, Nick Wesley and Josh Yellin, aims to create a mile of native wetlands, forest, public walkways and kayak access points suspended on floats along the east shore of Goose Island in the North Branch Canal of the Chicago River.

They’re calling it “The Wild Mile,” and it aims to be the first mile-long floating eco-park in the world.

More than breaking records, though, the goal is to reintroduce native plants and grasses, and clean the river’s polluted waters enough to bring local fish, birds, turtles, muskrats and otters back home.

An industrial river

Understanding how revolutionary this idea is requires a quick trip through history. For decades, the Chicago River has served a functional purpose: to transport people and goods for the City That Works.

In 1900, the Sanitary District of Chicago completed an extraordinary feat of engineering and reversed the flow of the river. For most of the following century, it carried mostly barges, garbage, and sewage. You wouldn’t want to swim in these waters.

In recent decades, the river has become more people-focused. Two of the city’s most popular tourist attractions are the water taxi to Chinatown and architectural boat tours, which take riders on a meandering journey through the shadows of some of Chicago’s notable buildings, designed by the likes of Daniel Burnham, Bertrand Goldberg and Jeanne Gang. Not to mention the St. Patrick’s Day tradition of dyeing the river green, which draws thousands of spectators each year.

During his second term in office, Mayor Rahm Emanuel ramped up downtown revitalization of the waterway by redeveloping the riverwalk and turning it from an area often avoided by commuters to a walkable destination with landscaping elements and restaurants, which patrons can access by boat. Earlier this year, he announced another phase: a $10 million riverwalk revamp to take place over the next two years.

“The river has this identity crisis,” Damato explains. “It’s in transition. It’s not 100 percent industrial like it was in the '70s or '80s, but it’s not hugely recreational like it could be in another 10 years.”

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