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Chicago Riverwalk, Phases 2 & 3

Landscape Performance Benefits


  • Increases ecological quality as demonstrated by an increase in Floristic Quality Index (FQI) from 0 to 38.2 in an area of 19,529 sf. An FQI above 35 is considered to be “natural area” quality.


  • Attracts approximately 780 visitors on a typical summer weekend afternoon. 73% of observed visitors engaged in commerce-related activities, 20% in leisure activities, and 8% in recreational activities. 34% of 353 surveyed visitors self-report that they visit the Riverwalk 1-3 times per month.
  • Provides a venue for Chicago Park District public programming and large-scale events, including the Art on the MART launch (2018) with 32,000 attendees, the Floating Museum exhibit (2017) with over 90,000 attendees, and environmental programs (2018) for over 1,100 children.
  • Increases the level of satisfaction with the riverfront as according to 89% of 28 surveyed visitors who were familiar with the site before reconstruction.
  • Provides a better understanding of the river’s water level and aquatic life according to 26% of 47 surveyed visitors.
  • Increased scenic quality of the Chicago Riverwalk, with scenic value index scores of views from the bridges increasing by 22 to 74 points. Additionally, 74% of 34 surveyed visitors reported an improved perception of the aesthetic quality of the riverfront.
  • Strengthens intermodal connections, with 42% of 50 surveyed visitors reporting using the Riverwalk as part of their commute. Of these, 24% travel by bicycle, scooter, or hoverboard and 62% travel on foot.


  • Created 170 new seasonal, 125 part-time, and 66 permanent jobs from 2016 to 2019, as reported by 9 surveyed Riverwalk vendors. Of the 6 surveyed vendors that were on the site before and after the reconstruction, 83% said that the project made their business more profitable.
  • Doubled the number of Riverwalk vendors and increased profits by 164% from 2014 to 2018, with almost $50 million in total revenue in 2018. 90% of 50 surveyed visitors reported that they also patronize nearby businesses not along the Riverwalk before or after their visit.
  • Catalyzed over $12 million in funding for the redevelopment of earlier phases of the Riverwalk including the creation of a Master Plan for older portions of the Riverwalk and over $240,000 for the construction of a Community Marketplace.
  • Generated approximately $16 million from 2013 to 2018 toward the repayment of a $99 million federal loan used for project construction. Revenues designated for loan repayment generated from Riverwalk concessions were an average of 29% higher than projected.
  • Supports investment in public art, with over $460,000 designated for programming and public art in 2018 and over $2 million designated for an international art competition in 2019.

At a Glance

  • Designer


  • Project Type

    Waterfront redevelopment

  • Former Land Use


  • Location

    Chicago Riverwalk
    Chicago, Illinois 60601
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  • Climate Zone

    Humid continental

  • Size

    3.5 acres

  • Budget

    Phase 2: $43,058,000; Phase 3: $52,419,000

  • Completion Date


The Chicago Riverwalk is a flood resilient, six-block pedestrian promenade along the Chicago River in downtown Chicago. It provides connection to the water and space for recreational activities and restaurants by repurposing a previously existing public walkway along the river to allow pedestrians and bicyclists to better negotiate a series of underbridge connections while providing unobstructed river access and a much wider range of amenities. Phases 2 and 3 of the Riverwalk created a promenade divided into six distinct “rooms,” defined by the city streets and bridges, that each provide a unique function. The Marina Plaza links Phases 2 and 3 to the existing Vietnam Memorial Riverwalk and provides docking space for boats. The focus of the Cove is recreation, and the River Theater provides vertical movement between the city above and the water below. In the sunny Water Plaza, interactive fountains provide space for water play and can be turned off to create a flexible space for events. The Jetty focuses on environmental education and recreation with floating wetlands. The Confluence is the largest room, hosting annual public art installations, and events on flexible lawn space with movable Adirondack chairs. Together, these spaces support the revitalization of recreational use and economic activity along the Chicago River.


  • Maximize pedestrian space while working within a mandated 25-ft build-out into the river.
  • Create a highly flood-resilient urban landscape that can quickly recover following inundation.
  • Increase economic activity along the waterfront by increasing recreational and educational opportunities and providing space for restaurants and retail.
  • Improve aquatic habitat and water quality.
  • Increase access to the Chicago River, both between the city above and river below and along the river itself.
  • Create diverse and universally accessible gathering spaces to offer a series of unique experiences to a diverse group of users while retaining a clear and unified identity.
  • The Riverwalk has 19,529 sf of new planting areas with 66 species of plants, including shade trees and emergent and submergent aquatic species. Expanded soil volumes under structural paving systems were implemented to support tree health.
  • A half-mile of pedestrian, bicycle, and boating infrastructure provides more transportation and recreation options in the city.
  • 6 stainless steel underbridge crossings reflect light and water while connecting the six rooms and providing refuge for Riverwalk pedestrians from the noisy vehicular bridges above.
  • Durable materials used on site are resilient to periodic flooding events, which reduces maintenance and extends longevity. These features include reclaimed teak site furnishings, carbon steel fish lunkers, granite pavers, and plant species that are adapted to the urban context.

    Marina Plaza
  • In the bustling Marina Plaza, custom reclaimed teak site furnishings define waterfront restaurant space as well as the public space. Teak is used as a bar-top for the restaurant and for benches in the public area.
  • A raised boardwalk facilitates boat docking and embarking/disembarking and provides popular public boat rental docking space. Kayaks, electric boats, paddle boats, and more are are all present along the Riverwalk. 
  • Expanded soil areas and channels underneath the sidewalk provide ample growing space for larger tree species. Larger-sized trees were installed to provide more shaded seating immediately upon the Riverwalk’s opening.

  • The boardwalk in the recreation-centric Cove is closest to the typical water level, providing optimal kayak launch access. The Cove serves as a respite area for kayaks to be away from larger boats in the river.
  • Large precast concrete benches provide flexible seating for groups that offers views of the river.

    River Theater
  • The River Theater’s dramatic stairs incorporate an LED-lit accessible ramp that goes from the street level to the Riverwalk. The ramp cuts through the stairs which serve as steep terraces for seating, creating an amphitheater looking over the river.
  • Expanded soil areas and channels for trees underneath the terraced steps provide space for long-term tree growth. The tree pits also incorporate a rainwater harvesting system with a 2,000-gallon cistern to store water that is used to supplement landscape irrigation.
  • A Chicago Water Taxi stop provides connections between the Riverwalk, Lake Michigan, Ping Tom Memorial Park on the south side, and two large commuter rail stations.

    Water Plaza
  • The Water Plaza receives the most sunlight of any of the “rooms,” so it was selected for an interactive fountain with a zero-depth water feature with arching jets and foaming bubblers programmed for seasonal play.
  • The highly activated Water Plaza has the most space for flexible programming at the fountain site, which allows for water to be turned off during events.

  • The Jetty has suspended walkways over the water to increase square footage of usable space along the Riverwalk, accommodating 100 lf of jetty and 1,590 sf of floating wetlands with a base of marine-grade stainless steel.
  • The Jetty fosters interaction with the river and the floating wetlands and supports activities like fishing. The walkway structures raise and lower with the river and provide dynamic habitat for fish and plant species. Etched markings on stainless steel pylons visually indicate the water level for visitors.
  • The floating wetlands provide shelter for fish from river currents and boat activity. They are designed to improve water quality and provide aquatic habitat over 1,590 sf of surface area. 
  • Beneath the suspended walkway and floating wetlands, limnetic habitat structures made of nylon rope provide a fish food source through algae that grows on the rope. Additional fish habitat is provided by carbon steel fish lunkers, perforated steel cylinders that provide protection from predatory mammals.  In total, there is approximately 30,000 cu ft of refuge area beneath the wetlands, attracting species like bass and yellow perch.

    The Confluence
  • Designed as a temporary space, the Confluence features a Great Lawn and movable Adirondack chairs. The site also hosts an annual juried public art installation. The room has been approved to remain due to its success.
  • Located at the confluence of the north and south branches of the Chicago River, this area provides the broadest views of the city and river available along the Chicago Riverwalk.

Throughout history, the City of Chicago has seen the Chicago River as a channel for commerce and a draw for investment. During the Industrial Revolution, the Chicago River was exclusively used for industrial and commercial purposes. Barge and commercial boating traffic allowed the river to function as a linear port for the city. To enable commercial activity, the banks of the Chicago River were transformed from marshy wetlands to the hard edges that today define the Main Branch of the Chicago River. As the city quickly developed, the river began to function as a drainage system for stormwater outflow, raw sewage, and animal waste from the stockyards. The river quickly transformed into an unpleasant and heavily polluted divide through the city.

After city engineers reversed the river’s flow in 1900, urban planner Daniel Burnham created a new civic vision for the city and the Chicago River that included promenades and opportunities for public use along the river, transforming it into a second waterfront for Chicago. Due to lack of funding and appreciation for the river, the city only began to realize the potential of Daniel Burnham’s plan years later, beginning to transform the riverfront into civic space in the early 2000s. With the completion of Phase 2 and 3 of the Chicago Riverwalk, Burnham’s overall vision has been realized and also proven successful as a source of revenue for the city. In addition to the Riverwalk, multiple residential and commercial developments along the Chicago River have been completed or began construction since the opening of Phase 2, charting the path for a future of riverfront activation in the city.

Seventeen 4.5-caliper trees were installed in the River Theater to provide more immediate shade for visitors and higher initial aesthetic value. They were planted in expanded tree pits to accommodate their long-term growth. The cost to install custom tree grates was $201,380, as compared to standard street tree grates which would have cost $43,350. Investing an additional $158,030 for custom tree grates allowed for the installation of trees with a more mature canopy and with a higher probability of living longer and growing larger. The lifespan of urban honey locust is estimated to be 65 years under adequate growing space and proper soil conditions, approximately 4-9 times longer than the 7-15 years of a typical urban street tree in conventional tree pits with poor soil conditions. This would save an estimated $87,600 in replacement tree costs over time. Additionally, the appraised value of these trees in good soil conditions once mature is estimated to be $334,900, nearly 18 times greater than trees in poor soil conditions at $18,700.

  • While the Jetty’s floating wetlands were designed to provide fish habitat, factors such as water pollution, significant boat traffic, and the highly urban environment are not conducive to permanent fish habitat in this location. Though more fish have been sighted at the floating wetlands feeding as they pass along in the river, this intervention has had minimal effect for fish. In fact, City employees have collected numerous dead fish around the floating wetlands, which raises concerns that this habitat may be an “attractive nuisance” for fish instead. A major intervention including restoration of the riparian edge would likely be necessary to realize significant improvement for aquatic communities, though additional studies would be necessary to provide further recommendations.
  • The final, sixth “room” of the Riverwalk, The Confluence, was originally designed as a temporary space with a Great Lawn. Upon the mayor’s request, colorful Adirondack chairs and art installations were added to the space, providing an area for visitors to spend time. What was initially seen as a temporary intervention has become one of the most popular rooms of the Riverwalk. It has been decided that the room will remain permanently with annual public art rotations and be named The Confluence after its location at the merging of the north and south branches of the Chicago River.
  • Due to the overall success of the Riverwalk, more visitors than anticipated must be accommodated each year, which has resulted in additional unexpected maintenance costs for the site. The investment in additional maintenance is offset in many other ways with the economic success of the Riverwalk.

Custom Benches: Chicago Ornamental Iron
Precast Seating for Phase 2: Architectural Cast Stone
Precast Seating for Phase 3: Wausau Tile
Trench Drains for Phase 2: ACO
Slot Drains for Phase 3: ABT
Guardrails: Chicago Ornamental Iron
Precast Walls for Phase 2: Architectural Cast Stone
Precast Walls for Phase 3: Wausau Tile
Phase 3 Fence: Industrial Fence, Inc.
Irrigation: Rainbird
Marina Bench for Phase 2: East Teak
Jetty Bench for Phase 3: East Teak
Jetty Fishing Rail for Phase 3: Global Teak
Product Sources for Structures: Chicago Ornamental Iron
Rainwater Harvesting System: Wahaso
WN-01 Frothy jets in Water Plaza: Crystal Fountains
WN-02 Smooth bore arching jets in Water Plaza: Crystal Fountains
Local planting soil: Christy Webber
Granite: Coldspring
Precast concrete for Phase 2: Architectural Cast Stone
Precast concrete for Phase 3: Wausau Tile
Lighting: BEGA, Kenall, LED Linear, Hydrel, ETC , Grupo MCI, Winona LED, Solavanti Lighting, Crystal Fountain, Designplan Lighting, Floating Garden Matrix/Martin Ecosystems
Floating garden fiberglass grating: Fibergrate
Floating garden frames/connections/pylons, underwater fish habitat, and safety ladders: Chicago Ornamental Iron

Project Team

Client: City of Chicago Department of Transportation
Landscape Architect: Sasaki 
Local Landscape Architect: Jacobs/Ryan Associates
Operations Manager: City of Chicago Department of Fleet and Facility Management (2FM)
Construction Manager: Alfred Benesch & Company
General Contractor: Walsh Construction Company
Architect: Ross Barney Architects
MEP Engineer: Delta Engineering
Structural Engineer: Rubinos & Mesia Engineers
Local Civil Engineer: Infrastructure Engineering, Inc.
Maritime Engineer: Alfred Benesch & Company
Fountain Designer: Fluidity Design Consultants
Lighting Designer: Schuler Shook
Geotechnical Engineer: GeoServices, Inc.
Land Surveyors: Dynasty Group
Environmental Consultants: Conservation Design Forum (now Environmental Consulting & Technology, Inc.)
Specifications: ArchiTech Consulting, Inc.

Role of the Landscape Architect

The landscape architect (Sasaki) acted as the prime consultant to provide conceptual design in close partnership with the architect and lead design development. The landscape architect provided construction administration oversight on this technically challenging landscape project, which was staged mostly from barges on the river without closing down adjacent transportation routes, including the river and Wacker Drive. The landscape architect also worked with a local landscape architect (Jacobs/Ryan), who selected plants for the floating islands and other vegetated spaces.


Habitat quality, Recreational & social value, Educational value, Scenic quality & views, Transportation, Job creation, Visitor spending, Economic development, Other economic, Bioremediation, Public art, Wetland, Trees, Rainwater harvesting, Bioretention, Native plants, Efficient lighting, Educational signage, Active living, Placemaking, Resilience, Revitalization

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