‘The best thing to happen to Chicago for a long time’

The birthplace of the skyscraper is home to a ground level architectural masterpiece. Words by Daniel Allen

In the unexpected heat of an Indian summer, Chicago’s massed ranks of downtown skyscrapers are burnished gold by the late October sun. Snaking between them, the blue-green waters of the Chicago River wend slowly towards Lake Michigan. And beside the river, a host of wine-sipping, fine-dining, stylishly relaxed Chicagoans contemplate their great city. What a difference US$100 million, a team of skilled architects and a few years of hard work can make.

Chicago Riverwalk
Credit: Christian Philips

The Chicago Riverwalk, the last stage of which opened in October 2016, is now drawing crowds of locals and tourists to the banks of the river like never before. In the words of local mayor Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s latest beautification project has defined the city’s ‘next recreational frontier’.

But the love affair between Chicagoans and their river doesn’t run that deep. Not so long ago, most Chicago residents would think of an afternoon picnic, leisurely stroll or day of fishing as a lakefront, rather than a riverfront, pastime. The wide blue expanse of Lake Michigan has long been the crown jewel of Chicago’s cityscape, while the Chicago River was so polluted and unappealing that buildings constructed next to the river would typically have no windows overlooking the water at all.

Chicago Riverwalk
Credit: Christian Philips

Attitudes have changed dramatically in recent years. ‘I think everyone has been surprised at just how many people have taken the Riverwalk to their hearts,’ says John Lynch, manager of Tiny Hatt, a recently opened eatery that has drawn some of the biggest crowds since the Riverwalk’s newest blocks started opening. ‘It’s as though they were missing this space before, but just didn’t realise it.’

This Chicago Riverwalk continues in the same innovative vein as the city’s previous groundbreaking construction projects. Some of the finest architecture in the United States lives here, with buildings by such luminaries as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry and Jeanne Gang. Stretching 2.5 kilometres from Lake Michigan to Wolf Point, where the Chicago River diverges, the Riverwalk is divided into nine inter-bridge blocks.

With the first block started all the way back in 2001, the six newest blocks have all been completed over the past four years. It is these distinct spaces, or ‘rooms’, that boast features such as floating gardens, fishing piers and fountains, as well as an array of new waterside wining and dining venues. There are also areas where kayaks and larger boats can pull alongside.

Much of the Riverwalk project has seen new land built on what was once river, with an expansion of the previous riverside dock to incorporate a pedestrian walkway and areas to hang out. Since the Chicago River acts as a stormwater reservoir, part of the design is periodically submerged, so the Riverwalk’s hardscape and plant materials are floodproof, with tethered floating gardens rising and falling on metal poles.

Chicago Riverwalk
credit: Christian Philips
Chicago Riverwalk
Credit: Christian Philips

The water has also been cleaned up, bringing back fish and other animals such as otters and muskrats. For public relations executive Steven Glynias, the Chicago Riverwalk has quickly become a space to hang out with friends, exercise and wow out-of-town clients.

‘In the past the Chicago River wasn’t a leisure or business destination for me at all,’ he says. ‘Now it’s a place I go to unwind, keep fit and show off the city. I think it’s the best thing to happen to Chicago for a very long time.’

With the completion of projects such as Millennium Park and the Riverwalk, the recent push to promote public and recreational space in Chicago has been transformative, strongly impacting the way Chicagoans and tourists spend their time in the city.

Chicago Riverwalk
Credit: Christian Philips

‘People are increasingly moving downtown to live,’ says Garrett Karp, programmes manager for Open House Chicago at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. ‘This would have been unheard of 20 to 30 years ago.’

Carol Ross Barney, lead design architect of the Chicago Riverwalk, believes that the project’s success could lead other cities to make similar investments. Seeking inspiration for a huge Thameside regeneration scheme in East London, Sadiq Khan, the current mayor of London, has already inspected the Riverwalk and met with architects and local officials.

‘There were a lot of innovative approaches, from design through to funding, that I think many of the world’s cities could learn from,’ says Barney.

Chicago Riverwalk
Credit: Christian Philips

The burgeoning popularity of the Chicago River area is a having a knock-on effect on the area’s elevated skyline. Comprising a trio of glass towers, Jeanne Gang’s 348-metre Vista Tower will be the tallest building in the world designed by a woman when complete in 2020. Overlooking the river, the project is backed by Chinese developer Wanda Group. A new $250 million gondola system, connecting Navy Pier, the Chicago Lakefront and the Riverwalk, has also been proposed.

‘The Riverwalk and the cleanup of the Chicago River have proved what is possible when the status quo is challenged,’ says David Plascencia, a lead instructor with local kayaking outfit Kayak Chicago. ‘A world-class city like Chicago should be famous for its liveability, as well as its architecture.’

The new waterfront

Spots to hit and things to do on the Chicago Riverwalk


Virgin Hotels Chicago The first property by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, this stylish, playful, well-equipped hotel sits a stone’s throw from the Riverwalk on the corner of East Lake Street and North Wabash Avenue. Chicago Athletic Association Hotel Conveniently placed for the Riverwalk, thanks to its location on South Michigan Avenue, this retro hip hotel boasts open fires, lashings of dark wood and an ever- popular Game Room.


Tiny Hatt Situated midway along the Riverwalk’s Cove section (between Dearborn Street and Clark Street), this compact restaurant offers patrons fantastic views, craft beers and cocktails, a great range of eats and regular live music. River Roast Located opposite the Riverwalk’s River Theatre section, next to the LaSalle Street Bridge, this upscale eatery serves a range of innovative dishes on a roasting theme, with many carved at the table.


Chicago Architectural Foundation Cruises Accessed from one side of the Riverwalk, close to Michigan Avenue Bridge, the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s 90-minute river cruises offer a
fascinating insight into the city’s fine architectural legacy. Kayak Chicago Offering a variety of private and group tours, Kayak Chicago is one of Chicago’s oldest kayak outfits, with a rental centre based on a northern branch of the river, a short paddle from the Riverwalk.

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