River Edge Ideas Lab

Chicago, IL

Completed 2017

City of Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development in collaboration with the Metropolitan Planning Council



One of nine architecture firms selected to participate in the River Edge Ideas Lab, an initiative to reinvent the South Branch of the Chicago River, Studio Gang developed a set of design ideas to reclaim the riparian edge by intersecting the river at three scales.

Tapping into a growing interest in recreation in and around the river, the creation of a new continuous network of public pathways and spaces moving south along the river has the potential to redefine our relationship with the river’s South Branch, connecting people and communities.

To achieve this network, Studio Gang’s Riparian Reclamation concepts build upon what is working well at three distinct sites to inform how people can inhabit, connect to, and repair the river at varying scales. The concepts imagine new experiences and architectural spaces for people while also zooming out to anticipate how interventions along the edge of the South Branch will have an impact on the fabric of the natural and man-made systems that define our regional waterways.

River Room
Transforming Hard Edges into Inhabitable Spaces

Studio Gang’s River Room intervention creates a civic space with the river as its centerpiece and uses the Civic Opera House’s sheer limestone facade as a structural frame for a suspended bridge that brings the experience of cliff-hanging into the city. The bridge becomes part of an urban room—defined by the two sides of the river and the Washington and Madison Street Bridges—that is designed to encourage people to linger and gather rather than passing by. Facing the bridge, a flotilla of tiered platforms steps up to Riverside Plaza. The plaza is softened with a sloping landscaped knoll that welcomes people to enjoy live performances, picnics, and parties. At night, animated by LED lighting embedded on each cable, the bridge becomes a city attraction.

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River Room Axonometric

River Room Plan

Green Graft
Reconnecting Public Spaces through New Green Infrastructure

The Green Graft layers over existing infrastructure with new decked parks and pathway connections to carry people over and along the river. The upper-level pedestrian bridge sits above the expressway and provides access to new amenities planned for the Main Post Office and a safe link to neighborhood parks. It also connects to the new north-south pedestrian and bicycle path at the river’s edge. By merging disconnected residual spaces with a continuous pedestrian and bike path, people will be encouraged to visit and gather in the public open space and enjoy moving seamlessly along the river and across the connective gateway.

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Green Graft Axonometric

Green Graft Plan

Airline Trail
Repairing the River Edge and Connecting Communities to Assets

The Airline Trail site brings people, plants, and animals back to the river’s edge. In an emergent zone where the river meets land, a constructed grid allows for a patchwork of different programs such as a fish hatchery and wetland habitat. Further upland, the grid is populated with prairie grasslands and denser woodlands. A new nature center anchors the site and provides opportunities for learning about native ecologies, training in environmental stewardship, and the cultivation of a community seed bank. A former rail viaduct is re-purposed into a linear wildlife and cultural corridor connecting Pilsen and the river to the South Loop and the lake.

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Airline Trail Axonometric

Airline Trail Plan

About the River Edge Ideas Lab

The River Edge Ideas Lab is an initiative to reinvent the South Branch of the Chicago River. Nine leading architecture firms with experience developing innovative riverfronts, parks, and public spaces were invited to envision a unified aesthetic along Chicago’s riverfront. 

The nine concepts will be exhibited as part of the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial; by presenting the ideas to the public, the City encourages Chicagoans to share their opinions about the best and most engaging concepts. Ultimately, these ideas and public input will inform a set of river edge design guidelines applicable to future development projects along the Chicago River.

The initiative is funded by the Driehaus Foundation, Comcast, and Related Midwest. 

More information

Consultant Team

Thornton Tomasetti, structural engineer

Applied Ecological Services, environmental consultant

Special thanks to Faz Ehsan and Steve Apfelbaum