Chicago finalizes plans to install world’s first floating eco-park

Chicago may be home to the world’s first floating eco-park. The proposal would place this one-of-a-kind project on the Chicago River in an effort to boost biodiversity and wildlife within the area.

The architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) has taken up the project. The mile-long eco-park would utilize the channel walls to support it and would provide a habitat for a number of different species and pollinators while also offering a unique recreational site to the city.

The eco-park, which has been named the Wild Mile Chicago, is planned to be located on the River between Chicago Avenue and North Avenue. SOM designed the project, and it has the support from the city of Chicago and Urban Rivers.

Wildlife are not the only ones benefiting from the Wild Mile plan. Chicagoans will be able to walk, run or bike on paths that run alongside the structure, as well as take kayaks out onto the river to see the eco-park from a different angle.

“This project sounds like the push that Chicago really needs,” said junior environmental studies major Ryley Moore. “Every step forward is a positive step at this point.”

The eco-park was included in the city’s 2017 North Branch Framework Plan that was approved by the Chicago Plan Commission. The plan was created to build on the “vision of a renewed urban ecology for the city of Chicago and helps to generate cleaner, healthier water and more vibrants wildlife ecosystems,” according to the Wild Mile Chicago website.

The Chicago River has been widely seen as an unsuitable habitat for many wildlife and is generally seen as unclean, according to Urban Rivers. The Wild Mile Chicago project aims to find a solution to this problem by utilizing the flow of the water through the eco-park for the roots to absorb, which in turn will naturally clean the water and rid it of waste and other substances that do not belong.

The Chicago River was not always a tourist attraction of any sort. During the 19th century, the River was used as the sewer for the city, severely impacting the cleanliness and biodiversity of the River as a whole.

“Until 1900, the River flowed into Lake Michigan, discharging lots of human waste and stormwater,” said environmental science professor James Montgomery. “This lead to pollution of the Lake and outbreaks of water-borne diseases like typhoid and cholera. The reversal resulted in a radical improvement to the Lake and the River.”

Throughout the years, however, the city has put in effort to try to revitalize the River.

“40 years ago, the River was mostly biologically ‘dead,’” Montgomery said. “It basically served as Chicago’s sewer. Few folks dared to venture on the River, and most buildings in the Loop had their backs to the River. Who wanted a front door facing the River? Fast forward to the early 1990s and redevelopment along the River began, with the River becoming an aesthetic amenity that people actually sought.”

The eco-park is the start to creating more environmentally friendly, educational spots within Chicago, but some hope to see these initiatives move further throughout the city as well.

“We need more green space, particularly in low-income communities of color,” Montgomery said. “Every kid should be educated in some way on Chicago’s environmental history and current environmental conditions. Most people don’t know what the health of their soil is and how contaminated soil can affect their health.”

Pollution and biodiversity issues plague both Chicago and Illinois. According to Montgomery, invasive species have been invading many of the rivers and lakes around Illinois, as well as forest preserves. Some communities within the city also have issues with the air quality and lead infecting the drinking water, which adds to more harm for many Chicagoans.

“Over 85 percent of Chicago homes have [lead service lines],” Montgomery said. “These should be removed to prevent lead leaching into our drinking water and poisoning young children.”

Plans for the park are said to be finalized sometime this month and the project is slated to be completed by mid-2020, according to SOM.