20 For 20 Retrospective

Chicago River Master Plan 

Chicago River Master Plan Park District Properties 


As part of Chicago’s “greening of the city” initiatives under the Richard M. Daley administration, the Chicago Park District (CPD) commissioned Conservation Design Forum to study and analyze park property located along the banks of the Chicago River with the goal of understanding the visual, physical, cultural and ecological conditions affecting more than 24 CPD properties.


Park land along the main river and its channels presents some of the most notable opportunities to protect and restore the city’s green spaces and help citizens reconnect with Chicago’s natural origins. From one end of the city to the other, these intervals of riparian landscape encompass public recreation space, wetlands, woodlands and more than 40,000 lineal feet of shoreline. With anticipated redevelopment efforts, the Chicago River Master Plan authored by Conservation Design Forum outlined comprehensive park redevelopment and restoration strategies to:

Enhance both visual and physical access to the river
Benefit the entire stream system and the public
Integrate green infrastructure and infiltration-based stormwater management practices
Honor the unique ecosystems, neighborhoods and property assets of the park locations
Improve walkability
Optimize the river as an amenity
Develop an understanding of how to manage riparian landscapes


To develop the Plan, Conservation Design Forum began by conducting detailed field analyses and site inventories at each property – by both foot and canoe; reviewed historical documents and data; assessed shoreline conditions, physical access and connectivity to neighborhoods; sightlines, grades, and typical use. Moreover, the study specifically evaluated the ecological health of the riverbank ecosystem; considering the type of vegetation, riparian habitat quality, and threats such as urban runoff, deferred management, and shoreline erosion.


Challenges to developing a comprehensive plan of this type included the broad range of uses from park to park, the physical site variables such as grades and soils, the degree of separation of the park from the river (often due to fences), access to each site, as well as the task of gathering data about the sites – spanning nearly a century of ownership changes and physical alterations.


In alignment with the Burnham Plan and its vision for green spaces in the City of Chicago, as well as input from the Park District and other stakeholders, the Chicago River Master Plan aided the Park District in budgeting, prioritizing and coordinating park restoration/redevelopment projects


Chicago River Pilsen Canal Origins Park


Since the completion of the Master Plan, several parks have been renovated including Canal Origins in the City’s Pilsen neighborhood, which CDF studied in detail and re-imagined; converting a former brownfield site into a nature park that integrates history, ecology and art.



Location: Chicago, IL
Client: Chicago Park District
Completion Date: 2002
Site Size: 24 parks with over 40,000 linear feet of shoreline
Construction Budget: $50 million

Awards/Recognition: President’s Award, American Society of Landscape Architects – Illinois Chapter 2003


Tags: Chicago River, Chicago Park District, Canal Origins Park, shoreline stabilization, Burnham Plan, ecological restoration

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