Since the waterway in which it's being installed isn’t natural, there are no riverbanks. During the 19th century, the canal was carved and walled with concrete and metal as a passage for ships. Now the edges of the new installations have to be anchored to keep them from floating away. It's hoped that by 2020, the canal will be home to birds, fish, trees, and mussels. To accomplish that, the habitat is being built almost from scratch.
The initial 1,500 square feet of the park was installed in June of 2017. The final mile-long floating eco-park will span almost the entire east side of Goose Island in the North Branch Canal of the Chicago River (bottom photo). When completed in 2020, it will contain floating gardens, forests, wetlands, public walkways and kayak access points. The gardens are the beginning of a vision to turn the old industrial channel into a “wild mile” eco-park of floating plants and wetlands that includes public walkways and kayak piers.
By the middle of 2018, new native plant gardens will float in the canal as the result of a partnership between the environmental nonprofit and Shedd Aquarium. Shedd’s river island will add 260 square feet of native plants such as swamp rose mallow, marsh marigold, Dudley’s rush and queen-of-the-prairie to the 1,500 square feet installed a year ago by Urban Rivers. The hope is to restore the river to health and gain public support by proving that it can be done.
The project will improve the water quality of both the canal and the river downstream. It will diversify the surrounding habitat for wildlife and make the area more user-friendly and inviting, prompting people to come to the banks of the river downtown to visit a booming Riverwalk (click for video tour). The Urban Rivers and Shedd projects are designed to boost the river habitat with appealing, accessible experiences on the more industrial and less trafficked stretches of the river.
“The other thing that this programming with Shedd is going to allow us to do is open this up to all of Chicago, not just the affluent, white neighborhood that this is in,” said the director of marketing at Urban Rivers. “We want all Chicagoans to benefit from this and to experience wildlife in one of the largest metropolises in the United States."1
"Turning the landscape into a thriving ecological oasis will take some time, but changing the character and composition of the waterway will benefit area residents, employees of nearby businesses, and visitors at an often-overlooked section of the river. The aim is to make the river a living entity."2
The floating modules are made of an inert growing medium called coconut coir which is made from coconut husks rolled into tubes and then bound together with plastic mesh and frames of stainless steel. The Shedd project will include submerged, modified wooden pallets that will be stuffed with leaves in an effort to attract minnows, tadpoles and invertebrates underneath the water. These gardens will also contain turtle logs and a waterfowl box. The aquarium staff will set up underwater tubes that will be monitored by a submerged camera and will provide a live feed of the river activity.
A further benefit of the Wild Mile is that the submerged roots of the floating plants will provide a natural filter for the water. The river can sometimes become polluted with sewage overflow after heavy rains.
Urban Rivers has raised over $100,000 for the 260-square-mile project. REI Co-op will open a new store in the Wild Mile in 2019 that will offer paddleboard and kayak rentals as well as outdoor patio seating and bike parking. "Chicago is also one of five cities that are part of the company’s Rewilding Projects which focus on rebuilding urban space into areas for outdoor recreation."4
The existing gardens are already attracting birds such as the black-crowned night heron and are boosting the dwindling numbers of Monarch butterflies. Common carp swimming in the gardens use the river oasis for mating. And the new habitats are expected to attract snapping, painted and mud turtles.
What was missing from this section of the river was most of the vegetation, and Urban River hopes to restore that. Shedd researchers, and eventually volunteers, will closely monitor and analyze the floating gardens’ effects on the canal and riverscape. Shedd research teams have been focusing more on the Chicago River and other local waterways recently, expanding the aquarium’s work beyond the Great Lakes and oceans. The partnership with Urban Rivers developed from involvement in citywide planning efforts focusing on improving the river.
"This design is all wildlife-first. We want to enjoy it, and be able to experience it … but we want to see wildlife come to these spaces and see how well they do,”3 said a director of conservation action at Shedd.