Chicago River Kayak Park Proposal

Reclaiming the Chicago River: a Mussel-Inspired Kayak Park for North Branch Canal


Moss has teamed up with the Naru Project to propose a new development scheme for the North Branch Canal (the river section that flows past Goose Island).  We’d like to see it turn into a kayak park, complete with floating islands of native grasses, increased wildlife habitat, and new public spaces for people.

For all the attention that is paid to the new Riverwalk downtown, most of the Chicago River’s winding path through the city is a little-seen wasteland of rusting (and tilting) metal piles and the back parking lots of industrial buildings.  There is plenty of recognition for development along the river corridor; Crain’s Chicago Business just featured Goose Island as a model for modern urban planning.  However, the river that flows past Goose Island has been largely ignored.  Chicagoans generally interact with the river by … driving over it.  We think that division between people can  be reduced with the application of some design thinking.

Scroll down to learn more about our proposal for a concert venue, floating swimming pool, and habitat areas, with new walkways on one or both sides, access to the waterfront from local businesses and a kayak launch, all associated with the North Branch Canal, or go to the project page for more and larger images.

The Current State of the River is … not great.

chicago river, north branch, combined sewer overflow

The State of the River is not great at the moment and Chicagoans could be doing more about it.  Here at moss, we have talked about the perils of Combined Sewer Overflows before. Read all about that here.

The Friends of the Chicago River have identified a bunch of problems facing the river today, including Loss of Diversity/Habitat, Toxins and Fecal Matter (eww) in the river, Lack of Public Access and (relatedly) Lack of Public Awareness and Action.  We think those last two are strongly tied to all the other problems. If people in the city felt more closely tied to our river, we’d all be more on board with taking care of it.

Here’s the good news: some of the many new businesses springing up in the rapidly developing Clybourn Corridor (the flagship Whole Foods, for instance) may have an interest in improving the public space around their stores.  Green space improvement, like what we propose here, could be a great injection of humanity and vitality into an otherwise sterile area and collaboration with some of those new retail spots might be interested in funding that improvement!

The Site: North Branch Canal

The concept that the Naru Project team has pitched is that the Chicago River could be make both healthier and much more fun if it had more wildlife habitat.  Team member, Joshua Yellin, has studied how floating treatment wetlands (FTW), like those sold by Floating Island International, can provide habitat for fish as part of his Masters research.  Read all about that here!  Or here.  Here’s an image of his test island (anchored just off the Whole Foods parking lot, with a sketch of how it works to support water wildlife.

floating island

Inspired by this concept, Naru Project came to moss for some help in creating graphic representations of their ideas.  We ended up piggy backing off their idea to propose several interventions along the river front in that area, as well as their general habitat improvement plan.

We were happy to create sketches and renderings of the Naru Project’s plan, which is chock full of great on-water fun and new opportunities for native plants and animals to flourish.  Just imagine the fun of kayaking along through a flourishing river and wetlands environment, learning as you paddle.

Our Proposal: Kayak Park Plus

full river plan

In addition we suggest a bunch of new program elements to allow people to interface with the water from the river side.

These interventions could be done all at once or (more likely) be phased in over time as funding allowed.  Check out this map of the North Branch canal to see where we propose siting new elements.








  • INSPIRATION FROM THE RIVER HISTORY:  Our research into the history of the river led us to our first design inspiration; the freshwater Mussel.  Now sadly extinct, these little guys were once plentiful in Illinois waterways.  They were able to purify the water of pollutants through their process of sifting water for their own food sources.  Unfortunately they were also very desirable to enterprising fishermen who cooked them and used the shells for buttons.  The local species were nearly wiped out by the early 1900’s.

mussel inspiration

We noticed similarities in the way the mussels functioned as individual organisms and the way floating wetlands fish habitat works to filter the river system.

Further, we were excited by the metaphor of individual units building off of each other to anchor when all the available natural surface was used up.  We wanted to make a sort of design salute to the freshwater mussels that were once so plentiful in the Chicago River.  You’ll see that idea of curved units anchoring to each other and then to the seawall and river edge in all of the subsequent designs.

  • A KAYAK LAUNCH ALONG THE RIVER WALK as it runs past the Whole Foods at the end of Weed Street.  The sketch below shows a design for the launch inspired by mussels – firmly attached to the seawall in some places but float with the water level in others.  Winding kayak pathways would lead through pattern more of the Floating Treatment Wetlands and let boaters get up close and personal with the river as they pass through.

kayak launch

  • A FLOATING POOL BARGE would let people swim adjacent to the river but steer clear of the not-clean-yet water of the river.

floating pool examples

This idea has been tried in several other major rivers to great success.  We studied examples in Berlin, Copenhagen, Paris, and Budapest before proposing our own design.  Again, the main element floats (so that it can rise and fall with the water level of the river) and it is connected smoothly into the river by floating habitat (for wildlife not people) and loosely tethered floating deck elements where people can get down close to the water level.

A floating barge pool like this could be operated by the city or be a private enterprise with a limited time contract for access to the waterway.

floating pool

  • A PERFORMANCE STAGE is a no-brainer for this area.  Chicago loves its summer outdoor music events and what better activity could bring people to the river front than a well situated performance stage.  This one could be sited at the end of Evergreen and performers could orient either toward the east side (with more mussel style seating) or across the river toward the Goose Island business areas.  Concert goers could even attend by kayak.

performance area

  • MURALS ALONG THE SEAWALL seem like an obvious way to turn something of an eyesore (even when in shiny new repair as is the wall along the Whole Foods river front) into a feature.  Since the seawall is owned and maintained by the adjacent property owner, this could be tasteful advertising space or be leased to artists in order to improve the general appearance of a businesses river-side.  Below are are a few examples.


What would draw you down to the river?  We welcome suggestions in the comments below!