Resilient Responses to Storm Damage: What Chicago Can Learn From New York's Big U Project


This weekend’s damage to the Lakefront Trail only underlines the need for a more environmentally resilient plan to deal with our waterfront. New York is handling this better with their “Big U” coastal infrastructure project.  What can we learn from their designs?  And why aren’t we on top of this already?

In case the nippy weather, obsessive election news watching and the daylight savings shift have kept you away from Chicago’s Lakefront Trail during the last week, here’s your heads up: it is a wreck.  Strong wind and waves last friday swept up over the trail and into south bound Lake Shore Drive and when the waters receded, the sand from the beaches had washed over long stretches of trail and other sections had concrete and asphalt surfacing shattered and swept away.

The Chicago Tribune reported Tuesday that the damage to the lakefront trail will probably total several hundred thousand dollars to repair.  Until it does, runners, walkers and non-car commuters will be detouring around the always-populous path.


The Trib describes the plan for dealing with damage this way: “lay down new asphalt.”  That’s fine.  It is probably the fastest way to get people back on track  (or on trail) and we want to encourage and support runners and bike commuters as much as the next Chicagoans.  But this attitude – repair what broke too easily in the first place – seems symptomatic of a general short term thinking approach to the lake front.


Just two weeks ago we proposed A Softer Alternative to Chicago’s Concrete Shoreline, suggesting that a more natural dune-like structure might substitute for Chicago’s miles of concrete revetment.

soft vs hard copy

The scene above left is an “after” resulting from the ongoing $300 million Chicago Shoreline Protection Project, undertaken by the city and the US Army Corps of Engineers to “provide  storm damage protection to the Lake Michigan shoreline and, in particular, to Lake Shore Drive, a major transportation artery in the City of Chicago.”  It’s no longer a crumbling and dangerous physical relic of the early 1900’s.  But it is a direct descendant of that kind of early twentieth century thinking.  As the mission statement above suggests, the main purpose of the project was to protect Lake Shore Drive. That’s great.  But those miles of bleak concrete steps are not exactly multi-purpose.  Sure, people can run in front of them, perch on them to look at the lake and even set up a picnic.  But they can do that in the middle of a parking lot too.

We can do better. Here’s proof:


In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, New York City is now taking its flood protection seriously.   After the storm, the Rebuild By Design competition tasked designers with not just repairing the city but coming up with a way to protect and re-inforce it against future damage.

new york big U diagram

The answer is not  creating a huge concrete wall around the city. BIG (Bjarke Ingles Group)  has proposed the “Big U” a ring of park/flood management areas around the south end of manhattan which will serve as parks and public spaces most of the time and then capture and mitigate flood waters during extreme storms.

Stakeholders in the project range from the EPA to Homeland Security and each segment will respond to local neighborhood needs for program (park, concert space, seasonal market area etc).   The multi-use nature of the project means it will have more funding opportunities, more support for maintenance and ongoing development.  Ultimately it will become a feature of the New York Landscape rather than (at best) a big concrete wall to sit on or (at worst) an eyesore.


Here are several ways the Big U project puts Chicago’s water front plans totally in the shade.  They are:

  • Planning for future extreme conditions rather than playing catch up
  • Balancing the needs of infrastructure (flood resistance) with creative new daily uses for the space
  • Including each neighborhood in specific program designs rather than making one big move

Check out this video by the Rebuild by Design team to learn more about the project.