Post-Occupancy Evaluation of Chicago Riverwalk

Client Organization: 
Project Location : 
Chicago, IL
Summary of Project Idea: 

The Main Branch of the Chicago River in many ways mirrors the development of Chicago itself. Once a meandering marshy stream, the river first became an engineered channel to support the industrial transformation of the city. Following the famed reversal of the river, in which the city reversed the flow of the Main Branch and South Branch to improve sanitation, architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham introduced a new civic vision of riverside promenades with the addition of the Wacker Drive viaduct. Over the last decade, the role of the river has been evolving with the Chicago Riverwalk project—an initiative to reclaim the Chicago River for the ecological, recreational and economic benefit of the city. 

Recent improvements in river water quality and the increased intensity of public recreational use signal growing life along the river, demanding new connections to the water's edge.

In 2012, Sasaki along with Ross Barney Architects, and a broader technical consultant team, created a vision for the six blocks between State Street and Lake Street. The plans provided a pedestrian connection along the river between the lake and the river's confluence. The design team had to work within a tight permit-mandated 25-foot-wide build-out area to expand the pedestrian program spaces and negotiate a series of under-bridge connections between blocks. The design also had to account for the river's annual flood dynamics of nearly seven vertical feet. With new connections that enrich and diversify life along the river, each block takes on the form and program of a different river-based typology. These spaces include:

  • The Marina Plaza: Restaurants and outdoor seating provide views of vibrant life on the water, including passing barges, patrols, water taxis, and sightseeing boats.
  • The Cove: Kayak rentals and docking for human-powered crafts provide physical connections to the water through recreation.
  • The River Theater: A sculptural staircase linking Upper Wacker and the Riverwalk offers pedestrian connectivity to the water's edge and seating, while trees provide greenery and shade.
  • The Water Plaza: A water feature offers an opportunity for children and families to engage with water at the river's edge.
  • The Jetty: A series of piers and floating wetland gardens offer an interactive learning environment about the ecology of the river, including opportunities for fishing and identifying native plants.
  • The Riverbank: An accessible walkway and new marine edge create continuous access to Lake Street and sets the scene for future development in this critical space at the confluence.

The distinct programs and forms of each typological space allow for diverse experiences on the river ranging from dining opportunities to expansive public event programming to new amenities for human-powered craft. At the same time, design materials, details, and repeated forms provide visual cohesion along the entire length of the project.

The 3.5-acre project has been witnessed as a popular human scaled urban destination during the warm months. Yet, a holistic post-occupancy evaluation will be a valuable addition to the design effort. Post-occupancy evaluation and scientific measuring are particularly imperative because design practitioners are not often involved in the long term monitoring of the designed space. Furthermore, a credible and more informative evaluation would require a broad range of knowledge beyond design, including ecological and social science expertise. The findings of this research will provide much needed evidence and lessons learned to innovative ecological design that pilots the practice. Coupled with Sasaki’s design document for the project, the 16 months long research project will become a rare opportunity to look deeply into design practice and its ultimate impact on one of the world’s most iconic regenerated urban spaces. 

Skills/Expertise Needed: 
  • Strong verbal and graphic communication skills for complex data and scientific findings
  • A good understanding of aquatic ecosystem and conservation management. 
  • A good understanding of landscape design and planning
  • Ability to explore and process GIS data and conduct spatial analysis
  • Skillsets to conduct field work including interviews, sampling, wildlife surveying and plant identification
  • Ability to conduct a cost benefit assessment and life cycle analysis
SEAS Program Areas: 
Conservation Ecology (Aquatic Sciences, Terrestrial Ecosystems, and Conservation Biology)
Environmental Policy and Planning
Behavior, Education, and Communication
Environmental Informatics
Environmental Justice
Sustainable Systems
Landscape Architecture
Role for each program area: 
  • Conservation Ecology will help evaluate the efficacy of the design strategies and their implementation, including constructed fish habitat, floating wetlands etc.
  • Environmental Policy and Planning will help evaluate the project’s overall environmental and social challenges, implemented design responses, and any possible missing opportunities.
  • Behavior, Education, and Communication will observe and evaluate the efficacy of the Riverwalk as a social hub, an urban destination for public education and engagement. The discipline may also make recommendations for future improvements.
  • Environmental Informatics can help navigate and synthesize available environmental data, conducting GIS and spatial analysis. Wildlife data will also be collected and analyzed throughout the 16 months.
  • Environmental Justice will investigate the impact of the project on local communities, and how different demographic groups use the Riverwalk. Any missed opportunities or recommendations for future improvements may also be identified. 
  • Sustainable Systems will help evaluate overall project sustainability in the design and implementation processes including material choices, cost benefit analysis, constructed wildlife habitat, floating wetlands etc. 
  • Landscape Architecture will be the bridging discipline between the above fields and the client organization. The landscape architecture students will analyze the design document, communicate the design intent to rest of the team, and evaluate the built environment according to the initial design proposal. 
Professional Career Development Benefits: 
  • This study will present a real world challenge to the participating SNRE graduate students, and provide an opportunity to work closely with an interdisciplinary team of environmental planners, design practitioners and ecologists at Sasaki.
  • The study results will potentially be presented at conference such as ASLA (American Association of Landscape Architecture), APA (American Planning Association), as well as be considered for award and publication submissions.
  • The project will provide experience and exposure to professional networking with project client, local communities and professionals from various disciplines.  
Funding Sources: 
  • Funding by Sasaki, amount pending for approval depending on the length of the field work and number of trips to the study area.
  • Potentially additional funding from Sasaki Foundation (managed independently by the foundation) with a detailed research proposal and application submitted by the SNRE team. 
Identify expected products/deliverables: 
  • A Post-Occupancy Evaluation report of the newly constructed Chicago Riverwalk.
  • Potential coauthored publication in academic journals, design magazines and online publication etc.
  • Recommendations for design and natural resource management strategies.  The project outputs will be shared with the project client and a broader audience in the fields of design and public space management.  
Contact full name: 
Tao Zhang
Job title: 
Senior Associate
State or Country: 
SEAS Faculty Advisor: 
Allen Burton, Victoria Campbell-Arvai, and Mark Lindquist
Contact Phone: 
Contact e-mail: 
Contact information: 
Staff member of a potential client organization
Master Students Involved in Project: 
  • Ho Hsieh
  • Xuehan Li
  • Shui Wang
  • Yifei Wu
Project Status: 
Past Project