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From industrial waste to floating wetlands, how Chicago’s Wild Mile is reinventing the urban river

4 0 20

The north branch of the Chicago River, just outside of the city’s downtown, was once lined with smoke-spewing factories, occupied by barges, and treated like little more than a convenient sewer. Its edges were straightened, and much of its life was drained in favor of efficient shipping.

Today, a remarkable transformation is underway. Long linear patches of wetlands are spreading along the channel’s edges, and docks have been built alongside as a kind of floating walkway. This is the first 400 feet of what’s being called the Wild Mile—a grassroots reinvigoration of a stretch of the river that has been off-limits to nearly all forms of life for decades.

Led by Urban Rivers, a nonprofit created to realize the project, the Wild Mile is a planned mile-long floating wetland and trail built on the river as it winds around Goose Island, just northwest of the city center. Thanks to a tax on urban development that helps fund open space, the project has received a significant amount of public funding to get started. As it expands, it has become a promising experiment in making public space out of areas most cities have turned their backs on.

Like many U.S. cities in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Chicago channelized much of its urban river, building straight, boat-friendly sides by piling plates of steel vertically along its edges. This infrastructural intervention eased commerce and industry but virtually eliminated the river habitat that lies along the shore. “So you have this massive infrastructure in place and everything in between it is basically unused,” says Nick Wesley, a cofounder of Urban Rivers. “It begs the question, what do we do with these spaces? They’re in some of........

© Fast Company

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