Chicago's lakefront is a triumph of city planning — the preservation of the city's chief physical asset for use by the public instead of by factories and wealthy, private homes. It's the city's front yard.
Until recently, the Chicago River has not received the same loving attention. Though Daniel Burnham included riverfront promenades in his 1909 Plan of Chicago, most of the land along the river has long been inaccessible or unappealing — a mix of scrub trees and litter, industry and private property. The river was known mainly for pollution and the fact that it was engineered to flow backward.
But in the past 20 years, that perception has changed dramatically, with a series of improvements through public and private development. Counting the downtown Riverwalk — the final segment opened to the public this past weekend — the riverfront has about 13 miles of disconnected trails, with another 1.7 miles under construction.
Now, the Active Transportation Alliance, which promotes biking and walking, says it is time to make a Burnham-style big plan for what could be the city's backyard. The alliance laid out a bold vision in a preliminary report last week suggesting ways to make a continuous bike and pedestrian trail along the entire 27-mile Chicago riverfront by 2030.
"The stars are aligning to make this happen, with the popularity of The 606, the popularity of the Riverwalk and a mayor who generally supports these kinds of things, " said Ron Burke, the alliance's executive director.
The alliance's report comes three months after the release of a planning document called "Our Great Rivers, " by the Metropolitan Planning Council, Friends of the Chicago River and the city, which also discussed a continuous trail along the river. The alliance's preliminary report took it a step further and supplied details about how it could work. A full report comes out Nov. 16.
The ideas for new trail segments range from the more easily achievable — developers on the riverfront south of the Loop including a trail as part of their project, for example — to more complicated ideas such as putting stationary or floating docks over the water in places where it is tough to build on land. The alliance does not know how much money it could all take but suggests that it could be paid for through a mix of private and public sources, including federal Congestion Mitigation and Clean Air funding.