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Connecting the South Branch to its riverfront

The Chicago Community Trust is currently funding ten community-led riverfront projects through their Our Great Rivers grant. This piece is the sixth of a ten-part series highlighting these projects

Chicago River Day participants stand in Canal Origins Park, with Park 571 Boathouse in the background. Photo: South Branch Park Advisory Council

Many have forgotten the South Branch of the Chicago River’s key role in Chicago’s history. Reversing the river flow of the South Branch in the early 20th Century was a major civil engineering feat. The economic results of industry and trade passing through the South Branch were key to elevating Chicago as a major American economy. The neighborhoods along the South Branch have also long provided a nest for generations of immigrant families, building to Chicago’s cultural vibrancy.

A group of partners working along the South Branch of the Chicago River hopes that by connecting the communities of Bridgeport, Pilsen, Brighton Park and McKinley Park to the rivers, people can re-engage with the area’s unique social and industrial history.

The South Branch Park Advisory Council (SBPAC), Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), Active Transportation AllianceFriends of the Chicago RiverCannon Design Open Hand Studio and Smith Group JJR are working to create a framework plan for improving the physical and social connections between the South Branch’s three great riverfront parks and the surrounding communities: Park 571Canal Origins Park and Canalport Riverwalk, for which the SBPAC is responsible.

The team has also been working with community partners to document the experiences, priorities and concerns of residents with regard to increasing riverfront access and improving riverfront amenities. Benito Juarez Community AcademyBrighton Park Neighborhood Council and Burroughs Elementary School, and the McKinley Park Development Council have collaborated with the team.

The 19,000 square-foot Eleanor Street Boathouse opened in December of 2016 along the South Branch of the Chicago River in the near southwest neighborhood of Bridgeport. It is the fourth boathouse constructed during Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s tenure, part of his vision of increased recreation on Chicago’s rivers as outlined in both the Our Great Rivers Plan and the Building on Burnham Plan. New interest in riverfront recreation on the South Branch has been sparked by the Boathouse development, bringing new crowds to the riverfront.

The team is using the newfound momentum as a springboard for discussing the future vision of for the South Branch parks, which will hopefully lead to improvements in the connectivity of the parks and neighborhoods.

In the long-term, the team hopes the vision will lay the foundation for the development of a continuous river trail, which would provide new recreation opportunities for resident and unlock portions of the river that are currently inaccessible. The Our Great Rivers vision and the Chicago River Trail Action Plan call for continuous riverfront trails throughout the City. 

The team has undertaken a series of interactive community engagement efforts to connect residents to the South Branch parks, the riverfront, and, in turn, to one other.

The SBPAC hosted a public visioning event at the Eleanor St. Boathouse to collect community insights into the opportunities and concerns surrounding South branch riverfront developments.

“We had over 100 people participate from all different zip codes around the city”, Shannon Madden, Vice President of the South Branch Park Advisory Council recalled. “This just goes to show that there is a lot of interest and excitement across Chicago for increasing river accessibility.”

At a community meeting, attendees used pictures to create their ideal park. Photo: MPC

The Active Transportation Alliance led a walk audit training to show community partners how to document the experience of walking to riverfront destinations, noting where intersections feel safe or unsafe, and barriers and improvements needed to promote pedestrian access to the parks. Community members, including students from Benito Juarez High School and Burroughs Elementary, took to the streets with clipboards in hand to critically analyze their experience walking to riverfront destinations. The experiences they recorded will be used by the group to develop the plan to improve access in the area.

Students putting preferred routes and barriers to river access on a map. Photo: Cannon Design

Friends of the Chicago River hosted paddling experiences to get people out onto the rivers, many for the first time.

The community partners hosted events such as walks, fly fishing, science activities, rowing and park celebrations to get people engaged in the rivers.

The team also interviewed community stakeholders and had the community partners help get community input on a survey about how people currently use the rivers and how they would like to in the future.

Students looking for crawfish in the river (they found some!). Photo: Joe Lentino, Brighton Park Neighborhood Council & Burroughs Elementary

For Madden, the most important component of SBPAC’s visioning work is building capacity and bringing the community to the riverfront. “We are attempting to reframe the city and river as a connector of people,” Madden stated. “Our parks have a place for everyone and serve our diverse communities and their diverse interests. Rowers, gardeners, families, fishermen—everyone is welcome at our parks!”

Ultimately the SBPAC, partners and community members are optimistic that economic opportunities, improved health, and more opportunities for arts and culture and environmental stewardship will come from increasing access to the riverfronts in these four South Branch neighborhoods.

Interested in getting involved in the SBPAC? Email Shannon Madden at to learn more!

Hanna Udischas is a current research assistant at MPC.