Northerly Island

In setting the framework for a new Northerly Island park in Chicago, the charge for the design team led by SmithGroupJJR and Studio Gang Architects was clear—design the next great icon for the city on one of the last large tracts of lakefront. The resulting design takes advantage of its downtown Lake Michigan location by creating opportunities for extraordinary and inspirational outdoor experiences within reach of millions of people each day.

Northerly Island is a 91-acre, man-made peninsula originally conceived as part of Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago. The site later hosted the 1933 “Century of Progress” World’s Fair and then became a public park before serving as an airport for 55 years. It is a place that most Chicagoans know from one or more of its earlier lives, and the design team faced the challenge of recasting Northerly Island as a vital and sustainable open space within contemporary Chicago, while still honoring Burnham's vision.

Setting The Vision

Through a series of public open houses and charrettes, the design team worked with the Chicago Park District (CPD) and the city to collect ideas, desires, and concerns from the public at large. The overwhelming consensus was that Northerly Island should be an ecologically diverse park, in which visitors can explore nature and experience peaceful solitude without leaving the city. Prominent among the responses were requests for ponds, meadows, a forest, educational activities, integration with the Museum Campus, diverse water activities, links to the mainland, and sustainable design.

Creating Urban Ecology And Habitat

A common standard for ecological restoration is returning the land to its pre-European settlement conditions. Since Northerly Island consists entirely of post-settlement lakefill, there was no way to “restore” the peninsula short of removing it from the lake. The resulting design approach was to recreate and celebrate a suite of ecological communities that historically were along the south shores of Lake Michigan: prairie, woodland, savanna, and marsh.

Given the need for this urban park to support broad public use and access, the framework establishes a broader definition of sustainability—one that balances ecological health with public recreational opportunities, financial viability, operations, and maintenance. The resulting plan aims to create an internationally recognized destination promoting Chicago's worldwide leadership in urban environmentalism.

The creation of a new bird habitat is a great example of a distinctive urban ecological approach. After the downtown airport ceased operation on the island, a temporary prairie was established that quickly became a flourishing habitat for migratory grassland birds. Working with biologists at Chicago’s renowned Field Museum, the team came up with a design that retains 3/5 of the park’s area as grassland. In addition to bolstering habitat, the ecological strategies aim to reduce bird strikes at the McCormick Convention Center to the southwest by strategically locating tree-canopy masses as interceptors along migratory paths.

Aquatic ecological strategies were also employed to combat the structural and aesthetic failings of hard sheet piling and stone riprap along the lake-ward edge of the park. A barrier reef is planned here to stabilize the edge against pounding waves, and establish a 50-acre lagoon to ensure habitat for target wildlife. For park users, the lagoon is a zone of relatively quiet water, opportune for kayaking or scuba diving.

Inland from the lagoon, the design team inserted a wetland; its stable water levels will support wet prairie as well as emergent and aquatic communities. Northerly’s network of wetlands will be fed by collecting and filtering rainwater from throughout the park.

Balancing Recreation And Revenue Generation

To frame a vision that is both inspiring and realizable, revenue generation is embedded into the programming and layout of the park. Leasable retail spaces and venues for commercial and public events include the music amphitheater, retail, and concessions along a Harbor Walk, as well as an education center and event pavilion on the Great Lawn. These revenue generators anchor the northern section of the park, easily accessible from the Museum Campus and Grant Park, preserving the southern section of the park for quieter, passive activities and habitat areas. Along with this active/passive transition, the design strategy negotiates other spatial contrasts—land vs. water, urban vs. natural—to blend and balance the range of visitor experiences, including group camping, bird-watching, beach combing, hiking, and concerts.

The park’s design is structured to align with a number of known funding sources. These range from public/private partnerships and donor opportunities to a range of grant opportunities that support the plan’s recommendations for physical, ecological, and programmatic improvements. The framework includes a detailed action plan that illustrates how to sequence the project through funding procurement, permitting, and phased implementation. This approach requires existing operations and revenue streams to keep a significant portion of the park open at all times, to anticipate timing to acquire permits from various regulatory agencies, and to dovetail with potential funding sources.

Partnering For Funding And Implementation

The framework plan was completed in 2011. Phase I is currently being implemented by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the CPD, with a budget of $9 million. The project received a Great Lakes Fisheries Ecosystem Restoration grant of $5.9 million, with the balance coming from the park district’s concert-venue revenues.

Bob Foster, project manager for CPD, elaborates on the challenges of procuring grant funding. “One lesson learned was we needed to get creative with Northerly Island’s design to account for restrictions in the grant funds. Specifically, the Section 206 grant prohibits recreation, as it was created for conservation work. Northerly Island is probably the most urban project there has been to use that grant. For our project with balancing people and nature we had to be creative with how we lay out recreation programming, how and where we incorporate camping and trails, even in how we label paths as being for recreation or maintenance.”

Foster commends the USACE for expediting its assistance. “Working with the USACE was a wonderful experience, and their Chicago office brings a lot to the table in terms of design and ecology. A key tip he offers is to “have a plan developed, with community input and support, before going to the USACE. If they see that it has the support of the community and has already been thought through, they will be quick to support it and see it through.”

Establishing A Benchmark For Urban Lakefront Parks

Northerly Island is also influencing the future direction of other area lakefront parks. SmithGroupJJR’s design for the CPD’s Morgan Shoal in Burnham Park on Chicago’s south lakeshore, as well as its master plan for Wilmette’s parks on the north shore, draws many of the habitat-development strategies from Northerly Island’s framework plan.

The park has already received two international awards in the past two years, from The Waterfront Center and the Environmental Design Research Association. As the Chicago Park District moves forward with a feasibility study for Phase II development of the barrier reef, Northerly Island has the potential to become a global model for urban ecology, and the balancing of intensive public recreational use with new habitat creation.

For more information and to read the Framework Plan in its entirety, visit

Kris Lucius, RLA, ASLA, LEED Green Associate, is a Landscape Architect for SmithGroupJJR.

Mark O’Leary is the Lead Ecologist for SmithGroupJJR. For more information on this project, email

Photo Credit: Renderings by Studio Gang Architects