Riverfront Development: Lessons from the City of Light - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Riverfront Development: Lessons from the City of Light

As the River Edge Ideas Lab enters its final weeks collecting feedback on the future of Chicago's rivers, a controversial Parisian project demonstrates the importance of public input

Justine Briard

Sunbathing on the banks of the Seine. Paris banned cars on a stretch of the river, leaving some locals feeling angry and ignored

I was born and raised in Chicago and moved to Paris after finishing high school, where I am currently a graduate student in urban policy and planning. Living just four hundred yards from the river, I’ve had a front row seat to riverfront change in the City of Lights. The project, which involves banning cars from a three-kilometer stretch on the right quayside of the Seine river and transforming it into a riverfront with 1.4 acres of parkland, picnic areas, pop-up bars and cafes, is applauded by many—but has also left some locals feeling angry and ignored.

In Paris, the people most affected by the longer commutes, the result of rerouting traffic from a stretch of the Seine, live outside the city and were not considered in community meetings before the project broke ground.

The Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo announced the riverfront development project as an effort to decrease pollution, provide more green spaces for Parisians and improve the walkability of the city. Once the project was announced in early June of 2016, the city of Paris led a month-long community engagement initiative to involve Parisians in the design and implementation of the plan. A survey revealed 45% favorable opinions against 55% unfavorable ones. The city organized a public meeting in each of the four neighborhoods closest to the riverfront where officials would present the project, respond to questions and take suggestions. Finally, an online platform was open for citizens to propose ideas, express their fears or discontent and comment on other users’ suggestions. The proposed riverfront development was deliberated in the city council and passed, despite a petition against the project with 2,000 signatures. In addition to the longer commute times and the increased congestion the re-routing of the cars for the riverfront walk would cause, many people criticized the mayor for the way the community engagement effort was carried out. Those most affected by the longer commutes live outside the city and were not considered in the community meetings. 

The challenges of riverfront development in Paris are important to keep in mind as Chicago embarks on riverfront transformations. A few months ago, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel announced the Chicago Urban River Edge Ideas Lab. The project, in collaboration with the Chicago Department of Planning and Development and the Metropolitan Planning Council and funded by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation and Comcast, has engaged nine award-winning architectural firms to design riverfront developments for the Chicago River. The design concepts are currently showcased in a gallery, Expo 72 at 72 E. Randolph, in a traveling exhibit and online at ChiRiverLab.com until January 7, 2018. The exhibits offer opportunities for citizens to give feedback and propose ideas. Gallery talks and community engagement events encourage public participation.

The River Edge Ideas Lab showcases innovative designs for developing three iconic and structurally complex areas of the river. The idea comes from one of the goals outlined in the Great Rivers Chicago vision to update the riverfront design guidelines. The innovative concepts on display also invite feedback, engaging the community broadly and very early on in the process. The input gathered from the various exhibits, events and the online platform will be used by the City’s Department of Planning and Development to inform new river edge design guidelines.

Even before beginning the community engagement process, the River Edge Ideas Lab demonstrates a commitment to community members’ ideas and concerns, a commitment that goes a long way in showing people that their opinions will be valued and taken seriously. The Ideas Lab is an important statement declaring that the process of engaging the Chicago community in reimagining riverfront developments is as important as the design and physical construction itself. Through the Chicago Urban Edge Ideas Lab, the future of the city’s riverfront development can truly reflect its diverse populations’ needs and desires.

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