Activate Union Station calling on best ideas to bring Chicago's Union Station to life - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Activate Union Station calling on best ideas to bring Chicago's Union Station to life

Activate Union Station logo

VOTE for your top two favorite entries now through tomorrow, Wednesday, July 31!

Chicago’s Union Station is an iconic building and a major transportation hub—but it could be so much more: a gathering place for West Loop residents, an attraction for tourists, another cultural jewel in Chicago’s crown.

Apply below by Wednesday, July 24, at 5 p.m.
Two winners will receive $5,000 each, underwritten by Fifth Third Bank, to make their ideas happen at Union Station between Aug. 24 and Sept. 2.

Now is your chance to Activate Union Station. The Metropolitan Planning Council’s Fifth Annual Placemaking Contest, sponsored by Fifth Third Bank, is awarding cash prizes to the best temporary ideas to breathe new life into Chicago’s Union Station.

We want you to dream it and develop a plan … if you win, we’ll give you $5,000 to make it happen for 10 days this summer, between Aug. 24 and Sept. 2. Enter using the form below between now and July 24!

Have a great idea, but no man power? Drop your thoughts in our idea box, or tweet at us (@Metroplanners) with #ActivateUS!

Contest Guidelines

Read the complete Contest Guidelines before submitting your application. The submission form appears at the end of this post.

Fifth Third Bank logo

MPC thanks Fifth Third Bank for underwriting the Activate Union Station contest.

  • This competition is open to anyone 18 and over with a vision of what Chicago’s Union Station could become: artists, neighborhood groups, performers, chambers of commerce, architects, students, landscape architects, planners, industrial designers, and others.
  • This is a plan-build-program competition. Winners will be responsible for all three stages. Winning means implementing!
  • This contest is not just about design. The emphasis and the top criteria for our judges is the plan that best draws people in to activate the space with ideas that are engaging, low-cost and temporary. Following the Project for Public Spaces' "Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper" mantra, successful designs will create a gathering place that is universally accessible and inclusive, as well as active and engaging—all within the space of 10 days. Function takes precedence over form: Programming will fare better than an art gallery, for instance. Entrants are encouraged to explore and to learn more about the elements of placemaking, a community-based approach to planning, designing and managing great public places.

Why Union Station?

Located in Chicago’s bustling West Loop neighborhood, Union Station is the nation’s third-busiest rail hub, accommodating more than 120,000 Amtrak and Metra passengers every day—more daily traffic than Midway Airport. From local commuters to people traveling across the country, all of them pass through the station—but few actually hang out there because the station, sadly, is not the city’s most scintillating attraction. 

Yet Union Station is full of untapped space and resources. In 2011, the City of Chicago adopted the Union Station Master Plan, which not only outlines plans for renovating the station to accommodate a greater number of travelers, but also identifies the need to create a truly great place that invites people to stop and stay awhile. In D.C. and Philadelphia, Union Stations have transformed into community hotspots. They serve a robust commuter and tourist base, but have become so much more: a place for people to mix, mingle and enjoy. 

The Activate Union Station contest calls on entrants to bring to life three prime locations at the station; two of the three sites will be selected for implementation:

  • The iconic Headhouse, located west of Canal Street
  • The east-facing arcade on Canal Street
  • Plaza of Fifth Third Center, along the Chicago River 


Thanks for your submissions! The submission period is now over—check out the entries at for our public voting period, beginning this weekend.


  1. 1. Richard from Chicago on June 10, 2013

    Are you kidding me? They know what a consultant would charge to plan an actual branding/activation campaign or even single event. $5000 wouldn't even cover the idea phase much less the entire activation. With all the financial waste in Chicago, $5000 is a rounding error on an expense report. No one should enter this contest. They want to make money, then do the economy some good and HIRE A LOCAL CHICAGO CONSULTANT AND LABOR TO EXECUTE A WELL THOUGHT OUT PLAN.

  2. 2. Marisa Novara on June 10, 2013

    Richard, thank you for your thoughtful comment. Part of our goal with our Placemaking contests is to show that a lot can be done with a little. You might have seen last year's contest, The Space in Between, which featured small efforts that transformed a vacant or abandoned space into a community asset. You would be amazed at what the entrants accomplished without a consultant or branding campaign. By the way, our hope with Activate Union Station is that this ten-day experiment will turn into a longer-term programming plan for the station, along the lines of what you describe. Stay tuned.

  3. 3. Michelle on June 10, 2013

    This is a wonderful idea. It's just unfortunate that individuals without the time or personnel resources to accomplish all the planning might feel discouraged from submitting suggestions. It would be nice to have a connected contest where individuals could offer suggestions for a smaller cash prize, and their ideas could be implemented in a bigger plan. Challenge Post has a similar format.

  4. 4. Marisa Novara on June 11, 2013

    Great idea, Michelle. We have been soliciting ideas through social media for that very reason, and if we do another contest that sparks implementation, we will definitely work in a robust "public ideas" tier. Thanks for the suggestion.

  5. 5. Michelle from United States on June 11, 2013

    Thanks for the feedback, Marisa! I heard about the contest on Newsradio 780 yesterday, but really don't have the network to implement any ideas I might have. Where else are you soliciting ideas besides this site?

  6. 6. PJ on June 13, 2013

    I agree with Richard. This is a really large amount of work for $5,000. Great for students who have a lot of time and not a lot of jobs on their hands

  7. 7. Marisa on June 17, 2013

    Michelle, you - and anyone else with a great idea - can drop their concept in the comments section of this post:, or tweet us (@Metroplanners) using #ActivateUS. Thanks for the great suggestion!

  8. 8. Frank Caputo from Chicago,West Loop on June 17, 2013

    I agree with Richard. This is a cheap way to get info on any project. We have put a years work in identifying good ideas for a renovation of the CUS. $5,000 is not enough to come forward with great ideas for some one else to benifit on.

  9. 9. Jimbo from United States on June 18, 2013

    $5,000 Dollars to implement your idea? Leaving little to nothing for the work completed? Is this supposed to attract a lot of entries? It seems like a lot of time to spend to 'get the chance' to spend your prize to make it happen.

  10. 10. Ingrid Haftel from Chicago Architecture Foundation on June 18, 2013

    What a great opportunity! I think the Project for Public Spaces mantra is key here -- Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper. By focusing on rapid and creative implementation, placemaking projects like these avoid "planning fatigue" and encourage experimentation. Architecture for Humanity and the Cultural Center (via the Spontaneous Interventions exhibit) are experimenting with similar models to great success--and with small budgets! I also think MPC's emphasis on programming (activating the space) is really interesting -- it highlights the fact that helping Chicagoans enjoy their city doesn't require capital-intensive design or a fully vetted master plan.

  11. 11. Mark de la Vergne from Chicago on June 18, 2013

    Great point Ingrid. Tens of thousands of people pass these three sites on a daily basis and I'm sure many have ideas on what could be done to make them a little bit better. The 30th Street example demonstrates this well. Looking forward to seeing what people come up with to change these spaces quickly and cheaply.

  12. 12. Jon Pounds on June 19, 2013

    I’ll take a moment and be slightly contrarian here. These are extraordinary spaces, embedded with remarkable architecture and substantial infrastructure. I think the level of funding “problem” ($5K) needs to be seen a bit more in terms of the context-of these times.
    Temporary installations bypass a lot of the requirements of projects intended to last a long time – and invite imagination.

    The transformation of space was once the domain of only planners; contemporary theory and practice invites everyone to think about how a place might be different – it's a call to spread creativity and participation to more people.

    OK, 5K isn’t much. But how would the problem be different if it was 20K or 100K? More maintenance/safety concerns, higher expectations for long-term impact and measurement of to that impact, longer periods of exposure perhaps, and much more competition for the money.

    It’s a start, an experiment. Rejecting it because it’s not bigger and more permanent is missing the point. Have some fun- even be foolish. 5K covers some material and income for 2 weeks of your life.

  13. 13. Michelle B. on June 19, 2013

    I agree with Jon P. There's room for growth and many ideas. I e-mailed mine to you at the address.

  14. 14. balaji from indiana on July 24, 2013

    I registered my idea, after pressing the register button i got a thank you sign on the page. Is this the only confirmation message we can have for submission or do we get some mail or message.

  15. 15. Julie from Chicago on June 19, 2014

    Historically speaking, some great buildings have come out of contests. The tribune tower, for example.....I think it is a great idea.

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