Case studies & inspiration

Project Ideas

  • Movie in the Park
  • Paddling, kayaking, or in-water recreational event
  • Social (e.g. hot chocolate social, picnic)
  • Concert or play on the riverfront
  • Exercise, dance, or yoga gathering or class
  • Walking, running, or cycling club that uses riverfront trail
  • 5k run for a charity
  • Riverfront neighborhood festival
  • Teach about rivers, water quality, and habitat in your classroom. The Chicago River Schools Network has educational materials  to teach your students about the Chicago River and river systems in general.
  • Educational event or field trip. Friends of the Chicago River can help you organize field trip for your students on a stretch of the Chicago River.
  • Art class or festival along the riverfront
  • Art installation along the riverfront. This Arts and Planning toolkit can help you work through the process of creating and funding public art, and how to work with the community.
  • Food truck rally
  • Farmers market
  • Pop-up business. This guide offers advice for how to get a pop-up running. Also check out Boombox, a converted shipping container that now serves as a traveling pop-up shop throughout Chicago neighborhoods.
  • Join or create a Park Advisory Council
  • Join or create a stewardship group for your stretch of the river. Work with your local Park Advisory Council or volunteer stewardship group to identify other land in your community along the river that might be suitable for conservation or conversion to a designated natural area.
  • Tree planting, with help from MWRD
  • Habitat restoration. There are many groups that perform habitat restoration in and around the Chicago area. Chicago Wilderness’ site lists many groups and restoration efforts to get involved with in Chicago and Cook County.
  • Adopt a site along the river to help monitor water quality.

Case Studies

Here are several case studies showing placemaking projects that have activated riverfront spaces in Chicago and around the world.  

Chicago Dragon Boat Race for Literacy

River: South Branch of Chicago River at Ping Tom Park

When: Has been held annually in June for the past 16 years

Overview: Another great way to utilize the waterways in Chicago is to host an event on one of the city’s three rivers. Recently, dragon boat races have become popular throughout the United States and Chicago’s Chinatown has hosted a dragon boat race for the past 16 years to support English literacy programs in immigrant communities throughout the city. The 2016 race was presented by the Chicago Chinatown Community Foundation in partnership with the Chicago Park District, Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, Office of 25th Ward Alderman Daniel Solis, US Coast Guard, Chicago Marine Heritage Society, Friends of the Chicago River and Canal Street Marina. This event attracted thousands of visitors who came not only to watch the 30 dragon boats compete for the winning time but also to partake in an entire day of festivities including musical and cultural performances.

Visit the event page!

                                                                                    Dragon Boat Race by Sharyne Moy Tu

Chicago Southland Dragon Boat Festival


River: Calumet River at Blue Island

When: August 13, 2016

Overview: The City of Blue Island also became involved with the ancient Chinese tradition of dragon boat racing in 2016 with their inaugural Chicago Southland Dragon Boat Festival.The Chicago Southland Convention & Visitors Bureau along with the Blue Island Arts Alliance and the Pan American Dragon Boat Association hosted the festival this past August along the city’s historic waterfront. In addition to the festivities that took place on the water, the festival also provided arts and craft activities for children, music, local craft beer and food.

In this case study, we will highlight the steps taken to host the event in 2017, which will take place at SEPA Station #3 along the Calumet River in Blue Island.

  •  Since the event will take place on land owned by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, event organizers first contacted MWRD for their permission. MWRD granted permission to the City of Blue Island to hold the dragon boat race on their land.
  • Event organizers asked the City of Blue Island for permission, as well.
  • The next step was to contact the United States Coast Guard since the event will take place on water. The dragon boat race organizers submitted the “Application for Marine Event” form, which can be found on the USCG website (the Coast Guard recommends this form be submitted  at least 180 days before the event date).
  • In addition, the dragon boat race organizers spoke with Blue Island’s Fire and Police departments to ensure that safety, security, and traffic control measures will be in place on the day of the festival.
  • The last step was to submit a “Block Party Application” to the Municipal Services Committee to notify the City of Blue Island’s Public Works Department of an expanded event, which will include food, drinks, and entertainment. Notifying the Public Works Department helps ensure site clean-up, garbage removal and informs the department that certain streets need to be blocked off.

Although there is not one set of steps that event organizers need to follow to ensure they have notified and received permission from the correct departments to host an event in or along one of Chicago’s rivers, it is best to talk to all those departments, organizations and individuals that you believe will need to be notified.

Visit the event page

Artificial beaches along rivers in Europe

River: Seine (Paris, France), Spree (Berlin, Germany), Vistula (Warsaw, Poland) and many others

When: summer months

Overview: Many inland European cities are creating spaces along their riverfronts with sand and tropical themes so that residents can enjoy a beach-like atmosphere without leaving the city. These “urban beaches”are filled with sand, volleyball nets, seating, art, food and drink for everyone to enjoy during the warmer months. Although Chicago has many beautiful beaches along its stretch of Lake Michigan, a large percentage of Chicagoans do not have easy access to the shoreline due to the distance of their homes from the lakefront. The Chicago, Calumet, and Des Plaines rivers however, can offer more convenient waterfront access to a greater percentage of the population. Simple ideas such creating a large sand lot with seating and food vendors can be an easy way to activate river bank areas and give Chicagoans, who may not have the opportunity to travel to the lakefront, a place to enjoy the summer.

See more examples of urban riverside beaches.

                                                                                              Photo by Alamy, in The Guardian

Riverbank Neighbors Park and Nature Trail


Where: North Branch of Chicago River between W. Berteau Street and W. Montrose Avenue

When: construction of park began in 1993

Overview: Riverbank Neighbors is a community organization that formed in 1993 in order to clean up the east bank of the North Branch of the Chicago River between W. Montrose Avenue and W. Berteau Avenue. According to NeighborSpace ( , the area was overgrown with vines and covered in litter and debris. Members of the organization removed the debris, trimmed back the overgrowth of vines, planted native plants, and built steps, terraces and paths in order to create the Riverbank Neighbors Park and Nature Trail.This work has helped make the river accessible to the community. The organization works with the Nature Conservancy, the North Branch Restoration Project, Waters Elementary School, and Friends of the Chicago River to maintain the park and care for its 100 different species of native plants. In addition to creating an inviting outdoor space, the organization has added their own programming in the form of potlucks and a singing group.

Visit the Riverbank Neighbors page, and the Neighborspace Site. 

                                                                                                    Metropolitan Planning Council

River Café – A pop-up coffee shop

River: Los Angeles River at the 24.7 mile marker along the river bike trail

When: 2013

Overview: Providing amenities, such as simple pop-up coffee shops along the riverfront in strategic locations can provide a pleasant surprise for recreational users of riverfront trails. In 2013, three organizations came together to build a simple wooden “pop-up” structure to sell coffee at the 24.7 mile marker along the Los Angeles River bike trail. The three organizations included the Northeast Los Angeles Riverfront Collective, an architectural design studio (RAC Design Build) and a specialty coffee roaster/seller whose mission includes sustainable coffee practices (Cafecito Orgánico). Although the structure they built was simple, it had a significant impact on the community, as the pop-up shop was located in a neighborhood with few retail amenities. The popularity of the pop-up shop helped residents realize the economic potential of establishing a permanent coffee shop in the area and it also encouraged cyclists and walkers to spend a little more time in a community that they normally would have just passed through.  

See an article about the pop-up coffee shop

                                                                                   Cafecito Organico by George Villanueva


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