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Lake Shore Drive, Riverwalk show the importance of urban edges

A public planning process is underway to come up with ideas to improve North Lake Shore Drive for drivers, bikers and pedestrians.

Today’s column is about urban edges — not the literal borders between a city and its suburbs, but the sharp contrasts in density and character that give cities their distinctive identity. In particular, I’m thinking about the spectacular meetings of water, land and buildings that make Chicago one of the world’s most dramatic cityscapes.

Imagine if the vast expanse of Lake Michigan turned into land tomorrow. The city wouldn’t look, or feel, the same. The skyline would bleed into its surroundings instead of being set apart by a watery forecourt. Actually, that’s the way it looks from the west — impressive enough, but nowhere near as majestic as it appears from the east. Without the lake’s urban edge, Chicago would be a bigger version of Indianapolis. Ho hum.

I’m thinking about urban edges for two reasons: City and state transportation officials on Wednesday revealed concept drawings for a future redevelopment of North Lake Shore Drive. And the Chicago Riverwalk is celebrating its first summer of activity since its ceremonial completion last October. Both the Drive and the Riverwalk form integral parts of the waterfront edges that are signature features of Chicago.

It’s important to point out that not all these edges serve benevolent purposes. Think of Chicago’s Dan Ryan Expressway, which separated white ethnic neighborhoods from public housing projects largely filled by blacks when it opened in the early 1960s. Likewise, North Lake Shore Drive has morphed from its 19th Century origins, when it was a scenic boulevard for horse-drawn carriages, into a manic highway plagued by traffic bottlenecks and crashes.

But urban edges, especially those that are man-made, can be changed to suit new values and visions. Take the concept plans for the roughly 80-year-old, seven-mile stretch of the Drive between Grand and Hollywood avenues, which were shaped by Itasca-based Civiltech Engineering. They reflect a post-industrial mindset that views urban edges holistically, not simply as corridors of transportation.

One "before and after" sequence shows a complete revamp of the Drive’s notorious "S" curve, now crammed between skyscrapers and Oak Street Beach. New landfill would untie this knot, shifting beach eastward and opening the way for new parkland. A portion of the road would be lowered beneath surrounding parkland. A pedestrian bridge would sweep over the depressed roadway, linking to separate bike and pedestrian paths.

In this vision, North Lake Shore Drive would no longer be a road that bisects a park; it would become a road enveloped within a park. It also might emerge a safer road; it now averages three crashes a day, officials say. And the new parkland would serve as a sponge that would soak up water pushed ashore by storms.

How much will this cost? And who will pay? That’s not the point right now. You need a vision before you ask U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin to wring the necessary funds from the feds. While there are still lots of knotty issues to work through, it’s encouraging that officials are treating the Drive’s redevelopment as more than an ordinary road project. But be patient for the results. The current design phase isn’t scheduled to be completed until 2020. Construction won’t start until sometime in the next decade.

The Riverwalk, on the other hand, has already established itself as a vital part of city life.

Since 2009, newly-built sections of the pathway have joined with older ones to create a promenade, more than a mile long, that reaches west from Lake Michigan to the confluence of the Chicago River’s north and south branches at Lake Street. The success of that promenade is beyond argument: A constant stream of walkers, joggers and cyclists flows along the trail. The water is still polluted, but the view over it is soothing — provided your view isn’t blocked. After work, the crowds of millennials frequenting the Riverwalk’s wine bars and restaurants can be so thick that it’s hard to make your way through them.

In some ways, the Riverwalk is broadening its appeal beyond that core audience of downtown workers and residents. Kids taking part in a Chicago Park District summer camp program go fishing on the handsomely-designed piers that reach like fingers into the water. Yet other new sections of the pathway are pretty dull. Besides an oversized sculpture of a deer, for example, the grassy section at the Riverwalk’s west end remains empty.

That’s OK. It takes time to create great urban edges. It also takes top design talent, as Mayor Rahm Emanuel seemed to understand in March when he announced something called the Chicago Urban River Edges Ideas Lab.

The program will ask leading architects and landscape architects to develop concepts that will form "a unified design aesthetic" for Chicago’s riverfront," the city said in a statement. The roster of architects, which includes Riverwalk co-designers Ross Barney Architects of Chicago and Sasaki Associates of Watertown, Mass., is impressive. Let’s see what they come up with.

In the meantime, especially while it’s warm, enjoy the splendor of Chicago’s dramatic meetings of land, water and buildings.

The city wouldn’t be the same without them.

Twitter @BlairKamin

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