Bringing Back Chicago’s Wildlife with the Urban Rivers Project


Bringing Back Chicago’s Wildlife with the Urban Rivers Project


Rivers are a source of life both inside of the water and outside of it. Not only do they provide a home for countless species of plants and animals, creating true intricate habitats and ecosystems, they also offer us a great source of leisure, enjoyment, and entertainment.

Unfortunately, however, many of our water sources are used for other purposes, be it for our water supply, for irrigation or the production of energy. And the habitats that are dependent on these rivers are pushed further and further away. Moreover, rivers which often time pass through cities (well. actually, cities which sprouted around rivers, to be more exact) have long since lost these habitats and have split the ecosystems.


This is why a 501c3 organization based in Chicago, Urban Rivers, is looking at ways to reverse this negative trend. Similar projects have already been deployed in cities like Berlin and L.A., and Urban Rivers is looking to do the same thing with a 600-foot-long floating garden in the Chicago River around May of 2017. This way, they hope to revive the once thriving natural ecosystem here and make it a home to fish, birds, and other animals, as well as a serene retreat for people to enjoy.

The first piece of floating garden, roughly 50 sq. feet, was put in place on the Chicago River by Urban Rivers back in 2013 when the co-founder of the company, Josh Yellin was kayaking on the river. He noticed a flock of geese huddled on a piling, trying to take a breather from all the river traffic.

River otter (top left), bluegill (bottom left), snapping turtle (top right), mallard ducks (middle right), dragonfly (bottom right)
River otter (top left), bluegill (bottom left), snapping turtle (top right), mallard ducks (middle right), dragonfly (bottom right)

“These geese symbolized the general lack of ecological consideration in Chicago today and throughout its history,” Yellin explains. “The Chicago River that once had a natural riverbank and plentiful vegetation, is now outlined by steel seawalls and a few wooden pilings. Can’t Chicago, with its incredible history of design and innovation, do better than this?”

With this in mind, he and a group of people created Urban Rivers, in an attempt to reclaim these riverbanks for the wildlife which once called this place home. BioMatrix will provide floating ecosystems to be filled with the native Illinois wetland and prairie plant species that will provide the habitat for mammals, birds, and amphibians. The underside of the floating gardens will provide a feeding habitat for local fish. With results from Yellin’s 2013 experiment indicating a nearly 100% increase in the fish abundance in the river immediately surrounding the floating gardens, the impact is promising.


Urban Rivers is hoping that the floating gardens will provide more than a wildlife sanctuary—community involvement and educational opportunities are equally important. The ability to learn about nature, science, and technology in urban centers is vital for the initiative’s continued success. The team’s experience in clean water initiatives and environmental remediation mean that they’ve already been able to make great strides in meeting their goal. City permits in hand, they’ve started a Kickstarter campaign to fund the 600 feet of floating gardens to be installed in 2017. And while they’ve already made their initial goal, every $50 adds an extra foot of habitat. At this rate they are well on their way to installing a half-mile river park by 2020.

Marsh blazingstar (left), brown fox sedge (upper middle), prairie cordgrass (bottom middle), Kankakee mallow (right)
Bringing Back Chicago's Wildlife with the Urban Rivers Project
Bringing Back Chicago’s Wildlife with the Urban Rivers Project