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Rewilding Rivers: A Tale of Floating Wetlands in Chicago

Cities across the globe are exploring ways to rewild their rivers. With much success, Shedd has worked with Urban Rivers, another Chicago nonprofit to bring this effort to the Chicago River. Hear about the work we’ve done so far, with more to come!

Kayak approaches riverbank where large wooden letters spell out "UrbanRiver.org" along the North Branch of the Chicago River.

Photo by: Urban Rivers

As urban populations have increased over time and industry has boomed along with it, cities across the globe have channelized — or artificially straightened — rivers to make it easier for large boats carrying freight to navigate.

Natural riverbanks and critical wildlife habitat have been replaced with steel walls and supportive infrastructure. Habitat loss and pollution have made these rivers inhospitable to wildlife, causing a decrease in species diversity. City-dwellers also feel the effects of an industrialized river that lacks aesthetic beauty and could be unusable for recreation.

To mitigate these impacts, some conservationists in cities are beginning to explore the benefits of “floating wetlands” in improving water quality and encouraging the return of native species of fish, insects, birds and other wildlife. Floating wetlands are relatively low-cost, man-made platforms that float on the surface of the water and interlock to form larger islands.

These platforms, populated with native aquatic plant species, anchor to the banks of the river and provide breeding grounds for fish, habitats for birds and pollinators, and dense root systems that aid in filtering contaminated or over-nutrified water.

Shedd has partnered with Chicago-based nonprofit Urban Rivers since 2018 to install floating wetlands in the North Branch Canal, a decommissioned man-made canal in the North Branch of the Chicago River, as part of a project called the Wild Mile.

Starting off small

The Wild Mile began as a concept in 2013 as a capstone research project which determined that floating wetlands were effective in creating habitats for fish in open canals. In 2014, Urban Rivers (formerly the Naru Project) began the process of establishing their organization as a nonprofit and applying for permits and funding to build these islands. 

The project really took flight in 2017 when Urban Rivers launched a fundraising campaign to begin more robust construction of the Wild Mile. The organization installed 160 linear feet of floating wetlands that year.


Below: Urban Rivers begins to install floating wetland modules on the North Branch Canal of the Chicago River. 

  • People in kayaks paddle near a floating wetland on the Chicago River.
  • Man and woman in wader pants in Chicago River standing next to a floating wetland.
  • Overhead view of several floating wetlands in the North Branch of the Chicago River as part of a project called the Wild Mile.
  • Man on a platform waves at three people in a boat near several floating wetlands along the North Branch of the Chicago River.
  • Kayak approaches riverbank where large wooden letters spell out "UrbanRiver.org" along the North Branch of the Chicago River.

Top: Urban Rivers, Second row left: Urban Rivers, Second row right: Urban Rivers, Third row: Urban Rivers, Bottom: Urban Rivers

Growing on the river

This momentum continued when Shedd joined Urban Rivers’ effort, recognizing the project’s potential for research and outreach opportunities. In 2018, Shedd funded an installation of floating wetlands— the first of many. The same year, Shedd launched the Kayak for Conservation program to provide an opportunity for people to connect with nature along the Wild Mile and learn about its history, native wildlife and ongoing conservation efforts.


Below: Shedd Aquarium sponsors further installation of floating wetlands and begins kayak program.

  • People in kayaks near a large bridge in the North Branch of the Chicago River.
  • Lush green plants cover floating wetlands along banks on the North Branch of the Chicago River.
  • People navigate yellow and orange kayaks near floating wetlands on the North Branch of the Chicago River.
  • People in kayaks inspect plants growing on floating wetlands on the North Branch of the Chicago River.
  • Young people in colorful kayaks near floating wetlands on the North Branch of the Chicago River.

Top: Urban Rivers, Second row left: Urban Rivers, Second row right: Urban Rivers, Third row: Urban Rivers, Bottom: Urban Rivers

Next steps paddle forward

In 2019, the Shedd team continued to welcome the community to kayak with us and funded additional wetland installations along the Wild Mile. Also, Shedd began conducting research to gauge how the fishes in the Chicago river and other nearby waterways are responding to actions taken to improve water quality As the project gained traction, Urban Rivers connected with additional partners such as National Geographic and the British School to fund portions of the project. These partnerships opened the door for more education and outreach as school groups from the British School helped with planting and learned about native plants and ecosystems in the process.


Below: Urban Rivers expands wetland area. 

  • Floating wetlands along the North Branch of the Chicago River at dusk.
  • A series of floating wetlands on the North Branch of the Chicago River.
  • A sign that says "Hibiscus moscheutos - Rose Mallow - Mallow Family (Malvaceae)" sits among close up of green leaves and yellow flowers.
  • Wide view of the North Branch of the Chicago River showing lush greenery with the city skyline in the distance.
  • A variety of green plants grow on a series of floating wetlands along the Chicago River.

Top: Urban Rivers, Second row left: Urban Rivers, Second row right: Urban Rivers, Third row: Urban Rivers,

Progress in the pandemic

Shipping setbacks during the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the installation of a floating boardwalk. However, 9,000 square feet of additional floating wetlands were installed with the help of volunteers eager to get out of their houses during quarantine and contribute to improving the health of the river.


Below: Urban Rivers staff and volunteers install and maintain wetlands.

  • Several large metal carts filled with plants intended for the floating wetlands on the North Branch of the Chicago River.
  • A group of young children gathered around a floating wetland structure in a classroom hold small plants.
  • Large empty metal carts lined up on patio along river front, with green plants to the right of them.
  • A man holds a yellow rope as he stands on a platform next to floating wetlands in the Chicago River (North Branch).
  • Volunteers tend to a series of floating wetlands used to grow plant life on the North Branch of the Chicago River.

Top: Urban Rivers, Second row left: Urban Rivers, Second row right: Urban Rivers, Third row: Urban Rivers,

Valuable access granted

The first sections of boardwalk were installed in 2021, allowing people easy access to the floating wetland. Stable, walkable and extensive boardwalks also facilitated more planting and provided an anchoring point for more floating wetland modules.


Below: Boardwalk installation increases access to the Wild Mile.

  • Supplies for construction on the Wild Mile on the North Branch of the Chicago River.
  • Wide shot of a section of the Wild Mile on the North Branch of the Chicago River with the city skyline in the background on a sunny day.
  • A woman walks on a section of the Wild Mile along the Chicago River.
  • A man pulls a red kayak out of the water while standing on a section of the boardwalk along the Wild Mile (North Branch of the Chicago River).
  • View from atop a section of the Wild Mile on the North Branch of the Chicago River.

Top: Urban Rivers, Second row left: S.O.M., Second row right: S.O.M., Third row: Urban Rivers, Bottom: S.O.M.

Great progress with more to come

In June 2022, Urban Rivers threw their first inaugural block party to celebrate their official public opening. People from across the city came to see the project and to learn about these ongoing conservation efforts in the city. Shedd Aquarium’s Conservation team shared information about pollution in the Chicago River and ways that people could get involved. The Wild Mile’s flourishing botanical gardens and habitat are a community destination that continues to grow every day. 


Below: The Wild Mile hosts individual and group activities. 

Shedd employees behind a table at an Action Days event on the boardwalk on the Wild Mile.
People walking on the boardwalk of the Wild Mile with the Chicago cityscape in the distance.

A boost in biodiversity

There is a lot of work left to do to reach Urban Rivers’ goal of a mile-long floating eco-park along Goose Island. Although the Wild Mile is just under 12,000 square feet in total, which accounts for 10 percent of the goal, the positive effects that this project has on the community are already evident. By creating habitats for native species and improving water quality, these floating wetlands increase biodiversity and boost the health of the Chicago River ecosystem. 

Shedd researchers also visit the Wild Mile to study larval fish diversity and macroinvertebrates, and to monitor oxygen levels, gathering information on the health of the river. Furthermore, the docks and the accessible public boardwalk keep the space open to everyone, allowing individuals as well as community and educational groups the chance to see native wildlife up close and to learn about the conservation efforts in the city.

By creating and continually expanding the Wild Mile, Shedd and Urban Rivers together show the importance of being environmental stewards and the incredible impact that creative, consistent conservation efforts in urban areas can have.

—  Juliet Cairney, Conservation Action Team intern