Since 1993, a bold strip of beautiful landscape has run down the median of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. It spans the 33 blocks (2.3 miles) from Roosevelt Road in Chicago’s Loop up to Oak Street in the city’s Gold Coast, enlivening the prominent street with seasonal plant displays of enormous scale, color, complexity, and texture. The project originated in 1991 as an initiative introduced by Mayor Richard M. Daley and a committee of prominent Chicago business and civic leaders to beautify one of the city’s most prime pieces of real estate and transform it into a stunning public space.
Three different displays are carefully planned and installed annually so as to remain seasonally appropriate. The original design team produced more than 60 different schemes over the project’s first 20 years; today, a new landscape firm carries on the work. Due to the project’s success, Chicago has since landscaped more than 100 miles of median space. Many other cities have followed suit, making the Magnificent Mile median an international model for civic urban landscape design.
In 1993, the Michigan Avenue Streetscape changed drastically for the better, and it all started with four parkway planters in front of the Crate & Barrel flagship store. In 1991, the retailer debuted planters that were overflowing with horticulture and flowers of different shapes, sizes, and colors. They gracefully popped against the drab city grays that characterized Michigan Avenue—so much so that even Mayor Richard M. Daley took notice. Daley, whose legacy includes the aggressive greening of Chicago’s public spaces, called Crate & Barrel Founder Gordon Segal to inquire about the planters: who designed them, how much did they cost, and was Segal interested in bringing that kind of design to the middle of Michigan Avenue? With that, the collaboration to spruce up Michigan Avenue with beautiful landscape design was up and running.
Original Project Intent
From its outset, the Michigan Avenue Streetscape project pursued a clear goal: make Michigan Avenue a beautiful public place via interesting-yet-pragmatic landscape design. This kind of landscape was lacking in Chicago—and cities across the United States—and Mayor Daley and the Michigan Avenue Streetscape Association (formed to oversee the implementation of the project) understood that greening the city would bring both intangible and tangible value. This was especially true on Michigan Avenue, one of Chicago’s most prominent streets. Not only would people want to come to Michigan Avenue if it were more beautiful, but they would want to invest in Michigan Avenue, too, in ways big and small. More people would come to shop, and real estate investors would be drawn by the street’s increasing popularity. The financial and social return on investment would far outweigh the costs to design and install the project.
The original Michigan Avenue Streetscape faced a myriad of logistical and design complexities:
The streetscape was one of Chicago’s first public-private partnerships. In 1992 Mayor Daley pledged the initial capital to design the first season’s plantings, build the median planters, and pay for purchasing and construction costs using a windfall of earmarked City of Chicago funds. In return, he asked the retailers on North Michigan Avenue (north of the Chicago River) to pledge $200,000 annually for the first 20 years in order to fund upkeep costs. The City of Chicago would pay for the streetscape south of the river to Roosevelt Road, as this area did not yet have the same level of private investor presence capable of maintaining the project. It took the Michigan Avenue Streetscape Association nearly a year to raise the funds.
Resolving Competing Visions
The landscape architect—the same young designer who planned and installed Crate & Barrel’s parkway planters—had to balance the competing priorities of the many different project stakeholders, devising some compromises without detracting from the project’s strong vision. Many stakeholders argued for tall trees planted along the sidewalks. However, the design architect understood that, once matured, the trees would create too dense of a hardscape that wouldn’t read as visually stunning and would also block views of the retail windows, a legitimate business concern. He also had to argue against architects who were pushing for ornate planter designs. If the planters were too complex, they would cost too much to produce and maintain, leaving little budget for the actual plantings. If the plant budget was reduced too drastically, then the project wouldn’t achieve its main goal—to create a vibrant, natural landscape that enlivened Michigan Avenue through its colors, shapes, and scales.
Ensuring Long-Term Durability
Selecting plants was a challenge in and of itself: varietals would have to be hardy so they could endure the harsh climate, pollutants, and traffic found on the street and remain beautiful with very little maintenance. This required picking a precise mix of plants and laying out a planting scheme that could easily adapt to changing conditions without sacrificing visual appeal or increasing costs.
History of Design & Use
The basic design formula for the Michigan Avenue Streetscape has remained the same over the course of its history. Three unique installations that correspond with Spring, Summer, and Fall are installed each year; no two years feature the same designs. All told, the 80 median planters cover 27,000-square-feet of plantable space and run the entire 33 blocks (2.3 miles) between Roosevelt Road in the Loop and Oak Street at Michigan Avenue’s north end. It costs approximately $20.40 per square foot for the three plant rotations. In many years, the design team coordinates with retail planners to make sure the designs complement the street’s elaborate store windows. Most maintenance takes place at night, allowing crews to work efficiently.
The Spring season (March – June) always features Tulips, but the varietals change each year so that colors and patterns remain unique. The bulbs are planted at a high density and mix together early and late varietals so that the display blooms for as long as possible. In June, the Summer display goes in—it always features robust, exuberant plants of different types, heights, shapes, and colors. Some years, Midwestern perennials and grasses have been on display, while other years have featured tropical exotics. In Fall (September – November), cooler plants, like Chard and Mums, play off the falling temperatures and changing atmosphere. The process begins again around Thanksgiving. The Fall installation is ripped up, and over 110,000 Tulip and 80,000 Muscari bulbs are planted. A layer of green sod is laid down that looks festive for the holiday season and also protects the bulbs from the winter elements. It is rolled up in Spring when watering and preliminary maintenance begin for the new March bloom.
Regardless of the season, the design team deploys a layering technique to ensure that the planters start off and remain beautiful: structural plants are put in first, then an infill layer—the plants that typically spill over the planters—is added, and the final layer of more delicate flowers and fillers is planted. If one plant dies, a fast-growing adjacent plant will grow into its place, minimizing holes and requiring very little maintenance.
At a secondary scale, the Michigan Avenue Streetscape has provided a myriad of benefits to Chicagoans. The streetscape functions as a permanent employment program, as its maintenance is contracted out by the City of Chicago to two consultant crews. A Safe Haven Foundation runs one of these crews and trains and employs at-risk youth, veterans, and people recovering from substance abuse to execute the required upkeep.
The streetscape planters also provide institutions and gardeners across Chicago access to plant materials. As each display is changed out, ripped-up plants are salvaged and either donated or replanted, keeping waste to a minimum and helping to further beautify the urban context at sites other than Michigan Avenue.
Impact on the Public Realm, the Profession, and Practice
From 1993 through 2013, the original landscape designer and his team developed and implemented over 60 original designs for the Michigan Avenue median planters. The overwhelmingly positive effects they have had on Chicago could not have been anticipated. Across the city, the streetscape designs have spurred both informal planting trends and formal landscape programs. Because of the project’s success, the City of Chicago has planted over 100 miles of landscaped medians in an effort to beautify more streets and neighborhoods. At the scale of the profession, the Michigan Avenue Streetscape has served as a model for similar landscape designs, inspiring installations in cities as diverse as Des Moines and Detroit. It is a project that weaves the natural and built environments together in surprising, inspiring, and unprecedented ways, year in and year out, creating a more beautiful Chicago and a more beautiful world.