Metropolis – “Chicago’s New Daniel Burnham”

Metropolis features Carol Ross Barney in its 2018 Game Changers issue.

“As a lifelong Chicagoan, Carol Ross Barney has seen the Chicago River transition from an effluent-filled cargo highway to a vibrant recreational spot, one where her grandsons go fishing. ‘They can throw their line in and pull out two- to three-inch fish immediately,’ she says. It has even become a habitat for otters. As for people, the river has become an alternative commuting path: Some kayak to work…

Ross Barney’s long career in Chicago- capped off by a 2017 AIA Chicago Lifetime Achievement Award- is almost entirely made up of public works. She thrives on solving knotty, seemingly prosaic infrastructural problems, with a special emphasis on transit…

With this transit work, Ross Barney has shown a knack for designing and understanding the complexities of infrastructure. She also played a critical role in the planning and development of Chicago’s elevated rail park, the 606, which was uniquely funded as a transit landscape for bike commuters. From this perspective, her engagement with the river is a natural progression. Infrastructural systems encompass buildings and landscapes, and with the Riverwalk, Ross Barney’s practice does too…

At first glance, Ross Barney’s ambition for the river seems comparable to the previous decade’s downtown landscape showstopper: Millennium Park, which did so much to give the city a communally accessible public plaza in sectarian Chicago. ‘We thought that from day one,’ says Margaret Frisbie, executive director of the Friends of the Chicago River.

But according to Josh Eillis, vice president of the Metropolitan Planning Council, the most applicable comparison here is Burnham’s lakefront. Ross Barney’s tenacity has opened up a rare and enviable opportunity among architects. Here she is playing a distinct role in the conception and execution of a truly huge urban project. Like Burnham, Ross Barney’s work has helped bend public policy and regulations to her will. The Riverwalk required an act of Congress to complete, and today 30 feet of public right-of-way is mandatory for development along the river. This level of civic engagement can create a self-reinforcing feedback loop, as appreciation for the river breeds a new awareness among Chicago’s citizenry. Says Ellis, ‘This can manifest itself at the ballot box, through spending, through volunteerism, through support for stronger environmental standards.’

And that is likely to be Ross Barney’s greatest legacy. ‘She’s a genius,’ says Frisbie. ‘she brings people with her, which I think is a reflection of Burnham.'”

Read more in the January issue of Metropolis.