Chicago Loop Alliance’s placemaking efforts recognized as an “immersive urban experience and a best practice of how to create mini destinations.”
Underutilized public spaces have been transformed into eyeful assets of the city. Alleys became a summertime destination for the arts. And the Chicago Loop has become an artistic and cultural hub, rising as a role model for other downtowns globally due to the work of Chicago Loop Alliance. Michael M. Edwards, president & CEO of the Alliance, presented the organization’s placemaking initiatives at the International Downtown Association 64th Annual Conference & Tradeshow in San Antonio, Texas. Under the theme Retropolitan: The New American City, the conference explored the best ways to shape the vibrant urban districts that anchor the well-being of cities worldwide.
Public space and alley activation is a hot topic around the globe—and Chicago Loop Alliance is ahead of the curve. When developing its strategic plan in 2013, the Alliance identified placemaking as one of its projects for the first time in order to improve the quality of the Loop and create a distinctive sense of place as well as arrival. Beyond the transformation of the physical assets of the area, the effort is intended to bring economic value to the surrounding businesses.
“The idea is to create the next generation of urban spaces,” said Edwards. “We wanted to transform neglected public spaces into interactive places where people can have a memorable and authentic Chicago experience.”
In 2013, Chicago Loop Alliance experimented its innovative initiative with the first placemaking project, The Gateway. Dubbed as the “people plaza” by the City of Chicago, the new place transformed what was once a drab median on Wacker Drive and State Street into, well, a gateway to the Loop. It was awash with blue and red canopied tables and chairs, banners, and planters, bringing urban vibrancy through color, texture, and comfort to the Loop. It connected people to the surrounding businesses, including Wow Bao, Potbelly, State & Lake, theWit, CafféCafé, and Chick-fil-A.
“Chicago Loop Alliance’s transformation of an underutilized median to a popular gathering space takes placemaking to a new level,” said conference participant Liz Stenning, public realm director of Alliance at Pioneer Square in Seattle. “Inviting people to spend time between busy streets takes a leap of faith and leadership. Their efforts are world-class and will inspire other districts exploring ways to reinvigorate their public realm.”
Placemaking took a different form in the alleys, the hidden treasure chest of downtown, as Chicago Loop Alliance launched ACTIVATE in 2014. Hosted four times a year during the summer, this series of pop-arts programs transforms alleys into creative exhibition spaces that bring artists and the public together for an evening of exploration, interaction, and celebration of the arts. Just in 2018, it has garnered over 9,300 attendees—with 68% repeats—from 86 different zip codes.
“The Chicago Loop’s ACTIVATE provides an immersive urban experience and a best practice of how to create mini destinations within our downtowns,” said another conference participant Robbie Silver, director of marketing & events at Union Square Business Improvement District in San Francisco. “As business improvement districts look to further engage visitors, downtown workers, and residents, activating the public realm in partnership with respective cities enhances the way people connect with their community. The Chicago Loop Alliance is doing just that.”
Chicago Loop Alliance will introduce Short-Cuts as a new placemaking initiative this winter. Through pop-up performances and exhibitions “off the grid” in the Loop’s underground tunnel system. Short-Cuts allows the public to see the Chicago Pedway in a new light. Schedule and details of the events will be announced soon.