Spring studio class addresses rise in downtown Chicago awash with design

The University of Illinois at Chicago’s City Design program studio spring course explored potential design responses to increasing flooding incidents in downtown Chicago. Combining scientific research and design work, in various fields including river ecology, water engineering and landscape architecture, the students came up with an inventive vision to reconceptualize the near south side of the city to face to climate change.

The studio was made up of eight students who met twice a week to collaborate on the design project and attended weekly lectures. The course was led by Sevin Yildiz, assistant professor of urban planning and policy, and Phil Enquist, consulting partner in the Chicago office of Skidmore Owings, & Merrill.

While Enquist has previously served on juries during the fall semester of the MCD program, his collaboration with Yildiz for the spring studio was his first time teaching an MCD course at UIC.

“My role was to help Dr. Yildiz run the studio and spend time with each student to help them focus. Getting students to define the order of ideas – what were the driving and overriding principles and what were the recommended actions,” Enquist said.

The principles of urban ecology formed the basis of the studio course. Students conducted scientific research on ecological issues to determine how events such as increased rainfall intensity and flooding affect downtown Chicago.

“The existing urban conditions can’t handle that volume of rain and you’re starting to see that we’ve made the city very waterproof,” Enquist said.

Instead of absorbing and retaining rainwater, impermeable surfaces such as asphalt streets, concrete sidewalks and artificial lawns drain water away. Enquist noted that to solve this problem, students conducted research on soils, water engineering, and weather models, which led to important discoveries.

“Students began to discover larger natural systems. The more research they have done, the less we focus on the human, and we focus more on all forms of life – planetary life – as opposed to what humans need,” Enquist said.

With this goal in mind, students discussed incorporating rewilding concepts into the design of specific sites in the city to address flooding and water runoff issues. The students found that the potential benefits of reintroducing the native landscape into Chicago design included creating spaces for wetland habitats to flourish in the city, providing a method of water absorption during periods of intense rain, a habitat for birds completing their migration cycle and an opportunity to introduce miles of new trail networks.

Speaking of his experience with MCD students, Enquist said, “I find it very positive and motivating to be with the students today because they ask all the right questions and they ask the hard questions. They go far beyond the problem statements we define for them.

Enquist shared some takeaways he received from the program.

“One is the value of trying to think big,” Enquist said. “I think Sanjeev [Vidyarthi, Director of the MCD program] and Sevin really tried to think big. Buckminster Fuller used to ask, “How big can we think of?” It means how innovative can you be in thinking…we need a generation that can think that way.

“The other thing to remember is that [thinking big] takes courage. City design is a very difficult concept. People don’t design cities. Cities are all different systems coming together, but you can manage and prioritize and inspire, but you don’t really design a city like you design a building. And you encounter constant opposition to thinking that way and it takes courage to step out of your comfort zone and think on a scale like this. You have to start with a bit of bravery, and you have to start with the will or the interest to think big, and I think the UIC MCD program really tries to do that.

At the conclusion of the class, the students presented their planning and design work at the Cloudburst Studio operation exhibit and panel at the Chicago Architecture Center on May 4. More than 50 people from leading design companies, consulting firms and institutions attended.

The City Design program was launched at UIC’s College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs in 2018 and provides an interdisciplinary learning experience that blends elements of architecture, landscape architecture, urban studies, urban planning and other creative fields. Students attend intensive in-town classes and studios that provide immersive exposure to integrated design and contemporary professional practice in Chicago.

Abdul J. Gaspar