Over 20 years ago, landscape architect Douglas Hoerr was brought in to help beautify Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. His challenge was to create a streetscape that was stunning yet could be created within a somewhat limited budget. The result was the Michigan Avenue Streetscape project covering 33 blocks of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile.
Rather than using expensive planters which would be not only cost-prohibitive but also more difficult to maintain, Hoerr encouraged the city planners to create a series of median plantings within large stone raised beds.
Today the project now includes 27,000 square feet of planting beds within 80 median planters, all of which include a seasonal mix of color and texture. Three times a year the plantings are switched out according to season, starting with spring flowering bulbs planted in a variety of patterns. In early summer each bed if loaded with thrillers like ornamental grasses, ricinus, Tropicanna and other cannas, false sunflowers, and artichoke thistle; the midlevel layer includes large masses of plants with great foliage colors or bright blooms – plants like salvias, asclepias, cordylines, zinnias, perilla, lantana and more. And finally, trailing spillers like verbena, petunias vinca and ipomoea, soften the overall look. Fall plantings include a great mix of texture and color with seasonal mums, ornamental cabbages and more. Given their location in the middle of 6 lanes of traffic, these plants all need to stand up to the hot sun of summer, the salted roads in winter, vehicle exhaust and much more.
Not only has this project changed tourists’ perceptions of downtown Chicago, it’s also spurred similar activities in other parts of the city, including O’Hare Airport, and in both smaller and larger cities throughout the country. The Michigan Avenue Streetscape provides not only a place of interest for visitors from across the world, but with its well-chosen plants, also provides food and shelter for butterflies and even migratory birds.
Today CDOT now oversees the ongoing project with the help of CDOT senior landscape architect, Kris Sorich, and designer Pamela Self. A Safe Haven Foundation trains and employees at-risk youth, people recovering from substance abuse and other issue to help maintain the gardens.
In 2016, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) honored the Michigan Avenue Streetscape project with its prestigious ASLA Landmark Award.
For a complete description of this project and its fascinating history, read Landscape Architecture Magazine’s article Magnificent Mile story.