Spring Studio Class Addresses Rise in Downtown Chicago Flooding Through Design
The spring studio course in the University of Illinois Chicago’s (UIC) City Design (MCD) program explored potential design responses to rising incidents of flooding in downtown Chicago. Combining scientific research with design work, from a variety of fields including river ecology, water engineering, and landscape architecture, students proposed an inventive vision for reconceptualizing the near South Side of this city to address changing climate.
The studio consisted of eight students that met twice a week to collaborate on the design project and attend 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 (SOM).
While Enquist previously participated in juries during the fall semester of the MCD program, collaborating with Prof. Yildiz for the spring studio was the first time he taught an MCD course at UIC.
“My role was supporting Dr. Yildiz in shepherding the studio and spending time with each student to help direct their focus. Getting students to set the order of ideas – what were the driving, overarching principles and what were the recommend actions,” Enquist said.
Principles of urban ecology formed the basis of the studio course. Students conducted scientific research into ecological issues to determine how occurrences such as increased intensity of rainfall and flooding affect Chicago’s downtown.
“Existing urban conditions can’t support this volume of rain and you begin to see that we have made the city very impervious” Mr. Enquist said.
Instead of absorbing and holding rainwater, impervious surfaces such as, asphalt streets, concrete sidewalks, and engineered lawns drain water away. Enquist noted that to address this issue, students researched soils, water engineering, and weather patterns which led to important discoveries.
“Students started to uncover larger natural systems. The more they researched the less we become human focused, and we become more focused on all forms of life – planetary life – as opposed to just what humans need.”
With this focus in mind, students discussed incorporating rewilding concepts into the design of specific sites in the city to address issues of flooding and water runoff. Students found that the potential benefits of reintroducing native landscape into Chicago’s design included creating spaces for wetland habitats to flourish within the city, therefore providing a method of water absorption during times of intensified rain events, a habitat for birds completing their migration cycle, and an opportunity to introduce miles of new trail systems.
When speaking about his experience with the MCD students, Enquist said, “I find it very positive and motiving to be with students today because they are asking all the right questions and they are asking tough questions. They are going way beyond the problem statements that we define for them.”
Enquist shared a couple takeaways he got from the program,
“One is the value of trying to think big. I think Sanjeev [Vidyarthi, Director of the MCD program] and Sevin have both really tried to think big. Buckminster Fuller used to ask; how big can we think? Big meaning how innovative can you be thinking…we need a generation that can think that way.”
“The other takeaway is that [thinking big] requires bravery. City design is a very difficult concept. People don’t design cities. Cities are so many different systems coming together, but you can manage and prioritize and inspire but you don’t really design a city the way one designs a building. And you are met with constant opposition for thinking this way and it does require bravery to step out of your comfort zone and think on a scale like this. You have to start with some bravery, and you have to start with the willingness or interest of thinking big and I think that UIC’s MCD program is really trying to do that.”
At the culmination of the class, students showcased their planning and design work at the Operation Cloudburst Studio Exhibition and Panel at the Chicago Architecture Centre on May 4. More than fifty people drawn from area design firms, consulting practices, and leading institutions attended.
The City Design program was started in UIC’s College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs in 2018 and offers an interdisciplinary learning experience that blends elements of architecture, landscape architecture, urban studies, urban planning, and other creative fields. Students experience intensive city-based courses and studios that provide immersive exposure to integrated design and contemporary professional practice in the great city of Chicago.