Experimental islands create new habitats to transform the Chicago River

CHICAGO — The task of cleaning up the Chicago River is a massive one, so Urban River and the Shedd Aquarium have honed in on one particular stretch to see if they can turn a mile of Chicago's murkiest channel into a thriving eco-park.

It took more than a couple heaves to set the mammoth island afloat. It may not look like much from above, but it represents everything to the people who created.

"That's the thing that's really missing from the Chicago River," the Shedd's Dr. Andy Casper said. "The bottom is usually muddy or rocky. It doesn't have a lot of the extra green forest that all the little fish and the invertebrates live."

Most of Chicago's banks are lined with rusty metal plates, so changing the water quality and habitat meant making new banks where vegetation and animals can thrive.

Modules wrapped in coconut husk will soon be covered in native swamp rose, marigold and queen of the prairie plants.

The island is the biggest floating wetland structure added to the Goose Island corridor yet.

Urban Rivers Co-Founder Zach Damato says it's a huge first step in transforming the one-mile canal into an ecological oasis.

"The sky's the limit on what we can do with the river. I mean there's people in Europe. They're being very progressive with their rivers and yes, this should be an asset that we're swimming in. It shouldn't be to the point where we're scared of it," Damato said.