Considering the North Avenue Bridge was once best known as the spot in Chicago for hookers, the change along the North Branch of the Chicago River is remarkable.

It’s not just the water that is changing and improving but so are the shoreline areas, too.

Thought of that last month as I parked in the outside lot of the Whole Foods on Kingsbury off North Avenue, then walked a short distance to the North Branch.

On the wide, well-used river walk, I met Phil Nicodemus and Nick Wesley of Urban Rivers, a new group trying another innovative habitat idea on the Chicago River system.

Urban Rivers is a Chicago-based non-profit organization dedicated to “reconnecting communities to urban rivers through ecosystem rehabilitation and education.’’ If all the permits and other requirements go through properly, the group plans to install several hundred of feet of floating gardens (artificial wetlands) on the North Branch east of Goose Island by next spring.

The work barge next to the pilot floating island of Urban Rivers. Credit: Dale Bowman

The work barge next to the pilot floating island of Urban Rivers.
Credit: Dale Bowman

The pilot isn’t much, a raft one meter thick and 10 meters by 15 meters that is chained to the east wall of the river next to Whole Foods.

But natural stuff is happening around that pilot in that mostly unnatural setting.

A mallard family was raised there. While I chatted with Wesley and Nicodemus, I spotted mallards, Canada geese, a night heron and a great blue heron. Nicodemus said pintails have been spotted flying by.

When the pilot floating island was established, they tried planting it. But the ducks gobbled up the plantings. So they went natural.

“These are all volunteers,” Nicodemus said as we leaned over the rail and eyed the rich plant growth. “The diversity has picked up.”

“Anywhere life can start, it can happen,” Wesley said.

That that much life can start on the North Branch is an advance all its own.

There have been fish eggs found on the bottom of the work platform. Wesley was absolutely right when he said, “This is a huge untapped ecological resource.”

The basics for the floating island come from Biomatrix Water in Scotland, a company doing similar urban waters work around the world. There is very little soil on the raft, basically the plants grow hydroponically through woven plastic.

The intellectual background for the idea came largely out of Josh Yellin’s masters work in natural resources and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois. In it, he found fish were more likely to utilize the floating islands than even such cover or structure as docks. Nicodemus assisted Yellin on his masters project. One of the prime problems for fish in the Chicago River system is the lack of cover and structure.

Yellin has since moved on to work for Google on the West Coast. But that has also helped with Google being one of the major donors along with Whole Foods and Patagonia.

That in itself is another major change along the Chicago River system, businesses along it are invested in the water as a valuable asset not just as a sewer to carry waste Downstate.

“I want to see some smiling fishermen,” Nicodemus said. “It means so much to so many people.”

That is a different sort of hooker at North Avenue.

The floating islands or gardens should add biologically to the ongoing changes, and could dramatically build ambiance.

Urban Rivers holds its Kickstarter kickoff at 7 p.m. Nov. 5 at Martyrs, near Lincoln & Irving Park, with Grood playing.

Floating islands on the North Branch of the Chicago River from Urban Rivers would only enhance a view of the iconic downtown Chicago skyline. Credit: Dale Bowman

Floating islands on the North Branch of the Chicago River from Urban Rivers would only enhance a view of the iconic downtown Chicago skyline.
Credit: Dale Bowman