Sarah Dunn and Martin Felsen Want to Use City Streets to Recycle Water

June 22, 2009

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As part of Chicago Matters, we're profiling local visionaries with an eye on our region's future. Today meet Sarah Dunn and Martin Felsen, co-founders of UrbanLab and co-principles of Archeworks Alternative Design School.  The two are architects, but they're less interested in our city's skyline and more attuned to street level infrastructure. They envision a city traversed by green, multi-purpose eco-boulevards. And with the Olympics on our doorstep, their dream may be a little closer to reality. 

Infrastructure is one of the least sexy words in the English language. It's clunky, chunky, concrete. But lately infrastructure is the word on everyone's lips…

Montage infrastructure

Rebuilding infrastructure is at the heart of the federal stimulus plan. And it's a big issue here. Just take a perch on any street corner to see why. Let's head to the intersection of 31st and State Streets.

Street corner ambi– cars, trains.


The crumbling curbs and gaping potholes look familiar. But architect Martin Felsen sees bigger problems.

MARTIN FELSEN: There's no cars parked on the side of the street there's no shop windows, no buildings up against the side of the sidewalks.

His partner Sarah Dunn sees empty space.

SARAH DUNN: There's no real cultural space, there's no real program that exists here besides the sidewalk.

Dunn and Felsen head up UrbanLab, an award-winning architectural firm located in Bridgeport. They're getting a lot of attention for their ideas about transforming infrastructure. Take 31st Street. It was meant to be a boulevard but it was never fully developed, so it functions more like a highway, with cars whizzing by at top speeds. To UrbanLab all that space makes the perfect place to prototype what they call an eco-boulevard. Just imagine it…

FELSEN: The idea behind the eco-boulevard is that it's multi-functional. It would accommodate everything we could possibly imagine that we would need in a city.
Ambi of bikes, walking
DUNN: Under the train there might be some sort of farmer's market.
Ambi of farmer's market

The overall atmosphere would be like having a little bit of park running in what they call thin green-blue lines through every neighborhood, north and south.

DUNN: So, skate parks, playgrounds, plazas, café space, barbeque space...that's really key.

Their plans would take existing structures like the IIT gym across the street and add a bike rental kiosk or even a storm water treatment plant. And there'd be a diverse array of plant life so that water would flow directly into the soil. Instead of sewers and drains, the whole boulevard would act as a giant water treatment plant.

DUNN: As rain occurred, water would be collected in pools and tanks and cleaned slowly on its way back to the lake through a series of wetlands.

ambi footsteps on gravel

At their industrial looking work-live space on the South Side, many techniques of the eco-boulevard are already in play on a very small scale. They've got a green roof, and an array of backyard landscapes that trap water and attract urban wildlife. Felsen hopes little green experiments like theirs – which are also taking place at all levels of the City –could lead the way to better infrastructure, long-term.

FELSEN: We as designers have always thought the most important type of infrastructure is the type that's an asset over a long period of time, rather than a liability…that it's not really worth building something unless it has a long life cycle of giving back to a particular group of people.

In the short-term Felsen and Dunn are looking to the 2016 summer Olympics for a jump start. If Chicago wins the games, an eco-boulevard could be piloted on a section of 31st Street. And if they have their way, by the next century, eco-boulevards would run every half mile, from Harlem Avenue on Chicago's West Side east to the lake.