Urban development: Changing Chicago

From pipes to public sculptures, one of the world’s iconic cities is rebuilding itself with a number of public infrastructure projects, both above ground and below.

Two things are obvious while standing in a glass box protruding from the 103rd floor of the Willis Tower (formerly known as the Sears Tower) in downtown Chicago. The first is that I am not good with heights. I keep my palm against the glass wall as I look at the geography 412 meters below me, which is unsettlingly clear through the 3.8 centimeters of glass I’m standing on.

The second is that Chicago is a city on the move. In every direction you look – and you can see for 80 kilometers on a clear day – this iconic city and its suburbs are bustling. Streets and freeways are bumper-to-bumper with rush-hour traffic. Commuter trains transport workers from far-flung suburbs, and an elevated rapid transit train system does the same closer to the city center. Buses transport 1.7 million people per day.

Chicago is also moving in ways not obvious from the second-tallest building in the Western hemisphere. Beneath the streets, much of the city’s water system is being rebuilt. Buildings are being retrofitted to save energy. And a host of investments in recent years have focused on improving the quality of life for residents and visitors.

Big city with big challenges

Chicago is the third most populous city in the USA, with 2.7 million people within the municipal limits and more than 9 million in the metropolitan area. It has struggled to maintain population, partly because of economic challenges that are afflicting rust-belt cities in the USA, as well as concerns over crime (there were more than 500 homicides in the city in the first nine months of 2016).


While facing challenges, the city is far from struggling. If it were a nation, the Chicago metro area would be the 20th largest economy in the world, with a 2015 gross metropolitan product (GMP) of US$640 billion, which ranks it just below Switzerland.
Today, Chicago is in the midst of a transition greater than any time since the 1871 fire that burned the city to the ground. With Siemens playing a role in several projects, the city is investing heavily to super-charge the economy and make the city more livable.

Tackling transportation challenges

Look north from the observation level of Willis Tower, and you can see airplanes below you, coming in for a landing at O’Hare International Airport. O’Hare, one of the busiest airports in the world, is getting a major facelift. Its Terminal 3 is the first spot in the USA to integrate Siemens Desigo CC, a building management system that manages climate control automatically, with 40,000 data points, 100 fire detectors, and user-friendly remote access monitoring and management. The system can compare trends over various time periods to assess the best way to optimize energy efficiency while maintaining the comfort of busy travelers.

Look straight down from the Willis Tower, and you can see city streets, half of which will be repaved just after the time Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s term ends in Spring 2019. The street replacement project will take a full decade and provide well-paying jobs to 18,000 people.

Chicago has the second-longest commute in the USA, with workers logging an average of 32 minutes to get from homes to jobs. Chicago is revitalizing its mass transit system to help address that issue. Bus service has been expanded. Many train stations are being rebuilt from the ground up. Improvements to the subway system have knocked 20 minutes off slow zones that created commuter choke points. Train cars now have 4G wireless communication capability, allowing commuters to browse the internet or use their commute time to get more work done.

Paying attention to quality of life

To improve quality of life for residents, sites across the city are getting a makeover. An area of parking lots and an underused section of parkland near Lake Michigan’s waterfront became Millennium Park in 2004, quickly emerging as the most hailed public space in the city. Cloud Gate, a huge, silver bean-shaped sculpture, is the centerpiece of the 24-acre park filled with public art and an outdoor ice-skating rink.


A former meatpacking plant has been transformed into the Fulton Market, a collection of restaurants and shops serviced by a new train stop. A riverbank walk along the Chicago River continues to be expanded. Tourists can rent bicycles and kayaks, while sightseeing boats cruise up and down the river past trendy bars and restaurants.


The city also converted a 4.3-kilometer stretch of old rail line into a walk and bike path connecting four neighborhoods. Called “The 606” after the name of the abandoned industrial track, the route is dotted with public art, similar to the High Line in New York City and the Promenade Plantée in Paris. The 606 is used by joggers, cyclists, and families out for an evening stroll. The walk has gained international recognition since it opened in 2015, and home values adjacent to The 606 have skyrocketed. 

Modernizing water infrastructure with the help of Siemens

Less flashy, but just as important to Chicago’s future is work on the city’s infrastructure. Chicago is in the midst of replacing 1,450 kilometers of water pipes, 1,100 kilometers of sewer pipes, and 167,000 catch basins. The city’s antiquated water pumping stations, run by steam turbines and boilers, are being retrofitted with the help of Siemens to use energy-efficient electric pumps. 


The updates at one pumping station resulted in about US$7.5 million annually in energy and operating cost savings, and a reduction of 17,380 tonnes of carbon emissions – the equivalent of taking 2,888 vehicles off the road. Technology upgrades at one water purification plant will save another US$4 million in energy and maintenance costs. Energy and maintenance savings from just one water purification plant, powered by Siemens switchgear technology, controls, and power transformers, could be as high as US$4 million per year. 


From public art to improved mass transit to energy savings, the view of Chicago is improving – even if you’re not 103 stories in the sky.


Ron French is a freelance journalist based in Michigan, USA.

Picture credits: Todd Winters


Population: 2.7 million

Visitors: 52 million (2015)

GMP: US$640 bn (2015)

Area: Over 600 km2

Population density: 4.627 residents per km²

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