Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist


Dateline: 10:01 am July 26, 2008 Filed under:

On a recent visit to Chicago to tour a huge logistics hub, I spent an afternoon wandering around happily in Naperville, a suburb about 20 miles west and a little south of the loop. I spent hours exploring their pleasant downtown and Riverwalk area. It was a wonderful way to spend a summer day.

I heard good things from colleagues about Naperville. They were right. I parked my car at a nice diagonal parking stall with a bumpout from the curb designed to preserve a street tree. Already impressed by that, I headed to the Riverwalk. The city has plenty of money, but they clearly have spent it well on public amenities. Riverwalk is the shining example.

Trails line both banks of the river as it meanders through downtown. There are bridges evevry block or so, some for cars and people, and others are covered pedestrian bridges. Public art, plazas, overlooks, gazebos and simple benches line the river as well, and, with the bridges provide plenty of vistas and places to sit and linger. There is also an adjacent pond where you can rent paddleboats, a huge municipal pool/beach/picnic area, and a carillon tower built less than 10 years ago. Even a simple hill with a big lawn was a pleasant place to hang out. I have eternal respect for the landscape architects who designed the Riverwalk area. I didn’t turn a corner without being impressed.

The adjacent historic downtown is very well done. From my parking stall with the street tree, to the historic buildings, mix of tenants, newer construction, crosswalks, benches and public space, I was impressed. In addition to the retailers, Naperville draws people downtown with public amenities such as the Riverwalk, library, concert pavilion and parks.

First, the city is lucky to have an intact core of historic buildings with a nice mix of businesses, but they have done a great job with new construction and parking. New projects are attractive and enhance the streetscape. There are no blank walls. Sidewalks are as wide or wider than before. Such attention is paid to detail that even service alleys have public art. That’s right, in the Main Street Promenade building, an arcade is located at the center of the building. From the sidewalk, I could see a fountain at the far end – the “terminating vista.” I wandered in and found a restaurant patio, but what was jarring is the fountain, ornate and burbling, was located on the service alley, 10 feet from a delivery truck. Most other development hides the alley – Naperville embraces them!

I began to get delirious with with urban serendipity envy. It seemed like everywhere I turned I liked what I saw. A kayak on the river was timed for my camera lens to capture. A church steeple peeked elegantly through the trees of Central Park. I could retire in Naperville and spend my days wandering the streets.

Naperville is clearly well off. I have seen other rich cities that wall off their wealth. Naperville appears to have funneled their resources in to public improvements, expensive as they are, that improve the greater good. Everything is downtown. Even city hall is even located along the river, fitting in with the setting nicely. I have seen few other public buildings that blend so well with nature, public space and surrounding downtown uses.

And to top it off, Naperville is connected to downtown Chicago by commuter rail as part of the Metra system. I highly recommend a visit. You can view my photos at Picasaweb here.

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