Against the Grid: Conflicting Visions of the Chicago Pedway

By Brody Ford and Michael Gyang

Commuters in Daley Center Pedway Entrance

Centered at the intersection of Madison and State street, Chicago is laid out on a renowned  grid system. Through a structured network of predictability, the grid gives order to the city. However, beneath this rigid layout is an environment which juxtaposes the surface.

Composed of over five miles of winding tunnels, the Pedestrian Walkway System – commonly known as the Pedway – connects some of the central city’s most important destinations. Though, due to inconsistent accessibility, navigation, and security, the Pedway remains a mystery to most Chicagoans.

“The Pedway has nothing to do with the grid,” said Chicago Elevated tour guide Margaret Hicks. “The Pedway is messy and confusing and curves and turns and it doesn’t match the up above at all. And that’s so cool.”

The chronically rundown Pedway has been critiqued time and again by local news organizations such as Crain’s Chicago Business. Ever since the Chicago Tribune staff moved to Prudential Plaza, a Pedway connected building, they’ve been especially keen on critiquing the system. One particularly biting Tribune article pressured a renovation of the Macy’s stretch of the Pedway.

However, amid a pending $12.5 million grant package, it looks like the Pedway may be headed for change. Several groups are advocating for new, sometimes conflicting, visions of the Pedway.

These discussions raise questions about the role of public infrastructure, and our collective vision for Chicago’s future. These were the same questions asked when the Pedway was first under construction.

So, to understand the current status of the Pedway, it’s important to look back at its history.

Chicago Urban Planning Studies, 1968 and 1973, University of Illinois at Chicago Library


Construction of the Pedway began in 1951 on the tunnel connecting the Jackson red and blue line stops. Though, the Pedway wasn’t part of city policy until the 1968 Chicago Central Area Transit Plan and the 1973 Chicago 21 Plan,

After a century of breakneck growth, 1960 saw Chicago’s first-ever population decrease. Due to federal highway investment and restrictive city zoning, postwar Americans flocked to the suburbs, hollowing out many urban cores.

However, Urban Planners in Chicago recognized that density and centralization made the city strong. Their transit plans hoped to fight suburbanization with an influx of available funding from the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964.

They recommended several densifying and pedestrian-friendly policies “aimed toward reinforcing the vitality of Chicago’s core area as the center for employment, education and culture.”

Areas slated for development in the Chicago 21 Plan, 1973

Among these plans included new subway construction, downtown recreational facilities, and a system of enclosed pedestrian walkways – the Pedway. These all-weather walkways would connect the most important hubs of transit, employment, and civic life, ensuring an efficient and attractive pedestrian core.

As School of the Art Institute of Chicago Architecture Professor and Director Jonathan Solomon said, “All the infrastructure in Chicago that you see, the river, the railroads, the highways, it’s all about facilitating that movement of people, that movement of goods, that movement of energy, movement of money.”

Mockup of Pedway, Chicago 21, 1973

“Opportunities to develop an enclosed pedestrian walkway system occur in the blocks between State Street and Dearborn east of the major downtown plazas: the Civic Center, First National Bank and Federal Center. This underground, grade-level and above-grade system, lined with shops in galleria fashion, would connect development in adjacent blocks while providing direct access to existing subway lines.” (Chicago Central Area Transit Planning Study, 1968)

Development of the Pedway was sporadic and usually part of a public-private partnership. It’s construction generally coincided with aboveground development, fulfilling the immediate needs of developers. Over time, this created a daunting patchwork character – it was never a centrally planned system.

Inconsistency is part of what makes the Pedway so interesting. Chicago’s long history is illustrated in the walls of the system.

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The initial phase of development reflected a strong civic focus, connecting buildings like City Hall, the Central Illinois Secretary of State Facility, and even the County Marriage building. This phase stretched into the 1980’s, giving way to more private-based development.

Elite residential towers like Aqua are now connected in the system with office buildings like Prudential Plaza.

Front of Space p11 art gallery

This was a space that was supposed to be about movement, about productivity, and efficiency, you know, it’s not that,” said Jonathan Solomon.

Solomon, who also operates the Pedway art gallery , Space p11 , focusing on “off-grid art, architecture, and culture,” sees the underground system as a nonfunctional relic. Furthermore, he maintains that the Pedway has more potential as a cultural network than a transportation network.

“It’s a kind of abandoned piece of modern infrastructure,” he said. “It used to be part of the project of modernity, and now it’s not, just like the warehouses on Goose Island that have become makerspaces, or the warehouses in Pilsen that have become galleries.”

While Solomon believes the Pedway failed in its primary goal, it has value in its subversion of Chicago’s organizing logic.

Commuters in the retail corridor

“Nowhere else in Chicago can you have the experience of getting lost. When you’re down here, the phone is useless, and there’s no cardinal, numerical, you know, overlay system to identify where you are. There’s actually some value in getting a little bit lost sometimes.”

Historically, the Pedway hasn’t been spoken of as a contiguous entity. Rather, it’s been seen as a means to an end between spaces. However, Solomon’s P11 gallery is part of a growing movement of enthusiasm for this largely forgotten piece of municipal infrastructure. Joining P11 is  the newly relocated Chicago Fashion Incubator, tours by Margaret Hicks, and a guidebook by Hui-Min Tsen, focusing on folklore in the Pedway.

A lack of enthusiasm can be traced to a traditional lack of collaboration channels for Pedway stakeholders. Thus, organizations, and even the City, generally shy away from taking responsibility for the system.

As Hicks’ said, “I hear it on tours all the time. ‘You know what they should do?’ And then there’s a million things that come up … They should put in more art. They should make it easier for tourists. They should do this they should do that…Those are all truths but there is really no entity to make those things happen.”

However, one group is hoping to change that. The Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC) believes the Pedway can fulfill its initial goal – increasing pedestrian mobility in the city core.

“If people are comfortable walking around downtown, away from traffic and bad weather, they might be more motivated to leave the car at home,” said Julie Jacobson with the ELPC. This goal is in-line with other initiatives of the ELPC, such as providing electric vehicle subsidies and monitoring air for toxins.

Before/After Mockup, ELPC Main Stem Revitalization Study, 2017

ELPC’s mantra regarding Pedway improvement is simple: “Better navigation, better coordination, better activation.” In addition to making the Pedway a more usable public asset, ELPC seeks to make the experience enjoyable and memorable in its own right.

In this plan, the “Main Stem” from Millenium Station to Clark and Lake comes first, passing through the Blue Line, Red Line, and the Macy’s Corridor. Suggested improvements include better signage, retail expansion, space for art displays, and historical info.

Further down the line, they even hope to create a new logo, and get the Pedway added onto official transit maps. All of these renovations, functional and aesthetic, aim to entice more “commuters,  Loop residents, tourists, and others who are downtown for shopping, culture or business” into the Pedway.

Chicago Pedway, ELPC Main Stem Revitalization Study, 2017

It is no secret that the city’s homeless rely on the Pedway, especially in the winter. Jacobson emphasized that the plan shouldn’t push anyone out. But, as stakeholders develop and define the Pedway’s future, they also define who the space is for, and how public it will be.

“Declaring something public or private doesn’t necessarily get to the core of the problem. I think that we make space public by occupying it publicly. At the same time, how we police or otherwise monitor our public spaces can make them more or less open to different people.” Said Solomon, in response to whether the space is public or private.

While he supported the advocacy work ELPC was doing, Professor Solomon expressed fear of the “mall-ification” of the Pedway, and its possibility of creating exclusionary zones.

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“If you connect all the parking lots, with all the offices, with all the nice hotels, you create a space for a specific class of citizen, often a specific race, and you end up with private security, et cetera, you’ve created separate and unequal spaces. Mike Davis wrote this about LA, there’s scholarship about it in Atlanta, as well. I think it’s to Chicago’s credit that we built an inefficient system that never achieved that level of functional segregation. Especially given how functionally the rest of the city is segregated.”

Yet, the future of the Pedway is still to be foreseen. With potential renovation swirling through its hollow halls, supporters of the Pedway don’t want it stripped of its peculiar charm.

For Hicks, she hopes “it doesn’t become a standardized thing between building to building and becomes this uniform white tunnel that we all move through…I want it to be easier for people [to navigate] but I don’t want it to lose its strangeness and its mystery.”


Photos by Brody Ford unless otherwise stated
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