Our favorite piece of urban infrastructure, the Michigan Avenue Medians, turns 20 this month! Over two decades, Hoerr Schaudt has designed nearly 60 seasonal planting rotations and conducted layouts for what we estimate are about 4 million individual plants. That’s a LOT of garden in the street.

We’ve blogged about the medians in the past, highlighting videos on the history of the project, going behind the scenes to see how it all comes together, and tracking down where those spring bulbs end up – but there’s still oh-so-much more to know and celebrate.

Test your Median knowledge as we take a stroll down the Magnificent Mile memory lane with some photos from the archives unearthed just for the occasion!

The transformation of Chicago’s most famous street began with a big, green idea and some even bigger names to back it up. In the early 1990s, Gordon Segal (founder of a little store called Crate & Barrel) gave his Michigan Avenue flagship store a makeover. New parkway planters brimmed with bright, bold horticulture replaced the patches of grass and short white parkway fences that lined the sidewalks along every storefront on Michigan Avenue.

Soon, Segal got a call from Mayor Richard Daley; he’d seen the planters and liked the way they infused the concrete and steel with nature. He wanted greenery planted down the median strip of Michigan Avenue from Oak Street to Roosevelt Road and asked Segal to assemble merchants willing to fund the purchasing, planting and maintenance of the plants for 20 years.

A committee was formed and Segal, Doug Hoerr, Robert Wislow of U.S. Equities, and architect John Buenz began to collaborate on the design of the medians. Segal and his colleagues formed the Michigan Avenue Streetscape Association in 1991.

Each year they start from scratch to raise the 200,000 dollars from local businesses necessary to fund the yearly plantings from Oak Street to the Chicago River. This is the only stretch of medians in Chicago that is entirely funded by private businesses. By 1993, the first concrete planters were in and ready for plants.

In November of that year, Tribune Architecture Critic Blair Kamin reviewed the new median project. Kamin wrote “Indeed, the best part of the project figures to be Hoerr’s plantings, which will shift with the seasons, just as the storefront windows on North Michigan change, lending that part of the street its dynamic change.”

The planters span 33 city blocks from Oak Street to Roosevelt Road and were originally intended to create a cohesive look and feel between the North Michigan Avenue shops and the less-commercialized South Michigan Ave. Planters vary in length from 6 feet up to 190 feet and in width from 9 – 25 feet.

Today, the project is designed and plants are laid out by Hoerr Schaudt. Installation onthe south end of the project is done by a crew from A Safe Haven and by Clarence Davids & Co. on the north end. A separate crew from Christy Webber Landscapes manages safety, and it is all coordinated through the Chicago Department of Transportation.

The planting designs are carefully planned to look beautiful in every season. Maybe we’re all just excited to know that winter is over, but year after year, the spring tulips get the most buzz. A mix of different early- and late-bloomers ensure a consistent ‘wow’ throughout the spring.

Doug often refers to the medians as Chicago’s “front yard,” welcoming visitors with open arms to the Windy City. Our favorite photos are of people identifying the medians as a place they want to be. Do you have a photo in front of the garden in the street?

The Michigan Avenue Medians were a key tool used by Mayor Daley to influence and encourage greening of all kinds. The city continued its commitment to infusing streets with horticulture – today over 99 miles of streetscape have parkway planters and green medians.

The Michigan Avenue Streetscape Association fundraises money every year from local businesses along the Mag Mile for the three yearly plantings from Oak Street to the Chicago River. The City of Chicago pays for the portion of planters from the River to Roosevelt Road.

The question remains: is it worth it?

We’re not exactly unbiased when it comes to the answer! The value of the Michigan Avenue medians have been debated over the years. Many of the benefits may be hard to quantify, but are very significant.

In 2007, Lee Scheier of the Chicago Tribune wrote an in-depth article about the medians and their value, environmental, health, and economic reasons why the medians and urban greening were important.

Maybe the best way to answer that question is ask another:

What would the city be like without them?

An old Chicago friend, Bob Newhart, gives us a glimpse.

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