Nature Making a Comeback in Chicago's Concrete Jungle

March 24, 2020

A challenging urban infill benefits from broad expertise and material certainty in geofoam.

Chicago, Ill.
Robert A.M. Stern Architects; GREC Architects of Chicago; MVVA

Laura Solano, landscape architect and principal at Michael Van Valkenburgh Assocs. (mvva), Cambridge, Mass., has a reputation for solving landscape challenges in complex urban contexts through innovative approaches to stormwater management, incorporating sustainable soils and native plants, and the resourceful use of landscape materials.

Solano has high praise for an often-unsung hero in her tool kit—molded polystyrene geofoam, used as a lightweight fill beneath landscapes. Molded polystyrene is a cellular plastic material used to produce incredibly strong geofoam blocks, which are easily moved by hand and carved, sculpted or stacked on site to create dynamic landforms in tight spaces.

A recent success story is One Bennett Park, a high-rise residential infill project along the north edge of Chicago’s loop. Developers, Related Midwest, engaged world-renowned design visionaries, Robert A.M. Stern Architects to work with executive architects, GREC Architects of Chicago, and MVVA for the landscape design, each independently contracted.

“Infill properties always have challenges, and that’s where we thrive,” says Dennis DeCapri, a principal at GREC, who took a leadership role in guiding his firm’s performance on One Bennett Park. “There is an existing parking structure on the site that was to be maintained, so a portion of the building and the park were designed to be built over the garage. That’s where the geofoam comes in,” remarked DeCapri.

“Topography is essential to crafting a landscape that intuitively guides the user,” continues Solano. “Geofoam allows us to add undulation in landforms built over structures without adding a tremendous volume of weight. Carefully done, results are natural.”


DeCapri noted that before One Bennett Park his exposure to geofoam and molded polystyrene foam insulations had been with conventional applications like retaining soil and insulating a foundation wall, roof or vertical wall cavity. Atlas Molded Products strives to be an asset to designers and an ally to builders. Seeing the landscape vision proposed by MVVA’s team, DeCapri understood that it was more than just the light weight of geofoam that made Atlas’ product the ideal building material. “The geofoam was key because this 2-acre landscape rises as much as 24-ft. above grade in some places,” says DeCapri. “The existing garage has limited loading capacity so significant contouring wouldn’t have been possible if the garage deck had to be loaded with soil.”