A Vision for the Chicago, Des Plaines, and Calumet Rivers

Ted Glasoe Photography

Ted Glasoe Photography

By David Holmquist

On August 17, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and a group of civic leaders gathered at the WMS Boathouse on the banks of the north branch of the Chicago River to release Our Great Rivers, a vision produced through a community-wide collaboration led by the Chicago Community Trust, Friends of the Chicago River and the Metropolitan Planning Council.

Billed as “the city’s first-ever vision for the entirety of its vast network of rivers and tributaries,” this vision sets out a series of cumulative goals for the coming twenty-five years, leading to a transformation of the area’s river system into a post-industrial asset that is inviting, productive and living. It rests on the assumption that our rivers have always been, and will continue to be, working rivers, and takes on the task of integrating the commercial character of the network with the community and natural ecologies along its banks. Its guiding principle is that riverfront and channel development, to be successful, must be environmentally sound and sustainable.

Our Great Rivers was the product of extensive community outreach that included over 100 public events—boat tours, bike rides, site walks and design discussions—that elicited ideas and suggestions from over 6,000 people. An online survey generated 3,800 responses from the community. The vision is just the first step, meant to inspire ongoing planning, funding and implementation by a vast array of city and county governmental departments, business and community organizations, foundation funders and engaged citizens.

The goals of Our Great Rivers begin with re-introducing the citizenry to the rivers and to the untapped potential they hold for creating a connected and vibrant urban ecosystem.

By the year 2020, a suite of new activities will be devised to draw residents and tourists to riverfront destinations that are 24-hour safe. Existing trails and planned extensions will have unified and comprehensive signage for wayfinding, and water quality improvements will benefit from constant monitoring. One intriguing idea is to use “barge parks,” seasonal barges moved along the riverfront to create temporary public spaces to fill gaps in riverfront access and provide venues for such things as performances, fishing events, and pop-up bars and restaurants.

By 2030, the vision calls for continuous, universally accessible trails throughout the system, including the north and south branches of the Chicago River, the Des Plaines River in suburban Cook County, the Sanitary and Ship Canal through the southwest side, and the Calumet River and Cal-Sag Channel. The ecological and historical significance of this network is considerable, and is expected to provide the basis for ecologically integrated community development and tourism on a large scale. Our Great Rivers also calls for the integration of water taxis into a fully linked bicycle and public transit network in this time frame.

By 2040, continued improvements in water quality are intended to create swimmable rivers, free of litter, odors and toxins, with wildlife and wetland habitat restored in large sections of the waterway network. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District projects that by this time, infrastructure improvements will have completely eliminated combined sewer overflows into the river system.

The level of ambition in this vision is perhaps best illustrated by the goals for the Calumet River. As part of a redefinition of the “modern working river,” it calls for the Calumet Industrial Corridor to become “… a renowned national model for the coexistence of productive and sustainable industry, thriving communities and healthy natural areas.” Given the historical and present-day industrial pollution of that corridor and the legacy of environmental injustice—typified by the ongoing struggle over petcoke storage and transport—this will be a heavy lift.

The vision of Our Great Rivers is indeed comprehensive and inspiring. The architectural renderings in the website presentations and printed documents are wonderful visualizations of the transformative potential of our unique natural and contrived waterway system. To fully appreciate this vision, please visit the web at http://greatriverschicago.com/index.html.

Ted Glasoe is an Evanston-based photographer specializing in images that are inspired by the power and beauty of Lake Michigan. His website is www.tedglasoe.com.