Chicago River: From open sewer to crown jewel?

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This year marks the 100th anniversary of Daniel Burnham’s iconic Plan of Chicago.  The Plan re-imagined the American industrial city, identifying and prioritizing open space, cultivation of natural areas, and public access to water resources as keystones for the City’s health and quality of life. We are all the richer for this vision of how to integrate the natural and built environments into a rich urban ecosystem.  From the Plan comes the parks, tree lined boulevards, and, most notably, Chicago’s glorious Lake Michigan shoreline. 

And while the “open, free and clear” Chicago Lake front is a central part of our inheritance from the Burnham Plan, the vision for the City’s second shoreline---that of the Chicago River---has yet to be fully realized.  The Chicago River is an essential part of Chicago’s  identity, and but for the River, it is unlikely that the City would have risen to be a major metropolis. (See, e.g., William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, p. 23).

The front page of Sunday’s Chicago Tribune featured a look at the waterway, in which architecture critic Blair Kamin notes:

Chicago was born by the river and named for the wild onion plants that once thrived on its banks. But in the boom years of the 19th Century, businessmen turned the river into an artery of commerce and a sewer for dumping industrial waste. The river became a forbidding trench, an "On the Waterfront" landscape of piers, bulkheads and bollards for tying up ships. Buildings turned their backs to it.

Today, our view of the river has changed, and the opportunity to recover it as an environmental amenity, incorporating nature, culture and commerce in accord with the vision of the Burnham Plan is within our reach. But several things need to be done.

Kamin’s excellent feature looked at the $22 million dollar riverwalk extension project which is the culmination of a long-term, multigenerational commitment to turn the river into another beautiful amenity for Chicagoans. Just as the lakefront provides gorgeous open parkland along the eastern edge of the City, the river has always offered visionaries from Burnham’s generation a way to extend that greenery into the heart of the City and its neighborhoods. 

You need only look at the stretch of river where NRDC’s new Chicago office sits to see how this evolution of thinking has played out.  Two buildings built in 1929 face each other, but deal with the river in completely opposite ways. On the east side of the river stands the Civic Opera House, which was built with its back to the river (as much of the river front building had resolutely done up to that time). NRDC’s office is on the west bank of the river in the old Chicago Daily News Building (now called 2 N. Riverside Plaza), a building that took a different view of the river---the modern view of the river as an amenity, and stepping back to create a broad, open plaza, facing directly onto the river and embracing its shores with a public space and built-in water taxi stands.

Over the years, the embrace of the river has gained support. Development along the river in both the central business district and in the neighborhoods has increased dramatically, and in recent decades   use of the river itself for something other than an open sewer for industrial and other waste has seen dramatic increases. From my window on the river, there never seems to be a point where the waters are not being plied by a water taxi, pleasure boat, or even the occasional rowing team. Canoes and kayaks are a common sight on the north and south branches of the river---and even the central branch which runs through the heart of the Loop is a boating destination.

But while the City and residents have embraced the river, the governmental agency responsible for the waterway continues to turn its back to the river and consider it an open sewer. I am talking about the interestingly named Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD). It is an independent government authority, with taxing authority, an elected board, and the responsibility of overseeing waste water issues in Cook County, Illinois. It is clearly the biggest roadblock to fulfilling the vision of the City of Chicago to transform this once blighted river into a highly valued part of the urban environment, contributing to the quality of life of the City and its region.

You see, the MWRD is polluting the river with human waste. And putting all those on its waters in harms way.

The MWRD owns and operate sewage treatment facilities along the Chicago River that dump undisinfected sewage into the river waters. Both the City of Chicago and State of Illinois have urgently called upon the District to stop dumping of this polluted sewage into the river and the state has proposed regulations prohibiting it. Civic advocates, including NRDC, have pressed hard for adoption of the regulations by the Illinois Pollution Control Board. Yet the MWRD continues to release harmful viruses and bacteria associated with un-disinfected sewage into the river that flows past homes, parks, businesses, boats and swimmers. Instead of complying with the regulations proposed by the Illinois EPA, MWRD is pouring millions of taxpayer dollars into fighting them.

Certainly, disinfecting billions of gallons of effluent will come with costs. But they are significantly less than one would expect---dwarfed, in fact, by the continued real estate investment and recreation time being spent along the waterway.

The Trib puts the investment into proper perspective, returning to that vision of the River as an extension of Chicago’s lakefront:

One might have reacted with cynicism in 1909 when, in the Plan of Chicago, Daniel Burnham urged Chicago's leaders to turn their chopped-up assortment of lakefront parks into a sparkling and continuous public space. Yet for the last 100 years, completing that vision has been Chicago's grand civic project. For the next 100 years, in the downtown and beyond, the city has its work cut out for it: turning the riverfront into an equally great public space.

Absolutely correct, Mr. Kamin!

The city’s embrace of Lake Michigan is world-renown. And the Chicago River could extend that grand vision INTO the city itself. But MWRD’s dumping will prevent this vision from coming to fruition (even as the City and State push them to act otherwise). Until the District modernizes its management of the River, and adopts disinfection practices standard in civilized communities, the people and environment of Chicago will suffer, and their taxes used to defend a wholly out-of-date approach to public health and resist modernization.

Perhaps the saddest result of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s small-thinking is not that the citizens of Chicago will be prevented from fully enjoying the fruits of investments already made on the riverfront---but that a broader City-changing vision of the riverfront could be prevented from ever coming into existence.


Under the Michigan Avenue Bridge 2 image by jmogs via Flickr