Redesigning the Chicago River

Starchitect Jeanne Gang wants to stop river pollution and save the Great Lakes from invasive species. Her solution is simpler than you'd think.

Architect Jeanne Gang


Photo by Sally Ryan Photography, 2011

A version of this story was originally published in June 2012 by NRDC's onEarth magazine.

Whether she sought the position or not, Jeanne Gang has risen to the top tier of American architects, that rarefied community of building designers who can make international headlines with nothing more than a new set of blueprints.

In 2011, the chorus of critical praise for Gang’s 82-story Aqua Tower, in her hometown of Chicago, helped her become the first architect to win a MacArthur Fellowship in more than a decade. More recently, her Wanda Vista Tower in Chicago’s Lakeshore East development has become the talk of the local architectural press: When completed in 2019, the $950 million mixed-use structure will be the tallest building in the world designed by a woman-led architectural firm.

Gang considered a career in engineering before deciding on architecture; her ultimate focus, she says, is solving problems. The undulating balconies of Aqua, for example, aren’t there simply to make street-level gawkers stop in their tracks (though they certainly do). These curved, cantilevered, concrete shades help cool the apartments below them—saving significant amounts of energy—and also protect the property from fierce winds that regularly buffet buildings of that height.

Gang's penchant for problem-solving may help explain why she was so quick to accept an invitation to partner with NRDC regarding proposed solutions to the manifold “problem” of the Chicago River. In one sense, this famed waterway cutting through the heart of the Windy City operates like a massive sewer pipe, carrying waste and runoff away from Chicago and downstream toward the Mississippi River basin. At the same time, it functions as a roadway for invasive Asian carp into Lake Michigan and ultimately the entire Great Lakes system—where these aggressively ravenous fish would wreak environmental and economic havoc if they ever became established.

With input from her students at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, Gang imagined a solution that combines civil engineering with civic engagement: a physical barrier that would restore the historic separation of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds, complemented by a package of green-infrastructure projects that would clean and detoxify this long-neglected waterway while transforming its banks into a scenic destination. This joint vision for the reclamation of the Chicago River later became the source material for Gang's 2011 book, Reverse Effect: Renewing Chicago’s Waterways. We spoke to the architect from the offices of Studio Gang, her firm in Chicago.

How did the proposed project outlined in Reverse Effect come into being?

I'd been working with NRDC for a long time. One day, we held an eco-salon here at our studio about all our green projects, and I got to talking with people from NRDC about the invasive-species issue—the carp that are heading toward the Great Lakes, up the Chicago River. They told me they were studying the benefits that might come from placing a dam in the river, establishing a barrier between the Great Lakes watershed and the Mississippi River basin. My curiosity was sparked. I thought it was a great opportunity to think not only about the barrier itself but also what the act of creating it could mean for the city.

What sorts of benefits were you imagining at that point?

The issue of invasive species is one thing, but there’s also water quality—the fact that we’re still putting raw sewage into our waterways. Even though they’re trying to expand Chicago’s deep-tunnel sewer system, the capacity isn’t great enough to handle the rain. With very little rainfall—barely over half an inch—we’re sending runoff directly into the river and lake. This will only worsen with climate change: We’ll be having stronger storms in shorter amounts of time. Another issue was the feel of the riverfront. It’s postindustrial. Much of it is just sitting there, abandoned and unused.

Aside from installing a barrier, what could be done to improve water quality in both the river and the lake?

One of the most important things would be to reduce runoff by adding green infrastructure, so that you could absorb that much more rainwater and not flush it into the sewer system, which then becomes overwhelmed. Eventually the river itself would be remediated and cleaned. It’s exciting, really: a new way to look at the relationship between three bodies of water. Instead of thinking of the Chicago River as a canal coming off Lake Michigan that takes water out of the lake and down to the Mississippi, we’d be capturing lake water, using it, then cleaning it—first with technology, then further by charging it into a series of wetland lagoons—and then letting it go back to the lake. Which would be amazing, if you think about what that could mean for the quality of life here in the future.

How could installing a barrier or adding green infrastructure improve the quality of everyday life for Chicagoans?

For one thing, just increasing access would be huge. The river isn't in the most pristine condition right now, but I think it’s really important to give people a chance to care about it. If they can’t get to the edge because it’s in private hands, how can they care about it? Our plan would call for reinvigorating the riverfront by cleaning it up, creating wetland lagoons, and adding a harbor. Big boats coming off the lake into the Chicago River and headed downtown would have a new destination; smaller boats that just want to row up and down could launch from there. And installing a barrier could create an opportunity to connect the opposite sides of the river—two neighborhoods that have never been physically connected—via a bridge.

Creating a natural filtration system with green infrastructure is undoubtedly complicated, logistically and practically speaking. But conceptually it’s quite simple. Do architects and urban planners sometimes overlook simple solutions in favor of the newest, most whiz-bang technological ones?

What people like to hear about are new inventions, new technologies. But at Studio Gang, we always start with one question: What are the easiest, cheapest, and most implementable solutions? What I love about the river barrier, for example, is that it’s a small thing, really—just a piece of infrastructure—but it has such large implications for the neighborhoods around it, for the city at large, and for the entire waterway. By doing something very local, even very small, you can nevertheless have this great impact. I think the architects of the future are going to be much more involved with these types of problems, rather than just designing one building at a time. They’re really going to have to think about how everything is connected.

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