Designs Reveal First Comprehensive Vision for Chicago Rivers – Next City

Designs Reveal First Comprehensive Vision for Chicago Rivers

The Chicago River (Credit: Metropolitan Planning Council)

On Wednesday, Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council unveiled an ambitious conservation vision for the city’s three rivers — the Calumet, the Chicago and the Des Plaines. Great Rivers Chicago lays out three broad goals as well as actionable steps to be taken over the next 24 years. There are still plenty of critical details to be hammered out — no coordinating body has yet been named or created, nor has a source of funding yet been secured — but Great Rivers Chicago is the result of what the MPC calls the “most varied and sweeping public outreach process in [its] 82-year history.” Over 6,000 Chicagoland residents weighed in on how they use the rivers today, and how they’d like to use them in the future.

The result is a plan that prioritizes recreation and access, expands the rivers’ transportation potential, improves wildlife and ecosystem health, and preserves the rivers’ historical role as economic driver.

“Our rivers have come a long way since the days when they were fenced off and polluted with sewage and trash. Progress can be measured in species of fish, miles of trail and the number of people already out on the water,” said Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River. “Our Great Rivers comes at a critical juncture, capitalizing on our success and providing a collective vision for what we still need to do and how we can get it done.”

The three broad goals: that the river become more inviting, productive and living.

To achieve the first, the plan outlines more riverfront activities, clearer safety guidelines to minimize conflicts among different users, and a comprehensive and unified new system of wayfinding and signage (inspired by the success of those on the 606, an elevated bike and pedestrian trail in Chicago) — all by 2020. Improving both water quality and real-time access to water quality information is also a 2020 goal. The public outreach process revealed that longtime Chicago residents in particular perceived the rivers as always polluted, and potentially unsafe to enter. In reality, quality fluctuates based on rains and sewer overflows.

Longer-term 2030 goals include a continuous system of riverfront trails, easy connections from all neighborhoods and universal, ADA-compliant access for all. By 2040, the plan aims for a litter- and odor-free river system. The Collateral Channel, for example, is better known for its smell than its recreational opportunities, the plan notes. Improving water flow would address the odor problem and improve wetland health, and a new riverfront trail would turn the channel into a connector between La Villita Park and the El Paseo Trail.

(Credit: Ross Barney Architects)

(Credit: Ross Barney Architects)

To keep the rivers productive for their current industrial uses, while bringing more economic development down to the waterfront. By 2020, the plan aims to redefine what a modern “working river” means. If some industries no longer require river access, or may even be a detriment to the natural and recreational goals, the city wants to think about locating them elsewhere.

In their place, the plan aims for more riverfront tourism and small business development by 2030. It also looks to better integrate the city’s water taxi network into the broader transportation system. At the mouth of Bubbly Creek, for example, which feeds into the Chicago River, the plan envisions mixed-use development with retail, housing and recreation. A new pedestrian bridge over the creek and a new water taxi station would increase access, all within walking distance of the Ashland Orange Line station.

(Credit: Ross Barney Architects)

(Credit: Ross Barney Architects)

Great Rivers Chicago also suggests revenue sources. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District already produces fertilizer from phosphorous reclaimed from the river. Under the plan, the MPC is looking for other ways to recover and sell nutrients from the water, and to generate renewable energy using algae or hydrokinetic turbines.

To achieve “living rivers,” the focus is on the ecosystems. By 2020 the plan hopes to see improvement in active stewardship of all riverfront parks and preserves, and ensure that shoreline development is ecologically sensitive. By 2030, the more non-navigable river sections would be parks. A section of the North Branch Canal, which forms the eastern boundary of Goose Island, is already off limits to barges and could become protected habitat for wildlife and a wetland park for kayaks, anglers and bird-watchers.

(Credit: Ross Barney Architects)

(Credit: Ross Barney Architects)

The plan also sets forth a goal for a coordinated approach to preventing water pollution. With the city aiming to eliminate combined sewer overflows in 2029, the plan also aims to make the rivers safe to swim in by 2030.

To achieve all this, the plan recognizes, will require an immense amount of coordination. Dozens of agencies and organizations — some public, some private — rely on the river and have a stake in its development.

“An existing entity may be able to handle coordination, but it is equally likely that a new entity will need to be created and empowered to pursue this vision,” the plan acknowledges. As part of the outreach process, the MPC also spoke to groups leading riverfront revitalizations in 10 other U.S. cities. Their organizational structures range from wholly private, to public-private, to wholly public. By 2017, the MPC and mayor’s office will determine how Chicago will structure its coordination efforts and where the revenue will come from to support it.

Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at

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