Designs Reveal First Comprehensive Vision for Chicago Rivers

Making the city's waterways "inviting, productive and living."

The Chicago River (Credit: Metropolitan Planning Council)

This is your first of three free stories this month. Become a free or sustaining member to read unlimited articles, webinars and ebooks.

Become A Member

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.

Like what you’re reading? Get a browser notification whenever we post a new story. You’re signed-up for browser notifications of new stories. No longer want to be notified? Unsubscribe.

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

Follow Jen .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Tags: jobschicagopublic spacerivers

Next City App Never Miss A StoryDownload our app ×

You've reached your monthly limit of three free stories.

This is not a paywall. Become a free or sustaining member to continue reading.

  • Read unlimited stories each month
  • Our email newsletter
  • Webinars and ebooks in one click
  • Our Solutions of the Year magazine
  • Support solutions journalism and preserve access to all readers who work to liberate cities

Join 992 other sustainers such as:

  • Joseph at $5/Month
  • Anonymous in Newburyport, MA at $5/Month
  • John at $10/Month

Already a member? Log in here. U.S. donations are tax-deductible minus the value of thank-you gifts. Questions? Learn more about our membership options.

or pay by credit card:

All members are automatically signed-up to our email newsletter. You can unsubscribe with one-click at any time.

  • Donate $60 or

    Just Action by Leah Rothstein and Richard Rothstein

  • Solutions of the year 2022

    Donate $20 or $5/Month

    2022-2023 Solutions of the Year magazine

  • Brave New Home

    Donate $40 or $10/Month

    Brave New Home by Diana Lind