Elevating Chicago

Chicago River Archives

(Asian) Carpe Diem

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shymen

I've lived all over the country and world, my background is in International Affairs, Political Science, and Economics, and I'm a Chicago boy born and bred.

The Asian carp are all the buzz in Chicago these days.  Everyone, including myself, is paranoid that these massive fish will destroy the ecosystem of Lake Michigan, and possibly even the entire Great Lakes region.  To put things into perspective, the destruction of this ecosystem could destroy our drinking supply and kill the many multi-million dollar industries of the Great Lakes.  These fish are a dreadfully invasive species that eat everything in their sight, from other fish to plants, and are coming into Lake Michigan via the Mississippi River.  As I've discussed before, one potential fix for this problem, which is a big debate during the Illinois Senatorial race, is the re-reversal of the Chicago River, thus cutting off all Great Lake ties with the Mississippi.  Because our waterways (and water in general) are very essential to livability in Chicago, I want to talk about the debate over the Chicago River and the Asian carp.

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Forget 'Swimming in the Potomac,' Let's Learn from the Anacostia

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Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

News surfaced in the Tribune on Tuesday that the Environmental Protection Agency is calling on the city to clean up the Chicago River to the point of making it not only safe for boats but for swimmers as well.  Mayor Daley had a simple retort to the feds: "Go Swim in the Potomac."

Where the Feds won't swim: DC's Anacostia River before the recent cleanup. Photo Courtesy of the Anacostia Watershed Society.


My sympathies are with the Mayor on this one.  The city has made great strides in improving not just the river but the land surrounding it.  They continue to work every day, and have plans in place with the help of CMAP's Waterway Management guidance.  Whether or not the EPA passed this statement along to the Illinois Pollution Control Board, Chicago was going to keep on working toward the Chicago River becoming "swimmable." (There's a separate issue here about the necessity of making the river truly "swimmable."  I'd happily go kayaking along the river if I knew it was safe to occasionally fall overboard to cool myself off.  But I have a feeling that when it comes to swimming in natural waters, Lake Michigan does the trick for most Chicagoans.)

But let's take the Mayor's retort for more than the glib sound bite that it is.

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Environmental Determinism in Chicago (Part I - Natural Geography)

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Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

When it comes to the kinds of land-use changes necessary to promote livability in Chicago, there are two main obstacles greater than our city's propensity for cynicism and its forbearer, corruption: the natural and built environments.  Since it came first, I'd like to look first at the geography that has both made Chicago great, but which can also hold it back if we don't harness it well.  There are three main pieces to this puzzle: The Land, The Lake, and The River.  We use all three, but it's important to understand how they've combined to make Chicago what it is.

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Lots of flat land, plenty of fresh water. Photo by the author.

The Land
You don't have to go far to see what sort of hearty Midwestern land Chicago's built on.  There's the forest preserve running along the Des Plaines River, or if you go far enough west it's beautiful, flat prairie as far as the eye can see.  So unlike a lot of places (i.e. San Francisco's narrow peninsula and New York's islands) our growth--westward, at least--is unconstrained.  We've never been worried about a lack of land.  But this also works against us, because it's so easy to sprawl out--as we have for the past 50 years.

So we're left to work against our lazier impulses to fill in the gaps between our neighborhoods and re-stitch our urban fabric.  Fortunately, our urban prairie is flat as a pancake, and that's great news when we want to get around without the help of an internal combustion engine.   Our travels are the same in every direction.  There's no rough uphill commute in the morning, and no reason to shift gears when we bike home after a long day.

The Lake
Perhaps Chicago's greatest asset, Lake Michigan does a few wonderful things for us.  It tempers our climate (this weekend it'll be "cooler by the lake" for the first time this year,) and quenches our almost insatiable thirst.  It is a main attraction for both locals and tourists, whether for swimming, sailing, or anything else.  Last but certainly not least, it is also an easy-to-use, massively obvious wayfinding point--the Lake is always east.  This is no small matter, as it makes getting around the city easier, encouraging Chicagoans and tourists alike to get out and see the city more.

As wonderful as Lake Michigan is, it has also skewed our growth.  Just as development around individual train stations is often lopsided due to "wrong side of the tracks" disease, Chicago's development as a whole is lopsided because of Lake Michigan.  The Lake pushes our development north, west, and south from The Loop, which is most clearly visible in our rail map: where other cities develop robust networks  we're left with a hub-and-spokes.

The River
Finally, there is the Chicago River, that magically backward-flowing stream that comes close to splitting the city into its famous "sides."  In the River's fork and different responses to it throughout the city, we can start to get a feel for where Chicago has gone wrong and also how easy it would be to go right.

First, the Main Branch.  With its narrow riverbed and frequent bridges, it's an urban river in the Seine model.  Even with the frequent, walkable bridges, it's still a natural border that makes River North a much different beast than the Loop itself.  It also serves as a chokepoint for vehicular traffic, so it's not surprising that transit from the North Side is successful.  The new Riverfront Plan is a gem and should it ever be completed all the way to the confluence, it'll become as much a Place (capital P) as the lakefront is now.

Then there's the North Branch, a giant wasted opportunity.  From the Confluence all the way up to Belmont, it's still a narrow, albeit meandering, easily bridgeable river.  But unlike the Main Branch (or the northern segment of the South Branch, as I'll get into shortly) there's no attempt to tie the two sides of the river together.  This is partly a function of zoning: a lot of this area is zoned for manufacturing, which only works with walkable growth through hard work.  But that's exactly the point: There's no geographic reason why the River-centric development has to be confined to the area between Kinzie and Congress.

And what of the South Branch? There are three main parts of it: part well-used, part of it reclaimable, part of it given over to industry.* From the Confluence to Congress, it's walkable like the Main Branch, but without the River Walk.  The West Loop's resurgence is living proof of this.  And even though nothing about the river itself changes south of Congress, it reverts to a strong border, with crossings only at Harrison and Roosevelt.  As with the North branch, a lot of this has to do with the zoned uses around the river, but again, that's just the point: the Chicago River--like the rest of Chicago's natural geography--is not some untamable beast.  We can use the river just as readily to improve the cityscape as we can to ruin it.

Come back for Part II tomorrow...

*Note: this is not a swipe at industry along the River.  To the contrary, it is vital to the municipal and regional economies.  And unlike the North Branch, where development could be realigned toward integration with the surrounding livable neighborhoods, heavy industrial uses do not offer the same opportunity along the South Branch.

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