Our Great Rivers is the first-ever unifying and forward-looking vision for all three of Chicago’s rivers. It also begins the process of looking upstream, downstream and across the banks to connect Chicagoans with forest preserves and suburban communities that will be vital partners in realizing our collective vision.
That vision—by 2040, Chicago’s rivers will be inviting, productive and living places where everyone can have their own experience—was articulated by thousands of stakeholders through an intensive 18-month, citywide visioning process led by the Metropolitan Planning Council, in partnership with the Office of the Mayor of the City of Chicago, Friends of the Chicago River and more. Our Great Rivers lays out discrete goals for 2020, 2030 and 2040, enabling us to monitor progress toward achieving inviting, productive and living rivers. It also articulates a need to determine new revenue streams and leadership collaborations for the rivers to ensure that this vision is realized and can endure.
What follows is a combination of the subtle and the bold. As an example, we’ll develop a unified brand for our rivers by 2020, which can then be used in marketing, trail signage and even T-shirts. By 2030, we can go further, transforming the Port District and industrial corridors throughout the city into highly productive assets for the whole region, the river system and our neighborhoods. And by 2040, as a result of decades of water quality improvements and habitat restoration, our rivers will be teeming with native plant and animal species. And we’ll be swimming in them. Yes, you read that right.
Our Great Rivers comes at an important time for our rivers.
For most of Chicago’s history, our 150-plus miles of river and riverfront have been abused and polluted. We reversed the Chicago and Calumet rivers, channelized them, and used them to move wastewater out of the region. We used the rivers for transportation and heavy industry, but not much else. Water quality, habitat, park space and even the aesthetics of the riverfront environment were not even an afterthought.
At a time when our city and many of our neighborhoods are struggling, we can create jobs, improve communities and increase civic pride by investing in our rivers.
Fortunately, since the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the 1979 founding of Friends of the Chicago River, how Chicagoans view our rivers has been changing steadily. Increasingly clean water has brought a surge in recreational use, a return of critical species, and a desire to re-orient ourselves toward the rivers. Look no further than the downtown Riverwalk for evidence of that. Cleaner water has unleashed decades of pent-up demand for different experiences and uses of the rivers. In our online survey, which drew more than 3,800 responses, the top terms selected to describe the future of our rivers were “active,” “easy to get to,” and “clean.”
The desire for use—for play, work, living, relaxation, community gathering, we heard it all in our community outreach—comes at a time when new challenges above and beyond water quality compel us to rethink our rivers. The nature of our industrial riverfront is changing, in some places to new kinds of industry and in some away from industry all together. Aquatic invasive species, namely Asian carp, have drawn significant scrutiny. Toxic legacies of the past linger in contaminated sediments and riverfront brownfields. Our Great Rivers grapples with all these issues and more.
Our Great Rivers also comes at an important time for Chicago.
Many communities are struggling. Outside the downtown core, too many people are leaving the city. Civic pride, in many communities, is at a nadir. Disinvestment, apathy and violence are realities that cannot be wistfully overlooked. This vision—and it is an aspirational vision, not a detailed master plan for every inch of our 150-plus miles of rivers and riverfronts—cannot hope to solve all of Chicago’s woes. But our rivers can be an integral part of the solutions. We can create more jobs along our rivers by modernizing our land use policies and making sites more marketable for development. We can bring open space and recreation to more communities, creating opportunities for solace, connection with nature, exercise and good clean fun. We can create outlets for community pride by fostering stewardship and creating lively gathering places along our rivers. We need these things now more than ever.
Due in large part to the committed stewardship of our many partners, in particular Friends of the Chicago River, we are already on the path toward achieving many of the goals of Our Great Rivers. Still, there is much more to be done. This vision will unify activities and communities along the rivers, inspire new projects and ideas, motivate stewardship, guide new initiatives and prioritize investment. This vision for Our Great Rivers will only do those things if we collectively embrace our role in making these rivers and riverfronts what we want them to be.
Explore the goals »