Learning and partying at one event: The Chicago River Day fest

May 13, 2015 , By MPC Manager Kara Riggio and Research Assistant Isobel Araujo

Kayak rides, fishing lessons and chances to draw a vision for the rivers were a few of the family-friendly activities we offered participants.

Where would you be able to find kayakers, pedestrians, small children, environmentalists, bikers, fishers, food truck enthusiasts and beer lovers together in the same place at the same time? This past Saturday, May 9, that same group gathered to celebrate Chicago River Day on the old railroad bridge connecting Goose Island to North Avenue. Apart from the face painting, the music provided by Windy City Soul Club, the kayak demos, the fishing lessons and Goose Island beer offered at the event, party goers got the chance to express their ideas for improving the Chicago River through surveys, maps and imaginative doodling.

Chicago River Day is an initiative of Friends of the Chicago River, and involves a day of volunteering and environmental advocacy at more than 60 locations along the river. Passionate citizens spent Saturday morning cleaning up riverbanks and learning about Chicago’s river system, and then celebrated with the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) and Friends of the Chicago River on Goose Island in the afternoon.

Community engagement is essential to the work of MPC and Friends of the Chicago River, especially with regards to our new joint initiative, Great Rivers Chicago. This project will develop and implement a plan to realize the full economic, environmental and recreational potential of Chicago’s river system. But first, input and advice from local businesses owners, residents and community leaders is necessary.

What made this event so special? In reality, it was equal parts research opportunity and party. MPC staff gathered valuable survey information from Chicago residents on the river during the event, and inspired community members drew pictures of what they wanted to see on the river, including boats, fish and bike paths (as well as a few doodles of sharks, mermaids and dolphins from younger participants).

My favorite part of the day occurred as I was sitting on the railroad bridge overlooking the river, eating my food truck french fries and watching kayakers float along the river and a man approached me to ask about the event. He shared that he had grown up across from the bridge that we were on, and that he used to go down and hang out on the riverbank as a teenager. He said the landscape had changed a lot since then, but that he still had a lot of ideas for integrating the river into the community.

As a Chicago native I had never really thought of the river system as a resource, but rather as just a fixture of the landscape (and an often hidden, inaccessible fixture at that). Many residents, however, have already been thinking about what an improved river might look like. Chicagoans never seem to fall short of opinions, and in order to fully realize the Chicago River as a resource, MPC will turn to the people of Chicago as a resource first.

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