Our Great Rivers

This month I began an internship with the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC). I had the pleasure of working with them through a course at the Harris School of Public Policy while at the University of Chicago, last winter. My team and I were tasked with proposing three governance and finance models that could successfully implement the Our Great Rivers (OGR) vision. OGR seeks to unify the Calumet, Chicago and Des Plaines rivers that weave through the City of Chicago and nearby suburbs, and make these rivers inviting, productive, and living. Other cities that have sought to revitalize their rivers served as examples of the successes and challenges that come with such a project, but Chicago’s vision is unique because of its size and scope. Chicago has over 150 miles of riverfront that span three rivers and multiple jurisdictions. Only Los Angeles, of my native California, came close to this and still only covered 32 miles of river.

I loved working on this project, so I am thrilled that MPC was willing to bring me on as a Research Assistant while I continue my career search. I am conducting research examining options for new revenue to support planning, investment, and programming along the rivers and developing concepts for governance of those revenue options.

When I first learned of OGR, I was surprised to find that Chicagoans do not have very positive associations with their rivers. I loved spending summers swimming in and rafting along the American River in Sacramento, California; I wouldn’t have thought twice about getting in. But the Midwest seems to have troubling issues with its rivers and lakes. In the Death and Life of the Great Lakes I read about toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie, so there are definitely reasons to not get in the water out here.

Historically, the Chicago River served to move the city’s wastewater and to this day sewage still overflows into the rivers after bad storms. I witnessed this repulsive reality firsthand when I returned to Ping Tom Park, in Chinatown, to volunteer for the Great Lakes Action Days. This park has a gently sloping hill that leads to a rocky shore and then finally the river. When I asked why the exact spot we had cleaned the month prior, was just as dirty as before, a volunteer steward from Shedd told me that it is the first area open to the river after the asphalt walls downtown, so it becomes a catchall for litter and overflowing sewage.

In addition to this, there are parts of the rivers with some telling nicknames like “Bubbly Creek,” named for the gas bubbles created by decomposing animal parts dumped by the meatpacking industry, and “Ass Creek,” named for the terrible smell that resulted from abandoned industrial waste and pollution.

So it seems rather obvious that these rivers could use some revitalization. I look forward to contributing in some small way to the folks who are working to make that happen!

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