Any true Chicagoan knows three things to be true: deep dish is the best pizza, it will always be the Sears Tower, and that the Chicago River flows the wrong way. Indeed, most foreigners to the Windy city are baffled by the concept that the river and the lake are two separate bodies of water. While the namesake river did originally dump into the lake, early residents undertook a massive infrastructure project to reverse the flow of the Chicago River. But, why did they do this? To understand this question, we can look at the original uses of the Chicago River, how the River has changed over time, and what the city is doing now to make the river waterfront a 21st Century destination.
So, why change the course of a natural river? It comes back to Industry and Pollution in the late 1800’s. The natural transportation hub that is Chicago facilitated the growth of many industries along the Chicago River. However, the pollution caused by the businesses, residents, and factories caused outbreaks of disease. The Chicago Health Department reported that from 1849 to 1867, multiple outbreaks of Cholera killed hundreds of residents. (1)
Thus, the city & state undertook one of the largest public works project in the nation and reversed the flow of the river. The American Public Works Association States, “In 1889, the State of Illinois enacted a law enabling creation of the Sanitary District of Chicago (which continues to exist today as the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago) for safeguarding Chicago’s water supply. It would do so by constructing canals to make the Chicago River flow backwards, away from the lake” (2). While it took until 1931 to fully implement; the complex system of canals, dams, and locks was a huge success. Not only did the city now have direct waterway access to the Mississippi River, but industry could freely dump into the Chicago River while not harming the residents drinking water collected from Lake Michigan.
This idea worked for a while, and in effect it was good Urban Planning and Sustainability for its time. Yet as the decades passed, it became clear the system was far from perfect. Obviously, factories dumped thousands of chemicals and waste products into the river, but perhaps the worst culprit to pollution was the very sanitation district created to reduce waste. The Sanitary District of Chicago established under the river reversing law built a combined sewer and water drainage collection system. A good idea for the time quickly revealed its flaws as large storms could overload the system, resulting in millions of gallons of raw sewage being blasted into the Chicago River. Known as a CSO, or Combined Sewer Overflow, these events resulted in the Chicago river being one of the most polluted waterways in the United States.
While common throughout the 20th century, CSO’s still occur to this day. The Tribune of June 23rd, 2017 reports, “The chronic sewage overflows are a major reason the amount of disease-causing bacteria in the river remains staggeringly high, despite years of efforts to improve water quality” (3). As a result, many residents are asking what the best course of action is to fix this public health hazard. While the city, state, and federal government are trying to remedy the situation, local community groups have forged the most success in resolving this public health crisis.
One such group that has stepped forward to clean up the Chicago River is the aptly named organization: Friends of the Chicago River. With private and governmental funding, this community of residents has set forth a policy of finding key projects which can cleanup the Chicago River. In fact, there have been over 32 different awards given out to help minimize pollution. One such project was the Riverline (4), a plan to beautify acres of Riverfront property by creating parks and natural areas. This project is one part of many in creating a livable and sustainable riverfront. Plans like these promise to increase land values while decreasing pollution on the Chicago River.
The Friends of the Chicago River state, “As a result, the Chicago River is emerging as one of the best opportunities for improving quality of life for the people who live and work in the greater Chicago metropolitan area.” (4). The future growth of Chicago relies as always on its waterways; new residents will want a clean, beautiful lake and river to recreate on. Project supported by community organizations will result in fixing Chicago’s Public Health Hazard one step at a time.
All in all, ingenious designs like the reversal of the Chicago River to the Awarded projects of the Riverline are what will help forge Chicago’s Future as a leader in Urban Sustainability and Design.