Rio Chicagoua

The Chicago River has been utilized as a landmark by different peoples as a source for transportation, food, and as a wasteland. The river’s name comes from the indigenous word “chicagoua,” which refers to the wild garlic that grew on its banks. The indigenous groups inhabiting the areas of the Chicago River valued the river because of the resources it provided for them, rivers are sacred to indigenous populations because rivers mean life, communication, and transportation.


Taken from the American Indian Center in Ravenswood.

After colonization and the harsh displacement of the native Indians the opportunity to industrialize grew rapidly and as did the pollution and contamination of the Chicago River. During the 19th Century, meatpacking plants and the stockyards used the river as a drainage system with two sewers, one of them infamously known as “Bubbly Creek” emptying directly into the South Branch of the river. Water from the South Branch upstream of the stockyards was used as a source of fresh water for cattle troughs. According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, “by the 1870s the dumping of waste from industrial and commercial development led to visible signs of pollution and increased concern about threats the river posed to public health. Between 1889 and 1910 the Metropolitan Sanitary District of Greater Chicago completed two major engineering projects to direct the flow of the river into the Des Plaines River and divert wastes away from Lake Michigan.” It is hard to believe that the indigenous people of the area would desecrate and toxify the living ecosystem that is the Chicago River that made their lives possible.

The Nayarit sustainability plan’s “primary goal was to foster a process of development that would not destroy the environment (Murphy, 1992; Basiago, 1994).” It is important that Chicago acknowledges this goal when dealing with their action plan. The 15th goal of the Sustainable Chicago 2015 action plan is to “Transform the Chicago River into Chicago’s 2nd Waterfront”. The key actions include adding riverfront trails, creating new recreational opportunities (including the construction of four new boathouses), and supporting the disinfection of sewage discharged into the Chicago River.


As of 1848 the Illinois & Michigan canal connected the Chicago River to the Des Plaines River, which empties to the Illinois River then flows to the Mississippi River (pictured).

If we are to begin a conversation on sustainability & conservation, we must address the human impact on the environment over time. What was the impact of indigenous cultures and what is the contemporary human impact on the Chicago River. What other non-human species call the river and its surrounding areas home? What species have gone or are going extinct because of man-made habitat destruction? What animal or plant species have been impacted? What indigenous human groups have been impacted by this environmental destruction? We can learn about indigenous cultures and their relationship to the biosphere to help protect and conserve it.Human supremacy has long been the dominant ideological framework from which we operate- but the time is now to come to terms that the Earth does not serve crude human desire but rather the human is part of a larger, intricate, and very much alive network called the biosphere. All of our environments and habitats are intricately connected- the fact that our rivers are polluted and dying suggests we should take a step back from our contemporary human supremacist perspective that values economic growth over the lives- both human and non-human- that depend (or depended) on the river for livelihood.


Economic, social, and environmental sustainability in development theory and urban planning practice reading from Week 8.


3 thoughts on “Rio Chicagoua

  1. YES! I honestly thought I was the only one who knew the nasty story of the Chicago River aka Ye Ole Sewer System. I think I heard on the news a couple of years ago that on some scale of clean -to-poison, the Chicago River is one above poison. And that upgrade was only recent.

    It really sucks that such a great resource that was a godsend to the people who lived here was ruined by settlers. It sucks even more that almost 200 years later, we are left with the aftermath. It really shows us how consequences of hurting our environment can literally stick around for generations. And who knows if the river will ever be cleaned up.


  2. Good blog bringing attention to one of Chicago’s beleaguered treasures. It’s very sad that one of the reasons Chicago became the city it is has been left in ruin. The Chicago River is one the predominant reasons the city became a transportation hub in the 19th and 20th Century. It was the gateway from the East-Great Lakes to the West and South all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. The lumber trade that created the cities along the Mississippi and beyond past through the Chicago River many years before Rail Roads and Highways were an idea. There’s been some improvement and I venture to say that the walk ways by lower Wacker drive could give it some stellar and much needed attention.


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