July 04 2013

Chicago’s Polluted and Under-used Waterways


The South Branch of the Chicago River

Chicago’s relationship with its river is a conflicted one. Chicago was only chosen as a settlement site due to the possibility of joining two major watersheds, that of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River to the Mississippi River. The waterway that made the city possible took the abuse of explosive population growth and rapid industrialization, often flooding and spreading disease. Now, in the twenty-first century, planners are reconsidering the river as an urban amenity.

In the nineteenth century, the south branch of the river accepted waste from the city’s meatpacking industry.  In Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle, the river is described as one choked with grease and offal waste from the meatpacking plants, and was known to bubble with methane gas and occasionally catch fire. While the river is cleaner than it once was, Chicago’s millions still use it for sewage, getting their drinking water from Lake Michigan. Matthew Power, writing for OnEarth, frames the contemporary Chicago River dilemma perfectly:

“That struggle is between two competing visions. One is remedial and pragmatic, the province of engineers and bureaucrats. In their eyes, the river can and should be cleaned up only to the point where it can operate as a safe, functional waterway that exists to meet the demands placed on it by commerce, flood control, and the dispersal of wastewater.

In the alternate vision, however, the river meets all of these demands – and more. Its proponents seek nothing less than to turn the Chicago River into a civic treasure, its newly cleaned banks lined with parks and homes and restored ecosystems, its very presence a clear and shimmering symbol of a great city built on making, trading, connecting: a symbol of American history’s inexorable flow toward progress. And in the bargain, they seek to make the river a living – and flourishing – example of environmental innovation and ecological stewardship, one that generations of Chicagoans will cherish.”

The proposed Riverwalk project may be a first step to reclaiming the river for all.

A rendering of the proposed Riverwalk project

A rendering of the proposed Riverwalk project

How have other cities revived disused waterways?

Credit: Photos by Andrew Kinaci or linked to source.

Andrew Kinaci

After graduating from Princeton University with an A.B. in Architecture and a Certificate in Urban Studies, Andrew Kinaci set out to the Midwest to break out of the insular world of academia, and into the direct service of non-profit work. After a year working on Chicago’s West Side with a social enterprise specializing in re-entry employment training for ex-felons, Andrew now works for an organization conducting energy audits of multi-family affordable housing buildings. He will be blogging about the many ways Chicago is seeking a more sustainable and equitable urban future.

This entry was posted on Thursday, July 4th, 2013 at 9:35 am and is filed under Engineering, Environment, History/Preservation, Land Use, Urban Development/Real Estate, Urban Planning and Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


2 Responses to “Chicago’s Polluted and Under-used Waterways”

  1. Ibraim Zacura Says:

    Hi Andrew,
    I work as a naval surveyor in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and I am studying to get my master degree in Transports Engineering here in Rio.

    I´ve been researching about urban waterways around the world and found your article about Chicago, which is very interesting!
    Is there any study of cargo transportation through Chicago river waterway? Or is it already beeing used to transport cargo?
    Thanks in advance.

    Ibraim Zacura

  2. Andrew Kinaci Says:

    Ibraim, the river is certainly still used to transport cargo. It’s a federally maintained waterway, and I’ve often seen barges travelling up or down the river. Some quick searching yielded this study, which may help you: http://glmris.anl.gov/documents/docs/GLMRIS_Baseline_Cargo.pdf

    Thanks for reading!

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