Building better cities for better Great Lakes
About this time last week we were wrapping up Infrastructures for Change, a three-way effort with our friends at Archeworks and Openlands. Our immediate goal was to challenge the design and policy worlds to cooperatively invent better designed cities that work with natural systems to conserve energy and sustain diminishing natural resources, particularly the Great Lakes. Longer-term, we're hoping to cultivate architectural, design and engineering stewardship, and to develop pilot projects throughout the region—think wetland restoration in Waukegan, EcoBouelvards in Chicago, or business parks in Gary that are off the municipal water grid and instead recycle their own water—that demonstrate a commitment to sustainability, but also to harnessing the economic development asset that is the Great Lakes.
Approximately 140 people attended the day-long forum, which was keynoted by Cameron Davis, U.S. EPA's Great Lakes czar, for whom ecological restoration and economic revitalization go hand in hand. The same theme carried over to the first panel, "Crises are Avoidable." For decades, cities and regions all along the Great Lakes turned their back on them, building rail lines, highways, airports, and factories on their lake shore, creating both physical and psychological detachment. A vicious cycle of
diminished public interest, water quality degradation, invasive species movement, and a host of other problems, ensued.
Chicago, Milwaukee and other Great Lakes cities have begun to turn back toward the lakes, but it's a work in progress. John Swanson, Executive Director of the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission, examined his region's efforts to reorient itself. The Marquette Plan, Indiana's vision for lake shore reinvestment, aims for recapturing 75 percent of the shoreline for public access, improved water quality, and business growth.
Martin Felsen, Director of Archeworks, laid out an innovative, but inherently contentious, idea for attracting sustainability-minded business growth. Free Water Districts—industrial and manufacturing zones where abundant water is given to business who commit to the highest standards of conservation, efficiency and waste recycling—could encourage both re-densification of disinvested cities like Cleveland, Detroit and Gary, but simultaneously cultivate a culture of stewardship. Of course, the water isn't actually free. The internal costs of recycling waste water, harvesting rainwater, and managing storm water on site would be paid by the user. The concept effectively decentralizes water resources management, giving the business every incentive to be efficient while ensuring that our shared water resources are protected.
The idea of free, or even cheaper water, would normally be anathema to conservationists and free-market proponents alike (of which I am one). But there's an interesting case to be made for the idea. Places like Atlanta, Houston and Phoenix, no matter how many rivers they divert and low-flow toilets they install, will eventually see their water demand surpass available supply. It's just a matter of time. For most Great Lakes cities (the Chicago region being the notable exception, see below), the fact that they use lake water, clean it, and put it back in the lakes extends the usefulness of the resource immensely. For the good of the country, it makes sense over the next century to re-densify the Great Lakes region. Additionally, places like Milwaukee may have lost population, but they haven't lost pipes or pumps. In many situations, infrastructure systems design for much larger populations are now serving, and being paid for, by reduced numbers of people and business. Milwaukee could double the number of people serves, putting all that water back into Lake Michigan, and not have to increase system capacity. One of the other speakers, Claus Dunkelberg of the Milwaukee Water Council, explained the rationale behind seeking an exemption authority so that the water utility could selectively charge lower rates to new businesses, assuming they maintained the highest standards of efficiency out there... not too dissimilar from Felsen's Free Water Districts idea.
Which brings us to the Chicago region, and to the forum's final panel, which I was fortunate enough to kick off and facilitate. Asian carp, and more recently the Obama's Administration's comments on Chicago River water quality, have focused sudden and unprecedented attention from the media and a diverse array of stakeholders squarely on the Chicago Area Waterway System. For the first time in 110 years, argued Todd Main, Senior Policy Advisor at the Ill. Dept. of Natural Resources, serious people are talking seriously about whether or not Illinois still needs to divert water out of Lake Michigan, and whether it might even be possible to re-reverse the Chicago River. "It's a conversation we need to have," said Main, "and you, the design folks of the world, have to help us policymakers figure it out." I couldn't agree more, and the sentiment seems to be growing.
Setting aside invasive species and water quality concerns, the fact of the matter is that because Illinois and the Chicago region divert water out of Lake Michigan, the U.S. Supreme Court has limited our annual withdrawals to 3,200 cubic feet per second. As of 2005, we were using approximately 85 percent of our allowable limit. However, as regional population grows, and as other water resources such as subsurface aquifers and surface rivers are stretched to their limits, Illinois will begin to bump up against its Lake Michigan cap.
Places like Toronto and Milwaukee, which recycle their water, do not have the same constraints we do. As long as they return their water to the lakes, they can use as much as they want. So, while the whole Great Lakes region has a distinct competitive advantage over other parts of the U.S. and world in coming decades, Illinois will not be as well positioned.
So. Can the Chicago region simultaneously protect the Great Lakes and maximize their possible benefits? Yes. That's what stewardship is, and that's why discussions like Infrastructures for Change are so important. Policy facilitates innovative design, and design enables policy. That's the virtuous cycle we're trying to start.