Residents play a vital role in making our rivers great - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Residents play a vital role in making our rivers great

South Chicago residents exploring the Ewing Avenue & 92nd Street site along the Calumet River during a workshop in April

Along the Calumet River, residents in South Chicago are reimaging their riverfront as a first step in fostering renewed attention and connections between their community and its water. One opportunity area is a parcel at Ewing Avenue and the 92nd Street bridge along the Calumet River, which was the focus of a half-day planning workshop and site tour earlier this spring where residents shared ideas for activating the site.

“If we want residents to care about the environment and clean rivers, they need to be able to see and engage with the river,” says Alderwoman Susan Sadowski Garza (10th Ward), who is a strong partner in Great Rivers Chicago and wants to see more initiatives moving forward that connect residents with the Calumet River.

Stop and think about it. How many times have you passed over, walked alongside or driven nearby a stretch of the Calumet, Chicago or Des Plaines Rivers to get to your next destination? You probably didn’t even consider interacting with these incredible water assets. Or you didn’t see an easy way for you to do so.

At MPC, we heard from more than 6,000 Chicago residents (and some suburban neighbors, too) who participated in the Great Rivers Chicago community outreach. Their message was loud and clear: We want easier access, more recreational opportunities, more economic opportunities and improved environmental quality for our rivers. During our talks with communities, residents highlighted “better access to riverfronts” as one of their top five desires.

River access inconsistent today: Downtown and many north side neighborhoods have easy access to the river (dark purple), while most of the South Branch, Calumet and Des Plaines remain difficult (light purple) or impossible (no shading) to access.

So it’s not a lack of interest that’s preventing many residents from interacting with their community’s riverfront spaces. Rather, at the neighborhood level, the absence of signage, no open riverfront space, lack of trail connections or poor sidewalk conditions are just some of the physical barriers that hinder people from spending time along our rivers and working to make them better.

Engaging Communities

Chicago enjoys vast opportunities to break down the existing barriers along our rivers to make them more inviting, productive and living. It’s up to all of us to create new ways for people and nature to coexist—particularly in neighborhoods along historically polluted and abused river ecosystems, like in South Chicago, where the riverfront has remained industrial and lacks public access.

Community-based organizations, like Claretian Associates in South Chicago, are taking a leadership role in strategizing new opportunities along their riverfronts as part of efforts to reinvigorate the community. As one of a host of partners in implementing the Our Great Rivers vision, Angela Hurlock, executive director of Claretian Associates, is advocating for improved water access and engaging local residents in activating long-overlooked riverfront spaces.

“We’ve got to open minds," she says. "People think they know what we’re all about here in South Chicago, but there is so much more than all the negative stereotypes and what they see on the news. We are also all these other great things."

Community leaders, like Angela, and residents will continue to make change happen throughout the rivers system. Their efforts will hopefully bring more attention to the unique riverfront and lakefront communities that are often overlooked.

Earlier this year, more than 140 neighbors, organizers, environmental groups and government agencies attended two “Ideas to Action” workshops hosted by Great Rivers Chicago on how to turn your riverfront into a neighborhood destination. The event focused on delivering practical resources like this riverfront activation toolkit, as well as expert advice from “coaches” in wide-ranging fields, so that residents were better equipped to activate their stretch of river.  

“Being a part of the workshop gave me the confidence and additional resources to take my ideas to the next step” says Julia Smith, who participated in one of the workshops and serves on the Horner Park Advisory Council. “I was on the right track, and walked away even more excited to go back to my neighbors to work on concrete restoration and riverfront access efforts.”

Back along the Calumet River, Great Rivers Chicago organized a community-wide planning workshop in April to talk about connecting the surrounding South Chicago community to a riverfront space at Ewing Avenue and the 92nd Street Bridge along the Calumet River. This site is a priority of Alderwoman Garza given that it would be the only public access point to the Calumet River between Lake Michigan and 130th at Hegewisch Marsh.

“The Calumet River has been here forever,” Alderwoman Garza says. “But we need access to it so people have ownership and will take an interest in the environment.”

Not only do neighbors want to access the Calumet River, participants at the planning workshop knew exactly what kind of new relationship they’d like to have with this natural asset in their backyard. Residents wanted to be able to sit close to the water, go fishing, enjoy a picnic, paint an art mural or take a break from a bike ride at the green space currently owned by the City of Chicago Department of Transportation. With the community involved in activating their riverfronts, a once-unused parcel of land on the Calumet River can turn into a meaningful gathering space where residents want to be.


The Way Forward

There is more work to be done. We need additional planning to improve public access to the parcel at Ewing Avenue and to a host of other riverfront sites throughout the Chicago region. However, one thing is clear about next steps: It’s at the community level where the most meaningful change is going to happen.

Residents are starting to think differently about the future of their rivers. They are tapping into personal motivations for taking a leading role in reclaiming these forgotten spaces for their communities. They recognize the quality-of-life benefits of connecting with green and blue spaces next door.

Brenda Dixon, a Board member of the Major Taylor Cycling Club of Chicago, attended the Ewing Avenue community planning workshop. She says that she's motivated to advance better access to our rivers for both her neighbors and those outside of her community who pass through while on the Major Taylor Bike Trail, which she frequently rides with her cycling club. “There is such opportunity to get more families outdoors, being healthy and more connected to what assets we do have here in the Calumet region, and the river can play a strong role in that,” she says.

Our rivers and riverfronts are now being seen as so much more than just a natural resource. They are places to gather together and create a sense of community, as well as spaces where local history and culture can be celebrated. Our rivers provide opportunities for business owners to generate income—providing goods and services to the community. They are recreational spaces where people can improve personal wellness by getting active outdoors. Our rivers are gateways to a higher connection to the natural world and its beauty and serenity.

Communities are leading how we reimagine and revitalize our rivers.

What does your nearest river or riverfront mean to you? Need some inspiration to answer that? Well, here’s a start: Get outside this summer and visit your stretch of the river to find out!

Check out our interactive maps for ideas for having fun on our rivers today. Imagine what would be cool to be able to do there this summer that you can’t currently do. Or what you’d like to see there maybe next summer or even 10 summers from now. Then ask yourself who else in your area might also like that opportunity and start exploring small next steps, which could be signing up with Great Rivers Chicago to stay informed about funding opportunities, planning resources, events and workshops.

Turning our rivers into the places we want them to be—and know they can become—requires everyone to get involved. But, as a very first step, let’s work on creating opportunities for everyone to see our rivers as a part of their daily lives, and how vital a role each of us can play in reclaiming our community’s stretch of the river for the myriad benefits to our quality of life.

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