Planning Chicago’s Riverfronts - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Planning Chicago’s Riverfronts


The city should deepen its support for the riverfront planning vision outlined in Our Great Rivers. Chicago is fortunate to have three very different rivers—the Des Plaines, Calumet and the Chicago. All three rivers are located within City of Chicago boundaries and, if treated as an asset, have the potential bring a range of benefits, from recreational to economic to ecological, to Chicagoans. The rivers run through 20 of Chicago’s 50 wards, and more than 394,000 people (15 percent of the city’s population) live within half a mile of one of the rivers. The Our Great Rivers vision, co-created by the Metropolitan Planning Council, Friends of the Chicago River, and the City of Chicago and funded by the Chicago Community Trust, The Joyce Foundation, Arcelor Mittal and other corporate and philanthropic sponsors, outlines goals through 2040 to make the rivers more inviting, productive, and living. This vision represents the desires of more than 6,000 individuals who participated in surveys, town-hall style meetings, and experiential outings to give feedback. Many of the goals in Our Great Rivers are underway due to the hard work of various city and regional agencies, civic and community organizations, foundations, and private developers. Continued progress on these goals—including making important riverfront investments beyond downtown—needs support and coordination led by the Mayor and the city government.

Calumet River

The south side has been historically neglected when it comes to focusing on environmental issues related to waterway and land contamination. The Calumet River itself has been excluded from conversations about how to improve Chicago’s rivers and riverfront. One example is the recent Executive Order authorized to create a Chicago River Ecology Governance Group, which includes the Little Calumet River but does not directly name other portions of the Calumet River system as an area of focus.

Recommendation: The city should include the Calumet River system (including the Little Calumet River, Grand Calumet River, Calumet River, and Lake Calumet) and adjacent parcels in its conversations about project implementation, stewardship and maintenance. Due to the rich natural assets and industrial history of the region, apparent in sites such as the Forest Preserves’ Beaubien Woods, Chicago Housing Authority’s Altgeld Gardens neighborhood, and the Illinois International Port District, remediation of past and current contamination and industrial pollutants should be prioritized.

Recommendation: DPD should create Calumet River Design Guidelines, similar to what was created for the Chicago River, to ensure new development benefits the community.   

Chicago River Ecology and Governance Group

Projects and actions occurring along Chicago’s rivers are not nearly as coordinated as they could and should be to achieve the larger vision described in Our Great Rivers. Implementing larger scale planning projects and frameworks—and doing so in an equitable way—will require the active participation and collaboration of multiple agencies and increased decision-making for community groups. It is vital that local stakeholders form the foundation for a regional rivers coordination system. Communities need to have a say in what happens in their neighborhoods and across the city. There are no binding agreements that compel city agencies to work together or include neighborhood stakeholders. The Great Rivers Chicago Implementation Committee—formed in 2016 and coordinated by the Metropolitan Planning Council—has been a good first step toward bringing agencies and stakeholders to the table to collaborate on executing project and planning work. The Executive Order launching the Chicago River Ecology and Governance Group provides a platform on which to develop a more comprehensive coordination body, but it needs to be structured in a way that is equitable and sustainable.

Recommendation: The city should move forward with creating the Chicago River Ecology and Governance Group, but should issue a revision to include the Calumet River. This group should include a combination of governmental and non-governmental stakeholders. Participating city and regional agencies should establish memoranda of understanding (MOUs) to ensure that they are required to cooperate with each other to move projects forward collaboratively. This group should be structured to include local implementation advisory committees established to be stewards of the Our Great Rivers vision, as well as spokespeople for local concerns. The heads of these committees would be part of the regional rivers coordination system, and each local committee would represent a distinct stretch of the rivers. This body should ultimately streamline coordination for river and riverfront projects. These community stakeholders should represent perspectives concerning economic development, affordable housing, health and environmental justice. Local and community groups included within the composition of the Governance Group should have true decision-making power regarding project selection, project financing, maintenance, and stewardship decisions.

Recommendation: The city should prioritize riverfront improvements that include housing, transportation, equity, remediation, safety, health, economic development and broader environmental concerns. See “Start Racial Equity Framework for Chicago” for more information on how these types of tools can guide decision-making.

Our Great Rivers

Our Great Rivers was a collaborative effort amongst the government, civic stakeholders, and the larger community, that created a shared vision with goals and action steps to guide the beginning of project implementation across the river system. There has been great initial success in gaining momentum and traction on improvements, such as revising the city’s river edge design guidelines and implementing local projects, such as riverfront art and programming, that make a difference in the way that neighborhoods engage with their rivers. Existing and future projects will need the support of the new mayoral administration to continue and grow.

Recommendation: The city should energetically support and engage in projects and planning efforts that have momentum and are aligned with the Our Great Rivers vision document. The city should work on a master trail plan, remediate land along the rivers, reduce combined sewer overflow events, coordinate and support local community projects, ensure that new development adheres to the Chicago River Design Guidelines, and participate in Illinois Port District Planning.


100 Day Actions
  • Declaration stating that the Mayor is supportive of work to enhance the Chicago river system and will continue to support improvement efforts
  • Working Group structures and provides organization to the function of the Governance Group
  • MOUs and agreements are put in place for agencies and departments to collaborate
  • Industrial Corridor Plans involving portions of the Chicago river system, such as the Little Village Industrial Corridor Framework Plan, should include projects and goals aligned with Our Great Rivers, such as initiatives to create litter and odor free rivers, improve water quality, and a focus on environmental remediation
First Year Actions and Goals
  • Governance Group official meetings begin
  • Governance Group is structured to include local stakeholders and government agencies. Group begins coordination of projects that align with principles of Our Great Rivers and consider implementation, programming, maintenance, stewardship and remediation needs
  • 3 to 5 Initial projects are agreed upon and begin moving to implementation
  • City’s trail planning gap analysis is used to develop a strategic framework for riverfront trails and secondary connections
  • Review financial tools such as the Riverfront Improvement Fund and Open Space Impact Fees for potential revisions to make it easier to fund riverfront improvements
  • Champion and actively engage in the master plan for the Illinois International Port District
First Term Goals
  • Calumet River Design Guidelines have been completed and approved
  • Strategic framework for riverfront trails and secondary connections is 50 percent complete
  • Water quality plans are developed for all stretches of the river system
  • 3 to 5 projects that have been vetted through the Governance Group have been completed and have accompanying plans for continued support. These projects have broad community support and are equitably located across neighborhood areas.
  • All of the goals defined in Our Great Rivers for 2020 have been achieved, this includes, but is not limited to, creating new financial tools for project implementation and maintenance, water quality plans for all stretches of the rivers, management of invasive species, remediation of former industrial areas.

Additional Considerations

Why the time is right

The past couple of years have shown that there is great interest in rethinking the Chicago waterways. Philanthropic investments, such as those provided by the Chicago Community Trust, are supporting community and civic organization-led projects to improve the rivers. Local neighborhood successes such as the Major Taylor Trail / Whistler Woods Mural and the Ping Tom Park / Chinatown Mural are bringing more attention to the possibilities of riverfront placemaking. Public and private developments such as the additions to the downtown Riverwalk, the new boathouses at Park 571 and Clark Park, and the River Line and South Bank units are raising the bar for recreation, tourism, and residential opportunities along the rivers. Community members are beginning to see the recreational, ecological and economic development potential of the rivers and riverfronts. This is part of growing trend across the country and this new valuation of the River system is occurring in cities like New York, Los Angeles, and other peer cities. Our Great Rivers lays out goals at the milestone years of 2020, 2030, and 2040. The first milestone is next year, and we should keep the momentum going so that objectives are achieved through 2040.

What it will take

Will require active leadership from the Office of the Mayor and engaged participation from city departments (DPD, CDOT, Park District) as well as regional agencies (MWRD, Forest Preserves of Cook County), civic organizations, local community groups on the Governance Group

  • Will require binding agreements put in place between city departments and regional agencies compelling them to coordinate and collaborate on the Governance Group
  • May require reorganization of city departments to provide the staff resources necessary to ensure that Governance Group is properly managed
  • Will require deployment of financial tools like Open Space Impact fees, as well as development of new tools to remediate, implement, steward and maintain projects
Alignment with other Initiatives and Priorities of City or Partners
  • Need to determine how this would align with the re-creation of a Department of the Environment
  • Unclear how this would align with a reorganization of DPD and new emphasis on planning. Ideally, the planning and community engagement functions would be captured in some of the larger neighborhood and comprehensive planning efforts.
Other considerations
  • 2020 Milestone: 1 year into first term, great opportunity to celebrate how many 2020 Our Great Rivers goals have been achieved and show progress on 2030 and 2040 goals.

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