The Chicago region is turning its attention back to our long-neglected rivers. Manager of Health Equity and Planning Chloe Gurin-Sands asked leaders what they hope to see from our riverfronts over the next decade. Can you guess what their biggest overarching ideas are?
Over the past five years, a number of marquee projects along Chicago’s riverfronts—such as new sections of the downtown Riverwalk, Eleanor Boathouse at Park 571 in Bridgeport, the new riverwalk at Lathrop in West Lakeview, and Major Taylor Trail mural in West Pullman—have helped to reorient our city to its long-neglected rivers. Now that these site-specific improvements have brought our attention back to the rivers, the people and organizations working to improve our waterways are increasingly calling for more systemic approaches to solving complex riverfront issues.
That’s one important theme MPC heard when we recently interviewed riverfront leaders who are funded by the Chicago Community Trust’s Our Great Rivers grant. We asked what the region’s riverfront leaders want to see on our rivers over the next decade, and what steps are necessary to achieve these goals. Three overarching ideas emerged:
- Riverfront leaders want a system-wide approach to riverfront planning;
- Riverfront leaders want to prioritize environmental health and justice;
- In order to realize these aspirations, leaders want more coordination, alignment, and support at the City level.
A system-wide approach to riverfront planning
Our riverfront leaders want people to start understanding the rivers as a system, and treating it as such. Some of the complex issues they want to see addressed include creating physical and cultural connections between riverfront destinations, building unbroken networks of pedestrian and transit connections, and whole-neighborhood planning that elevates the asset of the river through economic development, recreation, arts, and culture.
These complex issues need to be addressed with a sense of urgency, especially as the City of Chicago moves into a citywide planning process and hopefully begins moving toward economic recovery from COVID-19.
Prioritizing environmental health and justice
Riverfront leaders want to see projects supporting ecological and human health along the rivers. Ensuring the quality of the water itself and the health of the humans and wildlife that live nearby is paramount. Future efforts should include coming into compliance with—and strengthening—water quality and other environmental standards; identifying, curbing, and remediating sources of pollution; and creating stronger riverfront land use and development standards. Many want to see these projects targeted along the still largely industrial Calumet and Little Calumet rivers, as well as the South Branch of the Chicago River, knowing that they will improve the river system as a whole.
The interplay of environmental health and economic development in our City is not lost on riverfront leaders. In the next 10 years, they want to see more creative and diversified job opportunities along the rivers; jobs that turn conservation and recreation into careers that protect and improve our natural assets and people. For example, constructing stormwater infrastructure on riverfront sites in conjunction with training programs for jobs maintaining that infrastructure. Our rivers have the ability to shift the job landscape in Chicago, address climate change, and improve economic development together.
Coordination, alignment, and support from government partners
With these 10-year riverfront goals in mind, we asked our partners how the public sector can amplify the progress that is already being made, especially those initiatives driven by community-based partners. Across the board, riverfront partners desire more coordination, and alignment with government partners to ensure that the City’s planning efforts reflect community-led efforts to improve the waterways. There is a need for City staff to deeply engage with neighborhood efforts before and beyond the timeframe of any city-led planning projects, building sustained relationships, and establishing a trusting relationship.
Political will and financial support are necessary as we embark on a system-wide approach for riverfront planning, focusing on environmental health and justice, and improving coordination and alignment with government partners. MPC will continue to advocate for stronger partnerships and alignment via the River Ecology & Governance Task Force, a multi-sector roundtable of riverfront stakeholders tasked with advising on and implementing riverfront projects and priorities. We will keep encouraging public, private, and philanthropic sectors to fund both high-profile projects such as heritage areas, public art, and destinations, as well as those that often go unseen, such as planning efforts.