Enhancing Chicago's rivers through guidelines and governance - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Enhancing Chicago's rivers through guidelines and governance

Image courtesy of Studio Gang

Studio Gang's concept for reclaiming the river near Congress Parkway as part of River Edge Ideas Lab

Development along Chicago’s riverfronts has been increasing in recent years. This growth reveals the need for better coordination across our riverfronts, from their accessibility to their amenities. The City of Chicago and Great Rivers Chicago partners both recognize this need and are working to achieve this. Just this year, in January, the City achieved two milestones that have the potential to be transformative. Mayor Emanuel announced an Executive Order to create the Chicago River Ecology and Governance Group, and the Chicago Plan Commission passed Department of Planning and Development’s revised Chicago River Design Guidelines.

Both of these milestones advance the goals of Our Great Rivers, a vision document MPC and partners released in 2016 that outlines goals and plans for activating, improving and enhancing the Chicago, Calumet and Des Plaines Rivers. MPC, in collaboration with the City and other partners, led the development of this plan, and we are pleased to see continued momentum for implementing the recommendations.

A sounding board for river-related projects: the Chicago River Ecology and Governance Group

Development along Chicago’s riverfronts has been increasing in recent years. This growth reveals the need for better coordination across our riverfronts, from their accessibility to their amenities.

The Executive Order initiating the creation of the Chicago River Ecology and Governance Group calls for the Department of Planning and Development to work with multiple agencies, including the Park District, Forest Preserve District, and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District to establish a group that will be responsible for coordination, management, planning, programming, and stewardship of Chicago’s rivers. The need for this type of entity was strongly articulated in Our Great Rivers as a way to implement, fund and maintain river-related projects in a coordinated way.  

To ensure successful project execution, this group must be structured to equitably benefit the communities adjacent to Chicago’s rivers. We at MPC, based on the recommendations in Our Great Rivers, are actively pushing for a structure that includes significant participation from local stakeholders and public agencies. This will be the most effective and efficient way to approach coordination for the most positive ecological and social outcomes.  As part of outlining the need for local input as the backbone and structure of this coordinating group, the Our Great Rivers recommendation articulated the following: “It is vital that local stakeholders form the foundation for a regional rivers coordination system, whatever form the latter takes. A handful of local implementation advisory committees should be established in order to be stewards of the Our Great Rivers vision, as well as spokespeople for local concerns. In essence, they would reflect the distinct users and would-be users of that stretch of river.” As the City and partner organizations engage in determining the best way for this group to function, its purpose and responsibilities, the need for local representation and decision-making influence should be top of mind. Overall, MPC is excited to see the City take this first step towards creating a Governance Group and are optimistic that it will streamline project implementation for all communities along our valuable waterways. 

Standards for reclaiming the river as an aesthetic and recreational resource: Chicago River Design Guidelines

Good news was followed by even better news for Chicago’s Rivers when the Chicago Planning Commission officially adopted revised Chicago River Design Guidelines the same day as the Executive Order to create the Governance Group. Drafted by the Department of Planning and Development, the guidelines update and replace the previous version that had been used since 2005. The development of these guidelines was directly, and intentionally, informed by the River Edge Ideas Lab, a partnership of MPC and the Department of Planning and Development. Through the Ideas Lab, nine design firms developed concepts for future river edge development, with more than 11,500 people visiting the exhibit and more than 500 members of the public weighing in with their preferences via an online survey. The public comments and priorities were considered in the development and drafting of the revised guidelines. 

This achievement fulfills one of the goals of Our Great Rivers centering on creating new design standards for riverfront habitat as well as public accessibility and use. They outline requirements and expectations for developments along the river to enhance Chicago’s riverfronts for all users. These requirements are intended to help provide public access and recreation opportunities while restoring the ecological environment and creating a consistent visual aesthetic for the riverfront.

Any new development along the riverfront will be required to comply with the standards set forth in the guidelines. One of the main requirements calls for developers to provide a minimum 30-foot setback from the river for most projects and emphasizes creating walking and biking trails that are publically accessible. The guidelines also emphasize the importance of ecological restoration, requiring developments to improve the shoreline of the river to encourage wildlife habitats and a healthy river ecosystem.  

As the guidelines continued to take shape, MPC staff were active in providing feedback and input. We particularly appreciated the addition of the Menu of Improvement Items, a section that outlines a wide range of possible upgrades new developments should include. The guidelines arrange the potential improvements into three categories: Nature, Recreation, and Connectivity, and provide examples for each item, so that they are easy to understand and implement. The Nature category emphasizes improvements that will enhance and increase upland and aquatic habitats and open space, while Recreation promotes the creation of additional recreational areas, access to the water and amenities, and Connectivity facilitates movement through improved pedestrian connections to streets and neighborhoods. The guidelines are a significant step towards requiring and encouraging river and riverfront improvements that will help address a broad range of goals outlined in Our Great Rivers, making our river system more inviting, living and productive.

The initiation of the Governance Group and revised river design guidelines are just two of the goals that have made significant progress since 2016. Stay tuned for more information on our other achievements we have reached in implementing Our Great Rivers, as we move closer to 2020 and the plan’s first milestone year.

Joshua Zietse, an MPC Research Assistant and student at Dordt College, contributed to this post. 

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