Repairing the Chicago River

By Jonathan Midgett | Sustainable Living, Urban Design

In most American cities, water plays an important role as a source of transportation, communication, and the overall urban well being through generating a decent water supply for residences and green spaces. However, many of these waterways are in crisis. Certain urban waterways are located near heavy industry or large ports leaving some of them uninhabitable for aquamarine life and in most cases unsuitable for swimming. City harbors, canals, ports, and channels are all in crisis due to their original purpose: to serve industry and provide transportation between other major cities.

History of the Chicago River

Chicago – the third largest city in the US – contains many waterways of which aided greatly in the growth and development of the city and most of the midwest. The Chicago River is a system of several canals stretching 156 miles. The main artery of the river system is located in the center of the city and serves as a gateway to the Great Lakes. The river is also well known for its natural and manmade history as the flow of the river was redirected to empty onto the Mississippi river. The river not only served as a way of transporting goods, but also as a way of managing stormwater to prevent floods from devastating the city. The river has supported the city since the mid 1800’s until today. However, it has done so at a cost.


The Chicago River at city center. Image via Mark Hoffman,

Problems at the Chicago River

Because of its heavy use by industry, the river still remains to be a problem for the public. As mentioned in Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, the river became filthy and unsightly due to the meatpacking industry in the 1900’s. “Bubbles of carbonic gas will rise to the surface and burst, and make rings two or three feet wide. Here and there the grease and filth have caked solid, and the creek looks like a bed of lava; chickens walk about on it, feeding, and many times an unwary stranger has started to stroll across and vanished temporarily.” Today, the river is not as unsightly as it was several decades ago. However, the stench and greyish brown hue still remain a problem for the city’s waterway.

Pollution is not the only problem facing the urban waterway. Asian carp, a highly invasive species, has presented a new problem for the water system. Originally introduced as a way of getting rid of weeds and bacteria, Asian carp has grown in population significantly and is threatening other less defensive species as well as the water quality of the Chicago River and the Great Lakes. In addition, another 39 invasive species have also been reported to exist in the Chicago water system and have been migrating to the area via the connection between the Chicago canal system and the Mississippi River.

 Solutions for the Chicago River

So what exactly is being done to save the river? Healthy Water Solutions is a coalition of stakeholders in Illinois working to restore the state’s water systems and create awareness around the Chicago River system. According to their website, a multi-year strategy is now underway and will widen the Chicago sewage tunnels and storm water reservoirs to reduce the frequency of polluting sewer overflows into Lake Michigan. Chicago is also the only city that dilutes its sewage without treating it, allowing untreated waste to expel back into the Chicago River system. A new initiative is being developed to treat Chicago’s sewage by using ultraviolet light to kill bacteria. In addition, river barriers that would block the migration of Asian carp to the great lakes have also been under development for the water system. The latest development on the Chicago River has sparked the interest of architect, Jeanne Gang, who sees this project as an opportunity to make the Chicago water system greener. Gang, along with the Harvard Graduate School of Design, looks further into the possible design alternatives, in her book, Reverse Effect which also includes commentary from Chicago residents and members of the NRDC.

The Chicago River holds great significance to the greater Chicago area as a gateway to one of the most abundant source of fresh water in the country. The development to the Chicago River both on a large and small scale serves as a great example to other major water systems in the Midwest and all over the US.

About The Author

Originally from the rural suburbs of Maryland, Jonathan Terrell Midgett has always had a curiosity for urban life. His exposure to city life in the areas of Richmond, Washington D.C and Baltimore, would later lead him to travel throughout his college career. Jonathan began studying at Virginia Commonwealth University and then later transferred to Towson University where he would gain his Bachelors of Science in Metropolitan Studies. While studying at Towson, Jonathan studied urban design in Denmark at the Danish Institute for Studies Abroad. Currently, Jonathan is a freelance photographer and is enrolled in the Graduate Architecture program at Morgan State. He continues to express his love for urbanism and sustainable design through academics, Research, and freelance photography.