In early September of this year, advance word was distributed to a myriad of Chicago area organizations of a pending presentation of interest to those concerned with the future of Chicago’s three river systems: the Chicago River, the Calumet River, and the Des Plaines River. This presentation in late September was in effect a report of studies and discussions over recent years coordinated by the Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council and directed towards enhancing multiple uses of these urban waterways. In attendance at this Roundtable Discussion were around one hundred representatives from public and private organizations, including “yours truly” from the Illinois Paddling Council. While I doubt that heretofore many, if any, IPC members were aware of this developing study and planning effort, I am glad to report on what I have learned about the intended future of our “Great Rivers.”
Study objectives over the next 25 years include development of enhanced recreational use of these rivers and their adjoining shorelines, including paddlesport and even swimming. Indeed, there are some individuals now swimming in sections of these rivers, including some of the planning study leadership. In some other cities which now include radiation in the treatment of their wastewater, river swimming is even more commonplace.
However, enhanced and varied recreational opportunity is not the only objective of the planning effort. Some sections of all three of these rivers will provide for transportation of both people and enhanced barge traffic. Still other sections will evolve into increased residential, industrial, park land, commercial usage or in some cases, remain as forested riverfront for both human recreation and colonization by wildlife. The Metropolitan Planning Council is hoping now to expand and organize further the development of these riverfront resources.
Unaware in the 1970s and 80s that formal governmental interest was developing in the retention of a portion of this forested riverfront, some of the paddlesport community nevertheless became involved in the Cook County Clean Streams Committee. This group consisted of both river preservationists and government representatives who met monthly at Forest Preserve Headquarters to alert one another to sources of stream pollution and the accumulation of natural and man-made debris and to seek resolution of these intrusions on what few examples of “municipal wilderness” remained.
More recently, Don Mueggenborg and I have appeared at several meetings of the Forest Preserves of Cook County Board (aka the Cook County Board) to present requests on behalf of the IPC and the Des Plaines Marathon for removal of lingering low rise dams and the enactment of other measures to enhance use by the paddlesport community. Friends of the Chicago River has been a vigorous member of the Metropolitan Planning Commission and has very effectively engaged the public in river involvement and advocacy, as has the Chicago Harbor Safety Committee.
What Next? We all need to watch for word of further activity by the Metropolitan Planning Commission and offer whatever opinions and input we can muster! This planning effort is not solely an attempt to convert the 150 plus miles of the Chicago, Des Plaines, and Calumet Rivers within Chicago to the equivalent of wild and scenic rivers. Rather, it is an effort to work together to coordinate the planning and enactment of associated residential, industrial, transportation, and recreational uses along those many miles of riverfront.
And so, with all of this river-related Chicago planning underway on many fronts, what new projects were announced at the Roundtable for which public or private interests are actively moving ahead? Well, for the moment, none that I could tell. However, one idea expressed that seemed relatively possible to a non-planner like me was the establishment of barge-based floating cafes or theaters to attract more people to more sections of rivers than provided by current tour boats and canoe/kayak rental and launching sites. The potential interest of more people with more money and more imagination being exposed to a river does increase the likelihood of outcomes consistent with this planning.
Meanwhile, Lake County Forest Preserve has removed the two remaining low-rise dams on its Des Plaines River, rendering the DP River Canoe and Kayak Marathon dam-free for the first time in its 60-year-history.
We can certainly be grateful for the participation in this discussion of Josh Ellis, a Director of the Metropolitan Planning Council and leader of the Roundtable Discussion, and the four discussion panelists: Kim Wasserman-Nieto of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, John Quail – Director of Watershed Planning for Friends of the Chicago River, Arnold Randall – Superintendent of the Forest Preserves of Cook County, and David Reifman – Commissioner for the Chicago Department of Planning and Development.
…. Jack Snarr