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Reverse Effect: A Genius Solution for the Chicago River and Asian Carp from Jeanne Gang

Henry Henderson

Posted November 2, 2011

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Reverse Effect in productionThis week sees the release of a very important book by visionary architect Jeanne GangReverse Effect: Renewing Chicago’s Waterways. The book sprouts from the collaboration between Jeanne Gang, her excellent colleagues at Studio Gang, very smart students at Harvard’sGraduate School of Design, and NRDC’s Chicago office.

Several years ago when NRDC began the hard work needed to find solutions to the many problems that the Chicago River brings to the Great Lakes and the people of Chicago, I knew that we needed to fundamentally re-imagine  the role of the waterway within the City and the Great Lakes ecosystems. And we would have to rethink the fatal actions of 100 years ago, when the Chicago River was reversed so that it would send sewage and water-borne diseases away from the Lakes and into the Mississippi River.  Reverse Effect significantly moves that “rethinking” to a new level of sophistication.

This is a book about solutions. Solutions to the flooding and contaminated sewage that continues to flow into the Chicago River. Solutions to the looming threat of invasive species, particularly the insidious Asian carp attempting to use the Chicago River to access the Great Lakes. Solutions to quality of life problems that persist in many of our City’s neighborhoods, and are desperately in need of new amenities.

This stands as Jeanne’s first major public project since the MacArthur Foundation awarded her its “Genius” grant earlier in the year, and the book shows how appropriate the award is.  It outlines a powerful vision for what the river can do for Chicago---and how re-thinking the role of rivers in the urban environment can give birth to a new, life-expanding approach to our Nation’s waterways. The ideas are big. They are also practical. And they are grounded in what Americans have historically done to seize the future, improve our quality of life and expand opportunities for our society. The book reflects a deeply American approach to challenges: meeting them with enthusiasm, imagination and a pleasure in solving problems with the sort of “can do” intelligence necessary to battle the nested blights plaguing the troubled waterways: polluted water, flooded basements, closed beaches, and invasive species threatening the future of our fresh water.

In 2010, NRDC released a report focused on the twin goals of blocking invasive species and the need to clean up the Chicago River. Entitled “Re-Envisioning the Chicago River,” the report proposed physical barriers to restore the natural separation of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds to repel the movement of Asian carp into the Great Lakes, while also dealing with the region’s crumbling water infrastructure and the flooding problems created by its combined sewer overflows with a heavy emphasis on “green infrastructure” (the use of things like open space, green roofs, and permeable pavement to collect, hold and filter rainwater rather than dumping it into already over-taxed sewers and mixing it with sewage and other contaminants).

The report was Jeanne’s jumping off point for this book project. We were focused on immediate actions to address the invasive threat and flooding problems, in ways consistent with future reform of the failing existing infrastructure. But when Jeanne became engaged with the project, she began pressing forcefully on what those “future solutions” needed to be. She brought to the task a rich understanding and experience in combining environmental, engineering and design systems to drive improvement of urban environment. She chose to focus the work of the studio course she taught at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design in spring 2011, on the “redesign of the Chicago River.” The very able students in the class, drawn from all over the world, looked at how to take the next steps to redesign the River, and thought big. The exciting urban potential of the students’ work is at the core of the book, which delves deep into the history, current conditions and inspirational potential future. The result is bracing, exciting, bold---and it is fun.

In the concluding essay, Jeanne notes:

This thought experiment takes the form of a series of steps. The moves it describes are like a possible game of chess, in which everyone wins if Chicago makes the right choices. I present it here not as a formal, shovel-ready plan, but in the hopes that its ideas will spark energy and enthusiasm among architects, designers, experts, policy makers, community members and all of the other people who will be needed if we are to successfully renew our waterways.

And that is exactly right. There is big thinking in this book, from Jeanne, her colleagues at Studio Gang, the Harvard students and from my colleagues in NRDC’s Chicago office. Not all of it is “shovel-ready”--- that makes it no less practical, functional or reasonable. Any of us who have paid attention to the role of innovation, invention and creative enterprise in American history knows that envisioning a new future is intensely practical----in fact, it is the beginning of the deed itself.

No single solution can be immediately deployed that will address the many ills of the Chicago River---or those in  most of our urban waterways. What is required is steady, thoughtful and determined work. Jeanne has pushed that effort forward with Reverse Effect.


Reverse Effect in production image courtesy of Studio Gang.

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George J.Nov 3 2011 04:18 PM

This is a beautiful rendering of how an industrial site could be transformed into an urban playground. Unfortunately this is not what the city of Chicago needs.

Chicago is literally bankrupt due to a loss of industry and the revenues industry contributes to the local economy. From that aspect this concept is a huge step backward for the economic health and vitality of Chicago. This old 20th century concept is not visionary but rather a fall back to the same mistakes made over the last 50 years that have led to the financial meltdown of many of our nation's cities that need industry to survive - a "reverse effect" indeed!

The last thing the 2nd City can afford or needs is a 2nd city.

A much better 21st century concept would have shown this area revitalized with large modern factories and industries that would generate revenues and jobs within the city of Chicago. And yes, plenty of green spaces as well.

Fortunately the most expensive and vital infrastructure component for the industrial revitalization of the area is already in place - a waterway transportation system that links two economic regions of the United States. This is a truly unique advantage for the City of Chicago that other cities cannot duplicate and an asset that needs to be fully exploited. Chicago's waterway system could literally be the centerpiece of an "industrial revolution" for the city's economy.

Chicago does not need a 2nd city to stop invasive species and there are smarter 21st century solutions to stop Asian Carp and other invasive species than severing and sacrificing one of its greatest assets for economic recovery.

Yes, the waterways need to be cleaned up and it is disappointing that the city has only agreed to disinfect the discharge of 2 out of 3 of its water treatment facilities. The EPA needs to press harder until all facilities are compliant. That strategy also compliments the many new residential facilities along the waterways that have docking facilities for motorized pleasure boats.

Chicago has always been a pleasure boating city and just as its waterways are a crossroads for commerce, they are also a crossroads for pleasure boaters navigating Lake Michigan, Chicago's waterways, and the Illinois River. There is great economic potential there as well for further recreational development as long as the waterways remain open and unobstructed for navigation. However, turning the waterways into stagnant pools that are not navigable as this study suggests will prevent the waterways from reaching their full recreational and economic potential.

My advice for Jeanne Gang and her students:

To get a passing grade you must go back to the drawing board with a 21st century vision that will use Chicago's waterways to their full economic, industrial, and recreational potential.

Josh MogermanNov 3 2011 05:33 PM

George J---interesting points, but I think they miss the target. The vision in the book is doing exactly what you want. It looks at how to make the best use of the waterways in the Chicago region. But it is looking at how to do this in a new century. We have segmented the river off as conveyance for goods and sewage for 100 years. It is time to rethink that as the City has changed around the our waterways. Chicago was built and made great by big thinking. Keeping the waterways chained to sewage and solely commercial use is the opposite, it is more of the same---not the vision you are looking for.

To be clear, NRDC absolutely wants to see more goods moving on the waterways and thinks any solution to this will address the industry, but it is important to keep expectations in check. The idea that an industry that currently moves 1% of the goods in the region can lead an "industrial revolution" for the city is a bit misguided. Particularly as one of the largest cargoes by tonnage will be removed when Fisk and Crawford eventually go off line or stop burning coal. But we truly believe that re-imagining the waterways means finding more, not fewer, ways to connect the system with the rest of the region's transportation network, which is also in the midst of being reconfigured.

Instead, making the city globally competitive means investment in the infrastructure that improves quality of life and ensuring the city runs properly. Flooded basements and a sewer tainted Lake and beaches don't fit the bill. If we are rebuilding our water system, something that fundamentally must be done at some point, means looking closely at the sorts of green infrastructure tools that book is focused on. This isn't crazy future talk---these are technologies being exploited right now in Philadelphia and Aurora, IL. These are technologies at the heart of rebuilds of the water systems in St. Louis and Cleveland. What is breath-taking about Jeanne and the students' vision is not the technology, it is the thoughtful scope of its use and the way it can be used to create an amenity for neighborhoods desperately in need of green space and a destination that feeds Chicago's tourism economy.

George J.Nov 3 2011 09:37 PM


That all really sounds so nice - almost utopian.

Chicago already has pretty much maxed out its tourist revenues and having another Magnificent Mile on the south side just spreads it around. Yes, neighborhoods with green vistas are beautiful as well and I'm all for wetland purification and creating wildlife habitat.

Unfortunately, we already know that tourism and green spaces and pretty parks are not paying the bills. Unless Chicago focuses on industrial expansion, Big Dreams will never become a reality or sustainable.

I do not at all believe that Chicago's waterways should be confined to moving sewage and freight. As I mentioned, there is great potential there for residential expansion and recreational boating if the waterways remain unobstructed. However, like the Illinois River, I believe the Chicago's waterways can be utilized for all those activities.

Waste water needs to be treated so it's not sewage and, as I mentioned above, your job is not finished there, However it still needs to flow away from Lake Michigan due to the surface water contaminates it carries that cannot be removed and are far more damaging than untreated sewage. I looked into that issue while working as a volunteer for the Sierra Club and representing them at public hearings for the Clean Water Act. Every time I hear someone talking about reversing the Chicago River I cringe. As much as we hate to admit it, Chicago got it right 100 years ago knowing what we know today.

Losing industrial land is like losing farm land. Once you build a mall on it or subdivide it and tear up the infrastructure, it's gone forever. Of course Chicago's waterways carry a lot more freight to industries other than a couple of power plants, particularly to industries in northern Indiana who provide raw materials and petroleum products to industries back in Chicago and throughout the Midwest. More importantly these are commodities that cannot be transported economically be land based transportation no matter how modern the system..

However, better connecting the waterway system to other modes of transportation is good and doing that in grand fashion would certainly generate some revenue for Chicago if it's done in Chicago. Just think of the industries that would grow around that kind of facility but, move it outside Chicago and more industry would flee the city. Lake Calumet and the Port of Chicago would be a good potential intermodal site although we may have to actually expand the waterways and locks to handle all that freight - probably not what you are hoping for!

Either way, the commodities currently moved by barge are vital to the region's economy and creating an enhanced intermodal facility will not replace the need to move those commodities through Chicago's waterways. It's not an "either / or" proposition. We need to get greedy and do both.

Businesses today use the concept of synergy to enhance their competitiveness, They look at what they have and how to build revenue based on those unique strengths. If we are to think Big we have to recognize we have a strategic commercial and recreational waterway no one else has and a large industrial site begging for vitalization. It shouldn't be that hard to connect the dots.

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