Author: Ninging Lin

Program of Study: Master of Public Policy (MPP), Harris School of Public Policy (HAR)

Sunset by the Chicago River. (Photo taken by author)

Description: Chicago rivers are just like a lens, through it, we can see Chicago’s problems and they also have the capacity to address problems such as segregation and inequality if people leverage this city-wide asset properly, it requires joint efforts from residents, elected officials, activists, planners and investors.

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Transcript (provided by student): 

Welcome to the ELI’s Finding Chicago Global Perspectives Podcast Series for AEPP 2020. I’m your host, Ningning Lin, and I’m currently enrolled in the University of Chicago’s Harris Public Policy School, today we will be exploring the topic of reconnecting the communities by Chicago Great Rivers.

Chicago is my dream city, its complexity and dynamics appeals to me, part of reason might be I grew up in a waterfront city in China, easy access to water makes me feel it back at a home. The rivers, are just like a lens, through it, we can see Chicago’s prosperity, segregation and inequality.

We all know that early settlements grew near the rivers due to the availability of fresh water for drinking and irrigation, facilitating trades and providing boundaries. Just as Daniel Burnham’s great vision for Chicago – a two-waterfront city, he claimed that “the Lakefront by right belongs to the people”. Chicago has about 26 miles of public shoreline along Lake Michigan and around 150 miles of riverbank. Right now, they’re these sorts of fallow lands where industry once sprang up, but they’re some of the most available plots in the city. The rivers extend through so many neighborhoods; any future development around the rivers is going to be an asset for the people who live around them. We see the capacity of Chicago rivers have to provide amenities to the city and pull it together.

After the great Chicago fire, the river remained something to be tolerated rather than enjoyed, riverside real estate was cheap, and river wards were still some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. Aided by the deindustrialization of the mid-twentieth century, federal regulations such as the Clean Water Act of 1972, and another round of public works projects, in recent years, there’s been lots of exciting progress since Metropolitan Planning Council released “Our Great Rivers” initiative in partnership with the City of Chicago and other organizations, the Chicago River continues to undergo dramatic improvements in water quality and accessibility. While a tale of two cities, where the majority-white, wealthier North Side has flourished, while the lower-income, largely black and Latino South Side languishes. The bulk of riverfront amenities constructed and planned fall in wealthier, North Side neighborhoods, an indication of how hard it can be to create equity in a city long characterized by segregation and inequality.

It’s a sun-splashed afternoon in the city. You’re trying to think of something to do. For many Chicagoans and tourists alike, one of the first notions that comes to mind is the downtown riverwalk. People-watching on a long stroll, renting a kayak, having a cup of coffee while sitting by the riverside. It’s a success for the Chicago River’s North Branch, please forget that the Chicago River has a second branch, the South Branch, hasn’t gotten the same spotlight as the North Branch or downtown stretch of the river.

Riverfront beautification can spur economic growth, at some point, it is true, but baby steps please, listen closely to the community’s real needs or desires. For neighborhoods like Little Village, residents would like to see green industrial development such as solar farms and light manufacturing, which means more jobs and opportunities. They’d also love to have riverside cafes or parks, but that dream feels far off at this moment.

What the South Branch should learn from the North is that avoid riverfront development at a cost of someone losing their homes. In 1937, riverfront property near Division Street was chosen as the site for the one of the nation’s first low-income housing projects, the Julia Lathrop Homes, but the building chose to have its doors opposite to Chicago river, because the river back then was filled with pollution and wastes. In 2015, the building began its plan to redevelop into a mixed-income complex since it enjoys a better environment and higher real estate value, but for many low-income residents, this has meant a new shortage of affordable riverside housing.

An objective for residents, elected officials, activists, planners, and investors must be to create an equitable river. This requires addressing racial divides, removing barriers to participation, and prioritizing responsible investment in existing and new communities. Addressing housing affordability, local business growth, and transit infrastructure can achieve this. Helping underutilized sites offer new jobs and safe recreation are two concepts that must coexist to support these neighborhoods, such as transfer abandoned factory sit into commercial site or office buildings and research centers, government can attract investment by lowering tax and offering subsidy. These neighborhoods can benefit from enhanced connectivity to opportunities both downtown and in adjacent neighborhoods.

Community organizing and engagement plays important roles to develop riverfront as well, the 2012 closing of the Crawford Generating Station in Little Village and Fisk Generating Station in Pilsen are clear examples of community organizing and public regulations leading to meaningful improvement.  Following the lead of local voices like Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, who received a grant to explore health implications of industrial sites along the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, will help ensure that development serves residents.

Projects to revitalize rivers and their surrounding lands are taking off nationwide: Boston recently made the Charles swimmable, and D.C. is making over its historically polluted rivers. Many cities are dealing with these abandoned riverbeds, now that industry has left the center of cities. American cities are getting denser; amenities and infrastructure will be so important for supporting that. These riverlands have really not been utilized for close to a century. Figuring out what to do with them is a problem that has huge opportunities, and the time to act on them is now. Let’s connects, not divides.

Thanks for listening to today’s episode,  due to the pandemic, I won’t be able to arrive in Chicago this Fall, but my interest in Chicago as a city and a community will continue by engaging with people in Chicago remotely, I will keep observing and exploring, I might have new thoughts on this topic over the time, by then, let’s circle back and dig up deeper, till then.