Decoding Design

Transforming the Chicago River with green design

Posting in Cities

Chicago's Jeanne Gang is looking to give the polluted Chicago River a deep clean and a new look.

The Chicago River isn't the most popular attraction for locals and tourists alike. Infamous for being polluted from industrial waste and even decomposing animal parts from stockyards, the river that runs through the city center is in need of major cleanup, and since 2007 the city has been considering a complete restoration.

In a new book, entitled Reverse Effect, Chicago-based architect and recent MacArthur Genius grant winner Jeanne Gang looks to transform the still filthy stretch of water into an urban destination.

"We're a city that has these waterways, and they've always been used by industry," she said. "How can we reclaim that river's edge and bring people and public uses to the water?"

According the Atlantic Cities' David Lepeska, Chicago is the last major American city that dilutes its sewage without disinfecting it. The waste is then dumped back into the water, and though the city has decided to change this, it may be years before waste is actually disinfected.

As it stands today, the Chicago River is more than 70 percent partially treated sewage in some areas, and the Environmental Protection Agency has dubbed it a public health hazard.

In 2010, the Natural Resources Defense Council proposed barriers to separate the city's waterways and Lake Michigan from the Mississippi River basin. Additionally, the barriers will be added to stop invasive species while still allowing sewage to flow.

Gang sees the construction of the NRDC barriers as an opportunity to make Chicago's waterways greener, and in her book she considers the possibilities of infrastructure and design transformations for the dirtiest stretch of the river.

In the end, her firm designed a barrier that created "inland water lagoons." The lagoons would feature eco-conscious cleaning facilities to collect the water directly from sewer system. After it is disinfected, the water would go back into the lake where it can be re-used and will be clean enough to swim in.

For Gang, design improves the quality of life by creating green spaces for people to live and work by. The firm has set to work in Chicago, and its designs include her best- known building, the 82-story skyscraper that is located where Lake Michigan meets the Chicago River, and also Northerly Island, a 91-acre peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan from downtown.

Other major city waterway revitalization projects come to mind: In 2003, Seoul, South Korea tore down a downtown highway and uncovered an ancient stream and reused 75 percent of the demolished material to renovate the steam banks and construct a new commercial center.

While Seoul's project was not looking to solve sewage problems, the goal was the same as Gang's: bring an urban waterway once dominated and polluted by industry and development back to nature and back to humans.

[Via Atlantic Cities]
Photo: Vxla/Flickr

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Beth Carter

Contributing Editor

Beth Carter is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has worked for Catalyst magazine, the New York Times Syndicate, BBC Travel and Wired. She holds degrees from the University of Oregon and New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure