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The Past, Present and Future of Water* (*and Chicago)

   The interrelationships between water and Chicago are unexpected. The city, “Hog Butcher for the World,” is about as far from either ocean as you can get, and the name is the French pronunciation of the Miami-Illinois Native American words for “wild leek”—nothing about water. Yet 95 percent of the nation’s fresh water lies off Chicago’s shoreline in the Great Lakes. If water is the new oil, then Chicago is the next Dubai.   
   This city’s (or any city’s) relationship with a great body of water is ambiguous. Water is life. But Lake Michigan is a vast empty place. It is without landmarks, it has no memory of what it was yesterday or what it will look and feel like tomorrow, and its shape changes from moment to moment. It can be angry or frigid one day, only to return to a state of rest the next, its vast empty surface relentless.   
   The city has always been at odds with its abundant supply of water. There has always been a tension between the city and water.  Building what William Cronon calls Nature’s Metropolis on a stretch of low flat swampland where the clay and loam soil didn’t naturally drain was problematic and proved to be a bad idea. The city brought in Ellis Chesbrough, a civil engineer from Boston, who suggested an outlandish solution. Since Chicago couldn’t be moved, just raise all the streets anywhere from four to 14 feet to allow natural drainage of storm and sanitary sewers.     
   Beginning in 1855 and continuing for 20 years, all the streets in the Loop and the near North, West and South Sides were raised. Individual property owners raised their own buildings, although some existing homes were never raised and can still be found in older neighborhoods. Guests stayed in their rooms at Briggs House, a five-story masonry hotel, as it was raised. Miles of vaulted sidewalks were created when building owners bridged their buildings to the top of the retaining walls supporting the elevated streets.   
   On a roll, the Sanitary District of Chicago, directed by Rudolph Hering, decided to reverse the flow of the Chicago River. The intent was to prevent the raw sewage routinely dumped in the Chicago River from polluting the city’s source of drinking water in the lake. Begun in 1899 and completed the next year, locks at the edge of the lake and a 28-mile canal connected the Chicago River to the Des Plaines River, making it a part of the Mississippi Watershed instead of the Great Lakes Watershed.   
   If that is the past, what is the future?   
   In 2006, the History Channel sponsored their City of the Future Competition, challenging 30 teams of architects to suggest what Chicago, New York and Los Angeles would look like in 2106. Martin Felsen and Sarah Dunn of UrbanLab, an innovative new firm in Chicago, won the national competition with a design for Chicago 100 years from now called “Growing Water.”  
   They began with the facts: Chicagoans use a billion gallons of water per day, but return only 1 percent of that volume to Lake Michigan. Combined with the flow of fresh water from Lake Michigan into the adjoining watershed as a whole, the city’s use of fresh water is not sustainable. Their design suggested the creation of a series of “eco-boulevards” running from west to east. These waterways would naturally treat the city’s sanitary and storm water, replenishing Lake Michigan. And, of course, their plan calls for reversing the flow of the Chicago River. These eco-boulevards are the missing link in the system, naturally treating wastewater and returning it to the lake.  Water is extracted from the Lake, but now there would be a loop in place to return it to its origin.   
   If UrbanLab’s plan is the underpinning of a sustainable approach to the city’s relationship to water, perhaps the symbol of this relationship can be seen in the work I developed for Visionary Chicago Architecture, a series of visionary projects commissioned by the Chicago Central Area Committee (CCAC) and curated by Stanley Tigerman in 2005. Fourteen architects were given seven sites to propose visionary designs.   
   My randomly selected site was the intersection of the lakefront and the Chicago River. Both bodies of waters are edges. The Chicago River is an edge that divides the city and is in many ways enigmatic. The other side of the river is always beckoning. The lakeshore is an edge that separates the known from the unknown. It is ambiguous; the meaning of the lake is never clear or fully understood. The intersection of these two edges, one enigmatic and the other ambiguous, reveals more about Chicago as a place than any other point in the city.    
   At this intersection our design proposed constructing Musee de L’Eau, a museum celebrating water as a surface, as a habitat and as a cultural icon—moving water to the foreground in Chicago.

Published: August 09, 2009
Issue: Fall 2009 Water Issue