Chicago Magazine — “What Chicago Is Doing—and Can Do—to Prevent a Disastrous Flood”

August 30, 2017

“The Chicago area has taken some interesting steps towards a more robust future of wastewater management. It has ‘green’ alleys that reduce the flow of stormwater into the sewage system; bioswales and stormwater monitoring; at-cost rain barrels; tree pits, green roofs, and more. But in the grand scheme it’s still at fairly small scale.

There are much bigger ideas on the drawing board. Many of those come from the mind of architect Jeanne Gang, whose work on Northerly Island speaks to the future of how the built environment transitions into the natural one. Her book Reverse Effect: Renewing Chicago’s Waterways argues for re-reversing the Chicago River and surrounding it with green infrastructure and natural forms of water treatment, rebuilding the divide between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi, and capping the era of civic engineering that built Chicago:

‘Meanwhile, the riverfront area around Bubbly Creek has a band of industrial land that could start to be acquired. It’s basically defunct. All the big industries down there are not coming back. Once that’s done, we would start to introduce green infrastructure: permeable pavement that allows storm water, which is not that dirty, to go straight down into the aquifer and back into the lake. Every time you redo a street, you upgrade it to the permeable pavement instead of solid. You also redesign the tree planters so that water is funneled to them from the street. It takes the water load off at the point source, instead of dumping fresh rainwater into the sewer system. All that would keep our basements drier. ...

The next step is to take out the canal—which is a concrete basin—and remediate the area so it can start to operate like a wetland. Use nature as technology. The wetlands will increase the amount of waterfront, increase the amount of green space, and increase property values on either side of the river. Then start to invest in more water treatment. Instead of pumping sewage and the overflow into Stickney, you could just treat it here. We need to expand our wastewater treatment. Use biodigesters to clean the water basically and return it to the wetlands for the last polishing.’”

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Deep Tunnel—here entering into the Thornton Reservoir—is just that, but the city needs more surface-level treatment as well. Photo: Jose M. Osorio, courtesy of the Chicago Tribune.