Possible Resurrection for Chicago's Nastiest Waterway

by David Lepeska
for Atlantic Cities

In The Jungle, his searing, 1906 expose of Chicago's meatpacking industry, Upton Sinclair described a particularly fetid southern stretch of the Chicago River. "Bubbles of carbonic gas will rise to the surface and burst, and make rings two or three feet wide," he writes. "Here and there the grease and filth have caked solid, and the creek looks like a bed of lava; chickens walk about on it, feeding, and many times an unwary stranger has started to stroll across and vanished temporarily."

Though spiffed up in the intervening years, Bubbly Creek, named for the gases released during the decomposition of animal parts strewn there from nearby stock yards, remains a place Chicagoans generally avoid. Area rowing teams occasionally practice on its surface, but the creek's still, gray-brown water emits a stench in summer and, since 2007, the city has been considering a major restoration.

In her new book Reverse Effect, Chicago-based architect and recent MacArthur “genius” grant winner Jeanne Gang looks to transform the still-bubbly stretch of water into an urban destination to rival Millennium Park.

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

Chicago remains the only major American city that merely dilutes its sewage, without disinfecting, before dumping it back into nature (the city's wastewater management body decided in June to begin disinfecting sewage before dumping, but implementation may take years). Other cities lack an outlet like the Chicago River, which was reverse engineered a century ago to carry sewage downstream towards the Illinois and Mississippi rivers.

In certain areas, the Chicago River is now more than 70 percent partially treated sewage – and a public health risk, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Another problem is that invasive species, such as round gobies, zebra mussels and the most current threat, Asian carp, have had little trouble migrating up or down this watery pipeline to imperil eco-systems at either end.

In 2010, the Natural Resources Defense Council proposed the creation, at three sites in the Chicago area, of physical barriers to separate the city's waterways and Lake Michigan from the Mississippi River basin and stop invasive species, yet still allow sewage to pass downstream. One proposed site is near the north end of Bubbly Creek.

The NRDC's barrier proposal appealed to Gang, who grew up outside the city and has always been fascinated by water and sustainability. Her most well-known building, a billowy, 82-story skyscraper that rises from the spot where Lake Michigan spills into the Chicago River, is named Aqua.

Gang sees the construction of the NRDC barriers as an excellent opportunity to make Chicago area waterways more green. In Reverse Effect, she investigates design possibilities for the barrier and the city's water infrastructure along with students from Harvard's Graduate School of Design, where she taught earlier this year. The book also includes input from the NRDC and residents who regularly use the Chicago River.

One student draped a land bridge across the creek that would also serve as an arts park. Another incorporated the nearby coal-burning Fisk Power Plant, remaking it into a facility that helps clean the river water to support urban agriculture that can serve a nearby food desert.

"We decided to create these inland water lagoons, that would add water-cleaning facilities using green-friendly treatments," Gang says of her firm's design for the barrier. "The water in the sewer system would go to the lagoon, where it's cleaned, and then back into the lake to be re-used by the system. And you can build up the city around these lagoons, with boats and beaches that are clean enough to swim in."

It's a design that embraces one of Gang's favorite dictums: nature is technology. "In the past we always thought about using technology to overcome nature," she explains. "Now we're learning how to harness the activity of nature – like the cleansing of water using plants, algae or bacteria, instead of creating more gray infrastructure with bigger and bigger pipes. I just read about a new kind of concrete made from seawater in a process similar to coral. Or using heat from the ground, geo-thermal, to power buildings. That's nature as technology. We're in an exciting time right now because we're starting to understand these kinds of things."

For Gang, improving quality of life involves creating a dense urban fabric where people can live and work alongside dynamic green spaces. "We have to take care of nature," Gang explains, citing the world's ever-rising rising human population and an ongoing mass extinction of plants and animals. "Animals move along corridors, birds migrate, so as cities get larger it's important to create paths they can pass through. At the same time, people need outdoor space to enjoy: many inner-city kids don't have any experience with nature. So instead of just designing green lawns, the spaces can be designed to engage both people and diverse species."

Other examples of Studio Gang's effort to incorporate nature into the city include its stunning, multi-use design for Northerly Island, a 91-acre peninsula jutting into Lake Michigan near downtown, and a boardwalk and pavilion at Lincoln Park Zoo's South Pond, completed last year. Her latest vision may necessitate a new name for the stretch of water long known as Bubbly Creek. "This barrier could be the catalyst for that post-industrial riverfront to become something new for the city," says Gang.


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