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Swim in the Chicago River? Not a fantasy, new plan says

Mayor Rahm Emanuel discusses a vision for improving Chicago-area waterways.| Lou Foglia/Sun-Times

Envision this: You’re sunbathing along a stretch of the Chicago River while your children frolic in the water. Just then, a family of cuddly muskrats swim by. A largemouth bass surfaces.

Pure fantasy? Grounds for someone to report you to child protective services?

Not according to the people behind the “Our Great Rivers,” an initiative unveiled Wednesday on the banks of the North Branch of the Chicago River

The 76-page, full-color report — 18 months in the making and with the input of about 6,000 Chicago-area residents — outlines “a vision” for the city’s waterways through the middle of the 21st century.

“And by 2040, as a result of decades of water quality improvements and habitat restoration, our rivers will be teeming with native plant and animal species,” the report says. “And we’ll be swimming in them. Yes, you read that right.”

Our Great Rivers is billed as the “first-ever unifying and forward-looking vision for all three of Chicago’s rivers.”

“No city in North America has a more diverse array of river landscapes than the city of Chicago. You add in the lake, and we’re far and away one of the greatest waterfront cities in North America,” said Josh Ellis, director of the Metropolitan Planning Council, one of the lead agencies involved in the report. “And we are on the cusp of going from good to great.”

What would “great” look like?

Continuous riverfront trails would line the Chicago, Calumet and Des Plaines Rivers. Long-neglected vacant lots along the waterways would be cleaned up. Native and migratory critters, big and small, would return to formerly toxic habitats — including snapping turtles, beavers and otters.

“Native communities will be abundant and healthy — some species healthy enough to eat for the first time since the 1800s,” according to the report.

There’s neither a price tag nor a suggestion on how to fund the vision; to a certain extent, it relies on decisions yet to be made and public awareness campaigns.

On Wednesday, as an obliging flock of Canada geese skimmed the Chicago River backdrop, the plan’s supporters pointed to Maggie Daley Park, Northerly Island and the Chicago Riverwalk downtown as examples of the potential for former industrial and commercial sites.

“We will reclaim [the city’s waterways] as our recreational frontier and parks for the city of Chicago for generations to come,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel told the gathering.