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Unlocking the Potential of Chicago’s River System

From industrial relic to modern asset: Projects connecting Chicago’s river system to its residents awarded $810K in #OurGreatRivers grants Tweet This

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This week, the Executive Committee of The Chicago Community Trust approved $810,000 for neighborhood-based projects helping to unlock the potential of Chicago’s river system, transforming it from industrial relic to modern asset.

A function of the Great Rivers Chicago initiative, these grants support ideas for connecting residents to their riverfronts. Anchoring Great Rivers Chicago is the Our Great Rivers vision, Chicago’s first-ever comprehensive vision for the entirety of its vast river system.

 

2018 Our Great Rivers Grants

CHICAGO RIVER – NORTH BRANCH/DES PLAINES RIVER

  • Renewal support for Chicago Public Art Group, in partnership with the American Indian Center and the Portage Park Neighborhood Association, to develop the Northwest Portage Walking Museum. The “outdoor museum” concept will feature art installations and gardens along 9.5 miles of a former Native American trail that once connected the Chicago and Des Plaines rivers. $75,000

CHICAGO RIVER – NORTH BRANCH

  • Renewal support for Heartland Housing, in partnership with the Chicago Housing Authority, Friends of the Chicago River and Lathrop Community Partners, to build a community ownership strategy for the riverfront portion of the Lathrop Homes redevelopment. $50,000
  • Current, in partnership with North River Commission, South Loop Chamber of Commerce, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District and Friends of the Chicago River, among others, to install in-stream technology in up to three locations in the Chicago River that monitor water quality data in real time and transmit that data to user-friendly digital platforms for use by multiple audiences. $80,000
A group of people hold signs and a banner with slogans promoting clean air and environmental justice
Members and allies of Little Village Environmental Justice Organization host a press conference around the Crawford Coal Plant redevelopment plan. Image by Moms Clean Air Force / Flickr.

 

CHICAGO RIVER – SOUTH BRANCH

  • Renewal support for Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, in partnership with the Ping Tom Park Advisory Council, REI and Kelly High School, among others, to complete a wayfinding program for park visitors and mural installation activities along the 18th Street Bridge, to be supported in part by the newly established Chinatown Special Service Area. $75,000

CHICAGO SANITARY AND SHIP CANAL

  • Renewal support for the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, in partnership with the Southeast Environmental Task Force and Natural Resources Defense Council, to explore the public health implications of Chicago waterways through analyses of industrial sites along the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and the Calumet River, and to shape policy that attracts sustainable economic and recreational uses to riverfront communities. $85,000
  • Alivio Medical Center, in partnership with the El Paseo Garden, The Resurrection Project and Pilsen Alliance, among others, to establish an advisory group to make physical and programmatic connections between existing, complementary community assets such as the El Paseo Community Garden, the forthcoming El Paseo Trail and the river. $75,000

After years of hard work by groups such as Friends of the Chicago River, system-wide change is underway—and Great Rivers Chicago similarly provides these efforts with a coordinating framework and a set of goals against which to measure.

LITTLE CALUMET RIVER

  • Renewal support to the Forest Preserves of Cook County to work with the newly created Community Advisory Committee, co-chaired by the Chicago Housing Authority and Metropolitan Planning Council, tasked to connect residents of Altgeld Gardens with nearby assets, including Beaubien Woods Forest Preserve, Flatfoot Lake and the Little Calumet River. $75,000
  • Renewal support to the Community and Neighborhood Improvement Project, in partnership with Friends of the Major Taylor Trail, Active Transportation Alliance, Forest Preserves of Cook County and Terra Engineering, for their ongoing efforts to make environmental and aesthetic improvements to the Major Taylor Trail near the Little Calumet River. $70,000
  • Openlands, in partnership with People for Community Recovery, Miracle Marina, Golden Gate Homeowners Association, Forest Preserves of Cook County, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Commonwealth Edison and the National Park Service, to build awareness of and capacity for an African-American Heritage Water Trail to showcase the role of the Little Calumet River in African-American history, including the Great Migration and the Underground Railroad. $100,000

CALUMET RIVER

  • Renewal support to Alliance for the Great Lakes, in partnership with the Claretian Associates, Southeast Environmental Task Force, Delta Institute, Natural Resources Defense Council and NeighborSpace, among others, to advance the river-related objectives of Calumet Connect, a new coalition to revitalize riverfront areas in southeast side communities. $75,000
  • Friends of the Parks, in partnership with Chicago Park District, Villa Guadalupe, SkyArt and the Cultural Committee of Calumet Park, among others, for community engagement on the planned closure of a confined disposal facility at the mouth of the Calumet River and work with the local Park Advisory Council on physical and programmatic linkages between underutilized parks near the mouth of the Calumet River and the river. $50,000

 

Last year the Trust awarded similar grants totaling $800,000 in support of Our Great Rivers.

A group of artists assembles geometric sculptures on a city sidewalk
Designed to engage pedestrians in play, this art installation along Commercial Ave. is a project of Calumet Connect—a coalition to revitalize riverfront areas in southeast side communities. Image by Calumet Connect / Julia Hunter.

 

By the Numbers

The grant application process was largely unchanged from 2017, whereby organizations submitted proposals for community-led planning, programs and projects that align with the Our Great Rivers vision. To encourage ideas that mirror the complexity of Chicago’s river system and incentivize partnerships across organizations and disciplines, applicants were asked to integrate two or more Trust funding priorities—namely, sustainable development, economic development, public health and arts and culture.

Racial equity was an important value in the grant selection process—the catalytic potential of the river is easier to leverage in neighborhoods unconstrained by the burdens of severe environmental degradation, poverty, racial segregation and weak markets.

The Trust received 30 proposals totaling nearly $2.5 million. While just 11 were recommended for funding, more than 70 partner groups and organizations will move the projects forward. Seven of the 11 are renewals from the first year. Racial equity was an important value in the selection process—the catalytic potential of the river is easier to leverage in neighborhoods unconstrained by the burdens of severe environmental degradation, poverty, racial segregation and weak markets.

The strength of the proposals was bolstered by the efforts of Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), the principal administrator of the Great Rivers Chicago initiative. With funding from the Trust, MPC has organized the 2017 grant recipients into a learning community that allows for the exchange of ideas across riverfront neighborhoods, project design assistance and technical support on proposal writing and fundraising. The cohort approach has also elevated the work of the communities as key implementers of the Our Great Rivers vision.

An illustration of a man paddling a canoe
The Northwest Portage Walking Museum will feature art installations and gardens along 9.5 miles of a former Native American trail that once connected the Chicago and Des Plaines rivers. Image by Chicago Public Art Group.

 

Community Progress

According to MPC, of the 26 major goals presented in Our Great Rivers, 18 of them are currently seeing progress.

  • On the heavily industrialized Sanitary and Ship Canal and Calumet River, a team led by Little Village Environmental Justice Organization and Southeast Environmental Task Force is looking at the public health implications of Chicago’s waterways with the goal of using that information to shape policy that leads to cleaner industrial practices in riverfront communities.
  • On the North Branch, Heartland Housing and Friends of the Chicago River are building a community ownership strategy for the riverfront portion of the Lathrop Homes redevelopment.
  • Far South Side cyclists have mobilized to inform and support environmental and aesthetic improvements to the Major Taylor Trail where it intersects with the Little Calumet River. The members of the Major Taylor Cycling Club have harnessed the club’s camaraderie as a vehicle for change: improving the facilities they depend on for health and wellbeing while celebrating the life of the champion African-American cyclist after whom their club and the trail are named. And their work has not gone unnoticed; South Side Weekly recently gave “best of” accolades to the Major Taylor project and another Our Great Rivers project in the nearby Riverdale neighborhood.
  • On the city’s northwest side, Chicago Public Art Group, in partnership with the American Indian Center and the Portage Park Neighborhood Association, are building the Northwest Portage Walking Museum. When completed, the innovative outdoor “museum concept” will feature art installations and gardens along 9.5 miles of a former Native American trail that once connected the Chicago and Des Plaines rivers. In September, a public unveiling was held at what will be the eastern terminus of the museum, on the Horner Park riverfront, and the future site of the first effigy constructed by a Native American artist since the founding of the country.

You can follow these and more stories in MPC’s series of articles chronicling the Our Great Rivers projects.

 

System-Wide Change

After years of hard work by groups such as Friends of the Chicago River, system-wide change is underway—and Great Rivers Chicago similarly provides these efforts with a coordinating framework and a set of goals against which to measure.

Nearly 6,000 volunteers participated in Chicago River Clean-up Day to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Friends of the Chicago River. Metropolitan Water Reclamation District and environmental organizations have brokered a consequential phosphorus discharge reduction agreement, and Chicago’s River Edge Ideas Lab will influence new rivers-oriented design guidelines for a large part of the Chicago River system.

The catalytic potential of the river system compelled Mayor Emanuel to host 17 mayors from five continents and 15 countries for the first-ever Urban Waterways Forum in 2017. Over the course of two days he and Paris Mayor Anne Hildalgo, the Forum’s co-host, discussed economic, social and environmental opportunities for contemporary urban rivers.

For a list of accomplishments with implications for the whole of Chicago’s river system, visit The Riverwalk and Beyond.