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Chicago Fri Nov 04 2011

A Green River is a Green River

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is marching forward with designs to revitalize the Chicago River for recreational use. As he does, the mayor would be wise to look towards other cities worldwide who have undertaken their own river reclamation projects and apply their lessons here. The main question Emanuel needs to be asking is how does turning attention to a long-neglected urban waterway make way for economic growth, increased quality of living and mitigating climate change?

The most definitive answers can perhaps be found trickling through the Cheonggyecheon in the heart of Seoul, South Korea. In the 2009 New York Times article "Peeling Back Pavement to Expose Watery Havens," Andrew Revkin writes of ambitious projects in cities around the world seeking to remediate, reconnect, and unlock the economic potential hidden in the waterways that flow through their borders. In Seoul, the $384 million removal of three miles of elevated highway allowed the Cheonggyecheon to reclaim its rightful place as one of the great gathering spaces of the ancient city. The Cheonggyecheon was an integral component of the city since the days of the Choson Dynasty nearly 600 years past, yet the stream had been replaced with a traffic-choking roadway in the name of industrialization. As the utility of the elevated highway began to wane, officials tore down the highway and returned the Cheonggyecheon to its rightful place.

Despite criticisms from some corners that claim the waterway reclamation project's cost outweigh the benefits, cities around the world are taking Seoul's example to heart and aiming to unravel their own urban rivers and streams. As Revkin stated in 2009, "The restoration of the Cheonggyecheon is part of an expanding environmental effort in cities around the world to 'daylight' rivers and streams by peeling back pavement that was built to bolster commerce and serve automobile traffic decades ago." The movement towards re-opening waterways has only gained force since then, and is part of a broader effort cities are undertaking to create vibrant, livable spaces that attract top-tier talent to settle, work, and live within the confines of the urban area. From Los Angeles to Chicago to Yonkers, NY, the example of Seoul is weighing heavily as American cities begin to retrofit their natural amenities to increase the sense of place that make cities attractive in the first place.

For American cities on the whole, this means applying a different mentality towards the way in which the economic return of their waterways and natural amenities are harnessed, but not necessarily a wholesale culture change in which environmentalism is the prevailing meme. Economic utility is still the motivating force; it's simply that the utility now is found in having accessible and navigable open space.

For a city like Chicago, this means taking the Chicago River and putting it to good use for economic purposes in the same sense it always has, yet doing so in a way that provides for lasting and sustainable development. The river has traditionally been treated with less than great intentions and care throughout the city's history. While the river opened markets and created a reason for permanent settlement in the region, it has historically been an exploitable resource that has been utilized as a dumping ground, sewage container and sink. The industrial concentration and wasting of the river not only led to one of the great engineering marvels of America- the reversal of the Chicago River's flow- but also to the still simmering remains of the toxic Bubbly Creek in the Bridgeport neighborhood.

Chicago is no longer the industrial behemoth it once was. Increasingly, Chicagoans want to utilize the river as a resource that provides an outlet for those looking for a "wilderness" experience within the city. Its economic utility now lies in a clean river that can be comfortably kayaked upon, picnicked by, and perhaps (well, one day) even fished in. It means treating the river as a river, and selling its naturalness
as its main asset.

The return from Seoul has gone beyond the economic as well. A piece from the online journal Grist notes many of the collateral benefits that have resulted from the return of the Cheonggyecheon. Among them are the creation of more value-adding public places, an increase in the species of fish and birds and various wildlife to the city, and a reduction of 5.6 degrees F in the surrounding area, cooling off the "urban island" effect. Domestically, cities like Pittsburgh - with its Walls Are Bad campaign - have begun to see the returns of remediating their waterways into recreational powerhouses. Recently, the Los Angeles River has begun to be revitalized in a fashion other than just a hidden repository of junk.

Chicago is taking steps to harness the potential of its namesake river, with Mayor Emanuel recently declaring "Much like Lake Michigan is Chicago's front yard, the Chicago River is our backyard, and should be an asset that people across the city enjoy, not avoid." For a city needing a flow of cash into its coffers, it's time to wade in.

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