Chicago Architect Jeanne Gang Seeks to Keep Invasive Species Out of the Chicago River

You may know Chicago architect Jeanne Gang from the Aqua building she designed, or you may have heard her name when the MacArthur Foundation named her a fellow last year. You may not know that she and the National Resources Defense Council have published a book, Reverse Effect: Renewing Chicago’s Waterways, advocating a plan to place a permanent barrier in the Chicago River that would divide the Great Lakes system and the Mississippi River watershed. Onearth’s Jeff Turrentine recently interviewed Gang about the book.

The issue of the invasive species is one thing, but there’s also the issue of water quality — the fact that we’re still putting raw sewage into our waterways. Even though they’re trying to expand our city’s deep-tunnel sewer system, the capacity of that system isn’t great enough to handle the rain; it just isn’t able to keep up. With very little rainfall — barely over half an inch — we have a situation where we’re sending runoff directly into the river and lake. And with climate change, this will get even worse. We’ll have stronger storms in shorter amounts of time.

And then another issue was really just the feel of the riverfront. It’s post-industrial; much of it is now just sitting there, abandoned and unused.

Along with the barrier, what can be done to improve the quality of water in both the river and the lake?

One of the most important things for improving water quality would be to reduce runoff by putting in a lot more green infrastructure, so that you could absorb that much more rainwater and not just flush it into the sewer system, which then becomes overwhelmed.

Eventually, as steps like this and others started taking place, the river itself would be remediated and cleaned. Ultimately what we want to do is not keep wasting the water that’s coming out of the lake and flushing it down to the Mississippi. It’s exciting; it’s really a new way to think about the relationship between these three bodies of water. Instead of thinking of the Great Lakes with these canals coming off that are taking water out of the lakes and down to the Mississippi, we’d be capturing the water, using it, then cleaning it first with technology and further by charging it into a series of wetland lagoons, and then letting it go back to the lake. Which would be amazing, if you think about what that could mean for the quality of life in the city in the future.

How could your plan improve the quality of life for Chicagoans?

For one thing, just increasing access to the river would be huge. It’s not in the greatest, most pristine condition right now, but I think it’s really important to give people a chance to care about the river. If they can’t get to the edge, because it’s in private hands, how can they care about it? Our plan would call for reinvigorating the area of the riverfront by cleaning it up and creating these wetland lagoons, and also adding a harbor. Big boats coming off the lake into the Chicago River, toward downtown, would have a new destination; smaller boats that just wanted to row up and down could launch from there. Also, installing this barrier could create an opportunity to connect the two opposite sides of the river, two neighborhoods that have never been physically connected, in the form of a bridge.

Click the link to read the full interview. Professor Mike Bryson has made the river a central aspect of his teaching at Roosevelt University, devoting assignments, field trips, and entire courses to the role of water in the Chicago area. This fall, he offers SUST 220 Water as a hybrid course meeting several Saturdays in Schaumburg and online, with select field trips. You can read more about this course at Professor Bryson’s blog.  If you are interested in taking this or any of our courses this fall, please contact your RU academic advisor for registration details. If you are not currently a Roosevelt University student, we encourage you to investigate our degree options, and our course listings. For more information, please visit our Sustainability Studies website, call 1-877-277-5978 (1-877-APPLY RU) or email

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