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Activists celebrate a cleaner Chicago River, what it means for parks and development

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Chicago River Revival Festival brings attention to improved water quality, recreational parks, and returning wildlife

A view from the water, boats are docked at the river’s edge with giant wooden benches and tall towers in the background.
Chicago Riverwalk
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Decades ago, people didn’t want to be near the Chicago River. It was a bubbly, polluted mess, but in the past few years the health of the river has improved.

Plus, major riverfront projects like the downtown Chicago Riverwalk, the 312 RiverRun, Ping Tom Memorial Park, WMS Boat House, Wild Mile eco park have changed how people interact with the riverfront. It’s a place to rent kayaks or take nature walks, and some advocates even imagine a day in the near future where people will want to regularly swim.

In the 1970s only seven species of fish survived, but now more than 76 have come back to the water after revitalization efforts have improved water quality, said executive director of Friends of the Chicago River Margaret Frisbie. The organization is working to turn all 156 miles of the river system into a greener, healthier wildlife habitat. So far its working—herons, beavers, fox, and other wildlife have been spotted along the water.

The progress made in the last decade, and anticipation of future goals, will be celebrated at the Chicago River Revival Festival on Saturday, September 7 at Ping Tom Memorial Park. The event kicks off with a splash from a “Big Jump” into the Chicago River at the park’s boathouse floating dock. While the festival is new, this is the third annual jump into the river where lawmakers attempt to draw attention to the changing river system.

The festival also marks the 40th anniversary of Friends of the Chicago River and the 20th anniversary of the Ping Tom Memorial Park. The Chinatown park was one of the first places to embrace the riverfront as an amenity, rather than a blight when it opened in 1999, said Frisbie.

Fixing pollution will take a regional effort

While there is a lot of good news in a cleaner river, Frisbie said, there is still work ahead. Sewage still gets into the river from overflow caused by tunnels and reservoirs that weren’t designed to handle modern weather, she said.

“Storm water runoff, road salt, fertalizer, anything people pour down their drain or that’s on the road can wash off into the river with the rain,” said Frisbie. The next step is figuring out an efficient way to control the storm water rather than washing the pollution into the water ways.

What you end up with is a healthy approach. “It’s not difficult. It’s just something we have to commit to. Every drop of rain that falls should be treated like a treasure and not thrown away like garbage.”

A recreational river is changing development

As sentiments have changed about the river, so has development. Frisbie used the Chicago Riverwalk as an example, which was first constructed in the early 2000s. At the oldest sections of the path, between Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue, visitors are several feet away from the water. Move toward the newer sections finished just a few years ago, like The Jetty between Orleans and Wells, and you’ll find floating gardens and fishing stations.

Older buildings along the river, like the Groupon building and East Bank Club, have hard straight edges that are closed off from the water and ignore the river completely. As more people use the river, newer projects are designed to embrace the outside. At a community meeting for the Wild Mile eco-park, workers in nearby offices asked for places to eat lunch or stroll near the water. Another example is REI’s new riverfront store which features a kayak launch and places to sit near the river’s edge.

The new recreational amenity has also made property values rise, Frisbie said. “It’s a slow steady increase, not a rash of gentrification,” Frisbie said referring to an economic study released earlier this spring by the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater’s Fiscal and Economic Research Center. The study calculated that by incorporating environmentally sensitive design, such as developing of the Chicago River system, it could bring back $1.77 for every $1 invested.