Riverfront Planning - Case Study of the 'Chicago River Corridor Development Plan'

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2006

42 Pages, Grade: none


Table of Contents


1 Introduction

2 The Chicago River History
2.1 The Early History and Water-Based Economic Growth
2.2 The Sanitary & Ship Canal, North Shore and Cal-Sag Channel
2.3 The Plan of Chicago and post World War II
2.4 Current Situation – Changing the Image

3 The Comprehensive Planning Approach
3.1 Why Planning?
3.2 The Comprehensive Plan
3.3 The Legal Basis
3.4 Elements of the Plan Making Process
3.5 Community Planning Concept
3.6 Planning in a Contemporary Democracy
3.7 Public Participation in the Planning Process
3.8 The Planning Body

4 Case Study: The Chicago River Corridor Development Plan
4.1 The Development Plan
4.1.1 The Goals of the Development Plan
4.1.2 Reaches and Development Opportunity Sites
4.1.3 The Implementation Strategies
4.2 Further Plans

5 The Planning Process
5.1 The Key Players
5.2 Task Forces, Steering Committees, and Public Meetings
5.3 Finances and Leadership

6 Assessments and Recommendations
6.1 Key Findings
6.2 Leadership and Political Will
6.3 Public Participation
6.4 Water Quality
6.5 Environmental Education

7 Conclusion
The Interviewed Experts

1 Introduction

Waterfronts are important areas for the biosphere on earth. Many kinds of flora and fauna are settled here. At the same time, people use these areas for all their different needs. Water-based industry, residential and recreational uses, environmental quality, commercial development, and transportation are only a few of many different and often contrary human uses. Waterfronts are also important areas for the development of cities. Many cities are linked by them by foundation and contributed to their subsequent development (Breen; Rigby 1996: 11). That is especially eminent in case of big seaports like Rotterdam, Hong Kong or Rio de Janeiro. But also landlocked cities like Berlin and in a way also Chicago owe their rise and growth partly to their waterways.

That shows the importance of comprehensive planning approach as the basis of planning and development especially for these urban areas. The pressure of utilization on water-connected urban areas is rising. City administrations want to revitalize their urban waterfront areas and enhance the worth of urban land along the water. As a result, planners are charged with balancing a variety of public and private objectives (cp. fig.1). The diverse range of uses has to be managed and planned to avoid conflicts and to use these areas in a rational way. Comprehensive planning is an often used approach to plan and develop large areas in an extensive way. It is necessary in order for the waterfront to be most functional and useful of the city – aesthetically, recreationally, and economically. Therefore the comprehensive planning approach is used in this research as theoretical basis to analyze the Development Plan and its planning process (cp. research question beneath).

In many urban regions, awareness of the specific challenges facing water-connected areas is increasing, and for the last forty years waterfront revitalization has been a hot topic worldwide (cp. e.g. Senatsverwaltung für Stadtentwicklung Berlin 2006, North Bank Project 2006, Waterfront Center 2006). This has also been the case in the seven-million citizen region of Chicago. The factories and industries that once lined the Chicago River are now mostly gone (having closed or moved to greenfield sites). Nowadays a new mode of thinking is needed to decide how riverfront areas should best be redesigned and redeveloped. Even in the last few years, awareness of the importance of enhancing the conditions along the Chicago River corridor and developing new valuable urban areas for residential and recreational utilization has grown. In 2005, Chicago’s mayor labeled the river as “Chicago’s second shoreline” (Daley 2005: 1) and claimed that the river’s banks are no longer “forgotten areas” (City of ChicagoTPF[1] FPT). Against this political background the following paper investigates the research question:

How does the City of Chicago approach comprehensive planning for the Chicago River Corridor?

To answer this question an analysis of the planning process and a plan assessment is done. The primary sources for the analysis are from the secondary literature (cp. chapter 3) and expert interviews (cp. references). The interviews were conducted over the period October-December 2005. The Chicago River Corridor Development PlanTPF[2] FPT was chosen as a case study because it is the first comprehensive document for planning the Chicago River corridor. Therefore it is central to its planning process.

The paper proceeds as follows. In the next section is an overview given of the history of the development and utilization of the Chicago River corridor. Sections 3 and 4 discussed the comprehensive plan making process as a basic planning tool and the specific content and features of the Development Plan, respectively. Section 5 presents a critical assessment of the river and riverfront planning approach of the City of Chicago. The paper concludes with suggestions of how planners can improve comprehensive waterfront plans and comprehensive plans in general as well as approach best plan making processes associated with urban riverfront development.

2 The Chicago River History

The Chicago River system has a short but intensive history of utilization. This section provides an overview of that history and economic development along the river, focusing on their implications for Chicago’s riverfront today.

The Chicago River is 28 miles long within the city limits. There are three primary branches: Main Branch, North Branch and South Branch. The South Branch is also commonly known as Bubbly Creek. The Chicago River system, mostly constructed by humans, is more than 150 miles long and 21 feet deep in the downtown area. The system includes the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, Cal-Sag Channel, Calumet and Little Calumet Rivers and the North Shore Channel (cp. fig. 2).

2.1 The Early History and Water-Based Economic Growth

“In a little over a century Chicago rose from a mere frontier outpost to become one of the great cities of the world” (Mayer; Wade 1973: vii). Its geographic position relative to the lake and the river was especially important.

In 1829 the Illinois legislature took the first steps connecting Lake Michigan with the Mississippi River in order to be able to transport gods and persons throughout the new country. The towns on either end of the projected Illinois and Michigan Canal are Ottawa and Chicago. The Illinois and Michigan Canal was completed in 1848 (cp. Solzman 1966: 18) and established Chicago as a major commercial hub. In order to show how the river traffic developed, Mayer and Wade give three figures: In 1832 “a rather venturesome trader” (1973: 17) sent 78 bushels of wheat past the fort into the Great Lakes. By 1848, over 2 million bushels were shipped past the same point and by 1870 there were 16 million bushels (cp. Mayer; Wade 1973: 17).

From 1829 the first meatpacking plants were erected on the North Branch. That was the start of the industrial development of the branches. How valuable the land along the river became during the economical growth is shown by figures from 1836 – “(…), values rose to the peak along the Chicago River (main stem) and its branches, where land was worth eight to ten times as much as land a mile away, twenty-five times as much as land two miles away, fifteen hundred times as much as land seven miles away, and twenty-five hundreds times as much as land ten miles away” (Solzman 1966: 80).

During its golden age in the middle of the 19PthP centuryTPF[3] FPT Chicago’s residents numbered fewer than thirty thousand (cp. Mayer; Wade 1973: 30). Lumber yards, factories, elevators pushed north and south along the river and commercial facilities expanded in the city center. They forced residential construction to move out to the edge of town and even into the suburbs beyond (cp. ibid.: 54). “The rise of the Union Stock Yard along the South Folk of the South Branch of the river in 1865 thus helped to establish the unwholesome and obnoxious character of the waterway industrial district which persists to this day” (Solzman 1966: 30).

In 1870 the North Branch Canal was completed. One of the reasons for building it was the creation of valuable riverfront land. The tonnage entering the harbor rose from 440,000 in 1844 to over 3 million in 1869 (cp. Mayer; Wade 1973: 42). The canal traffic reached a peak in 1882, and its decline was precipitous (cp. ibid.: 28). Between 1865 and 1871 the canal was deepened for the purpose of reversing the flow of the Chicago River and relieving the pollution of the city water supply that attended lake-ward drainage (cp. Solzman 1966: 18).

In the 1850s, because of the city’s rapid development, three questions became urgent: the fresh water supply, the reserve of land for park and recreation use, and the improvement of the streets (cp. Mayer; Wade 1973: 94). So in the 1850s and 1860s there was an extraordinary transformation of the city when streets were raised, buildings were jacked up, and new drainage and paving were installed (cp. ibid.: 94 et seq.). To solve the fresh water problem, Chicago built a two miles tunnel into the lake and taped the water just above the bottom. This project was finished in 1867. The Chicago River and the shoreline of the Lake Michigan were so heavily polluted that the city could not use this water. During the spread of the city no provision had been made for parks. Now there was no free space available. A movement to create a ring of parks around the city arose in the 1860s and so were parks like the South Parks, Lincoln Park, and Central Park created (cp. ibid.: 100).

2.2 The Sanitary & Ship Canal, North Shore and Cal-Sag Channel

The growth of the city’s population and industries and the sewage problem are closely linked. Even the meatpacking industry, slaughterhousesTPF[4] FPT, sawmills and tanneries used the river as a sewage canal for decades. In 1885, a heavy storm washed sewage into the lake; Chicago’s most important freshwater source. This incident triggered an explosion of waterborne diseases that killed approximately 12% of the city’s populationTPF[5] FPT (cp. Solzman 1998: 50). To prevent a recurrence of further river backup and subsequent pollutions and epidemics, sanitary engineers built a new and much larger canal; the Sanitary & Ship Canal. After been finished in 1900 it connected the South Branch of the Chicago River via the Illinois and Michigan Canal with the Des Plaines River and reversed the flow of the Chicago River (cp. fig. 3). Now, the 28 miles canal disposed the sewage via Des Plaines and Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico. By building this canal the city saved on the one hand Lake Michigan and its drinking water supply. On the other hand the problems of contaminated water were transferred to the communities down the Des Plaines and Mississippi River. Due to the canal the City of Chicago has the phenomenon to have a river flowing backwardsTPF[6] FPT. Another function of the canal was the handling of stormwater runoff and reducing of flooding. The old Illinois and Michigan Canal was abandoned in 1933TPF[7] FPT.

The 8-miles long North Shore Channel was completed in 1909. Its purpose also was to flush away additional wastewater coming from the north suburbs away from Lake Michigan. In 1911 digging for the Cal-Sag Channel began. Originally, it was principally conceived as a drainage canal that would draw polluted water from Lake Michigan into the Illinois River system. It was a small canal but it became an important transport route after 1930 when it was dredged to a depth of nine feet and connected to the Sanitary & Ship Canal (cp. Solzman 1998: 53). With this connection the Calumet River reversed, flowing now into the Sanitary & Ship Canal (cp. Daley 2005: 4) and thus into the Mississippi River. The canal became a center of heavy industry and so the river was an malodorous and dangerous waterway in this time which was used for sewage and transportation only.

In 1938-39 the lock construction to the mouth of the Chicago River ultimately closed off the river from the lake. It functions today to measure the flow of lake water into the Chicago River. Before the lock construction was built, the flow was unrestricted. Because of this the level of the Chicago River was about ten feet higher than today (cp. Solzman 1998: 33). The lock helps to limit the diversion of lake water into the river and also prevents the backup of river water into the lake during heavy rains. The Chicago lock was the final step in the great river reversal project started in 1900 with the opening of the Sanitary & Ship Canal.

2.3 The Plan of Chicago and post World War II

A better planning of Chicago’s future was initiated in 1906 by the Merchants Club later known as the Commercial Club. ‘The Plan of Chicago’ was born by Daniel BurnhamTPF[8] FPT in 1909. Burnham’s plan mentioned among other things a livable riverfront and planned the “development of the river as a recreational corridor” (ibid. 2005: 1) too but he focused strongly on the lakefront. The lakefront should be transformed into a big park area for recreation and amusement. The pollution had to be stopped because “it becomes detrimental to health and interference to navigation” (Bennett; Burnham 1909: 122).

The years after 1945 were characterized by the decrease in the concentration of manufacturing activities along the waterways. Obsolescence of facilities, high taxes, and changing markets, products or processes are some reasons. Storage, warehousing, transportation, and distribution activities again predominated (cp. ibid.: 33). The impacts of the postwar construction boom were weak along the lakefront than elsewhere. Therefore, city officials consistently reiterated the policy that the water’s edges should be developed for recreational and park-use like it had been planned in the development plan by Burnham.

2.4 Current Situation – Changing the Image

The story of the Chicago River over the last 25 years is largely one of environmental progress. Still, even though its industrial roots have become less visible, the Chicago Calumet River, continue to play the key transportation rule, albeit on a smaller scale than in the past.

There was a high pressure from developers to convert riverfront areas from industrial to residential and commercial use in the end of the 1990s (cp. ibid.: 43). This pressure continues and replaces more and more the traditional industrial uses – even if it is only in selective and especially attractive areas.

For the majority of the riverfront areas the malodorous and unpleasant character of the waterway still dominate the bad image of the Chicago riverfront land. It is difficult and it takes a long time to change such an image but the Development Plan is one part to do so. The theoretical basis of such a changing and planning process is worked out in the following chapter. It shows the different necessary steps and details and describes how administrations can the public participate in such a development.

3 The Comprehensive Planning Approach

The literature about planning and planning processes is large. How does a planning process work? What is essential for a “good” comprehensive plan? This section investigates the literature on the background of plans and planning processes, with a focus on the writings of Hopkins, Kelly and Becker, and Alexander.

3.1 Why Planning?

Would one rather plan the future or just wait to see what happens? If the subject is in a few days one might be able to wait. But what is about the personal future? Many people tend to plan it. Planning is a rational way of preparing for the future. So as well as most of the people, communities are also planning their future in a very extensive way. The comprehensive planning of a community or parts of it has to be done carefully and in an exact way. Planning mistakes could have negative impacts for the whole community.

3.2 The Comprehensive Plan

According to Hopkins the “most persistent image of a plan for urban development is a comprehensive plan – comprehensive spatially by encompassing an entire community or an entire metropolitan area, comprehensive functionally in addressing all aspects of government activity, and comprehensive in time by focusing on a long time period” (Hopkins 2001: 4). Sometimes this plan is also known as master plan or general plan. Comprehensive plans help to guide decisions. Kelly and Becker term e.g. the request to change zoning, decisions about expansion of major infrastructure and about location of new infrastructure, decisions about annexation of additional territory, and decisions about major public investments (cp. Kelly; Becker 2000: 45). In the United States the comprehensive plan is the only planning document that considers multiple programs and that accounts for activities on all land located within the planning area. Whether that property is public or private is not deciding (cp. ibid.: 1). This comprehensive planning is important because it is carried out by local governments, the government level which most directly interacts with citizen. Local government is for example responsible for planning and maintaining roads and sidewalks, zoning and land use and providing parks and recreation facilities. In the United States most land is in private ownership, particularly in urban areas. Hence there is a long tradition of private property rights in the States. That makes public planning more difficult than in other countries.

Which factors do make a plan comprehensive? Kelly and Becker name three important factors (ibid.: 43 et seq.):

- Geographical coverage: A comprehensive plan should include all of the land area subjects to the planning or regulatory jurisdiction of the local government preparing the plan.
- Subjects matter: A comprehensive plan should include all subjects matter related to the physical development of the community e.g. land use, transportation, water and wastewater, parks etc.
- Time horizon: A comprehensive plan must consider a relatively long time horizon, usually approximately 20 years.
Based on Hopkins there are five ways in which plans work: Vision, Agenda, Policy, Design, and Strategy (cp. Hopkins 2001: 36 et seq.). He distinguishes and defines them this way.
- Vision: Image of what could be; an outcome. It works by motivating people to take actions they believe will give the imagined result. Visions can raise aspiration or motivate effort.
- Agenda: List of things to do; actions, no outcomes. It works as a reminder and is, if it is public, a commitment to act .
- Policy: If-Then rules for actions. They are automatically repeat decisions to save time and works by taking the same actions in same circumstances to be fair.
- Design: Target. Describes fully worked out results. It works by showing fully worked out results of interdependent actions.
- Strategy: Contingent actions (path in decision tree). It works by determining which action to take when and where depending on situation when actions are taken.

Bear also mentions the plan as a blueprint. The idea is to convert a vision into a blueprint plan – the early term for “Master Plan”. The plan should show all planning elements on a municipal map: like streets, lakes, public building sites etc. Based on Bear “each and every aspect of the plan as well as their interconnections would be described or mapped or diagrammed in considerable detail, to demonstrate mastery of all the plan’s aspects and how they joined” (Bear 1997: 334). Bear assesses that this approach produced few plan successes in the “real world” and often zoning ordinance was the real blueprint while the general plan was strictly advisory (cp. Bear 1997: 335).

3.3 The Legal Basis

The legal basis which provided the model for most state planning laws are the Standard City Planning Enabling Act (SCPEA) dating from 1928 and the Standard City Planning Enabling Act dating from 1926. SCPEA first defined a master plan and created the concept of planning by an appointed planning commission. It covered six subjects (APA 2005):

1. the organization and power of the planning commission, which was directed to prepare and adopt a "master plan";
2. the content of the master plan for the physical development of the territory;
3. provision for adoption of a master street plan by the governing body;
4. provision for approval of all public improvements by the planning commission;
5. control of private subdivision of land;
6. provision for the establishment of a regional planning commission and a regional plan.

Other important regimentations are the zoning ordinance, housing and building codes, and various environmental ordinances. “These regulations usually lay down relatively precise guidelines and standards for the location, density, scale, design, quality, and use of the built environment within the jurisdiction of the local government” (Hoch 1994: 149).

3.4 Elements of the Plan Making Process

Hopkins cites in his book “The Logic of Making Plans” four publications by Patton and Sawicki, Bryson, Black, and Checkoway and following general tasks can be filtered for a comprehensive planning process from his text: Formulating strategies or design alternatives, test and evaluate them, and, last but not least, select one of the alternatives. Berke and French cited in their article, published in the Journal of Planning Education and Research in 1994, the plan’s characteristics considered by Chapin & Kaiser in 1979. “First, the plan’s fact basis specifies the existing local conditions and identifies needs related to community physical development. Second, goals represent general aspirations, problem alleviations, and needs that are premised on shared local values. Third, policies (or actions) serve as a general guide to decisions about the location, density, type, and timing of public and private development to assure that plan goals are achieved” (Berke; French 1994: 238).

To show the theoretical background of the planning process Kelly and Becker worked out a good overview (cp. Kelly; Becker 2000: 17 et seqq.). Some basic elements are common to almost all forms of planning: data gathering, data analysis, policy making, implementation, and monitoring. Almost always these elements are distinguishable factors in the planning process.

a)Data Gathering

To make a rational plan and decisions a basis of information is needed. Planners gather data on existing conditions and on population trends that will bring changes. They also gather data about the capacity of natural and build systems of the community to absorb the effects of change. For planning a new park system the planning department needs for example data and information about the current state, likely future change, which areas are useable and to whom they belong. Further information about costs of buying land areas if necessary and cost of implementation are needed.

b) Data Analysis

Some data are certainly self-explanatory but usually one has to interpret and analyze them. Demands for public services or recreation facilities are complex topics. Raw population data tell one story about a community, but careful analysis of that data can provide a good basis for predicting future park and recreation facility needs. In most cases, the comparison of proposed plans to the available budget is itself a critical step in the process of data analysis.

c) Policy Making

Data analysis may limit the range of policy choices. So a careful review of costs and budget suggests that there is only one choice of where and how to build a new park system. If there are different possibilities, someone has to decide. In the comprehensive planning process of a community, it is usually the government body (with the advice of the planning commission) that makes such choices. For greater projects it does so after a public hearing or some other structured forum for receiving comments from citizen and stakeholders.

Data gathering and analysis are both objective and rational terms. Policy making involves judgment. Sometimes the results of the data analysis are so obvious that there is only one choice. But mostly policy makers have to make difficult choices – for example between a park system for recreation in one area or a new commercial use of the same area. Usually the policy-making aspect of planning is the most complex step because it is not always clear who has the power or authority to create such a policy - or those who have the apparent power or authority may not choose to exercise it.

d) Implementation

If a plan is meaningful and worked out, it becomes the basis for implementation decisions. Implementing a plan for a new park and recreation system will typically require buying needed areas, designing the system and planning special sport or resting facilities. Parking facilities and playgrounds have to be created and economic uses, like restaurants or retail trades, have to be located. To realize the choice of alternatives a community needs a policy more detailed than this general plan. The basic elements of public plans often include three distinct sub-elements: goals, strategies, and actions.

- Goals are the general aims of the community such as creating a park system. Strategies are more specific sub-elements of goals. They include additional details of the goals and specific methods for the implementation process. In the example of the park system: create several parks and connect them later.
- Actions are focusing on the fiscal and/or physical implementation of the plan - for example choose the firms that create the park or parts of it.

e) Monitoring

The best plans include a feedback loop that provides monitoring of the plan. This means for example to count the users of the parks, to investigate possible changes of the land use or the different activities done in the parks to check if it is accepted by the public.


[1] City of Chicago, Department of Planning and Development. Interview on October 27PthP 2005.

[2] The Chicago River Corridor Development Plan is furthermore called Development Plan.

[3] In 1850 was the City of Chicago only thirteen years old.

[4] The organic waste of the slaughterhouses, dumped into the South Fork, caused the water to bubble. On this account, this part of the river is called “Bubble Creek”.

[5] The typhoid rate alone reached in 1891 174 per 100,000 people in Chicago (cp. Mayer; Wade 1973: 100).

[6] This phenomenon and waste water problem started especially when the lock was built in 1938/ 39.

[7] The old canal fell into disrepair and late, the in-city and near-city portions were filled and used for the route of the Interstate 55.

[8] Daniel Burnham played an important rule in the development of the „Chicago School“ of architecture and was the principal designer of the Columbia Exposition in 1893 in Chicago.

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Riverfront Planning - Case Study of the 'Chicago River Corridor Development Plan'
Humboldt-University of Berlin  (Institute of Geography)
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This research paper investigates how the City of Chicago approaches comprehensive planning for the Chicago River Corridor.
Riverfront, Planning, Case, Study, Chicago, River, Corridor, Development, Plan, USA, United States, regional, urban, region, water, shoreline, city, comprehensive, develompemt, utilization
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M.A. Geograph Felix Weickmann (Author), 2006, Riverfront Planning - Case Study of the 'Chicago River Corridor Development Plan', Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/73662


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