The Chicago River: Join the Evolution!
By Joshua Yellin
The Chicago River was bustling as I paddled my canoe down river—water taxis, barges, kayaks, and tour boats were all making their way through the urban canyon that is downtown Chicago. I took notice of the movable bridges, the waterfront skyscrapers, and the river’s efficient channelized design; the Chicago River truly is an engineering marvel. Despite this inspiring backdrop, I was struck most by something unexpected—the sight of about a dozen geese squeezing onto a piling, seeking respite from the Chicago River’s incessant boat traffic and accompanying wake.
These geese symbolized the general lack of ecological consideration in Chicago today and throughout its history. The Chicago River that once had a natural riverbank and plentiful vegetation, is now outlined by steel seawalls and a few wooden pilings. Can't Chicago, with its incredible history of design and innovation, do better than this?
I have been trying to answer that question for three years now. While earning my Master’s degree, I heavily researched this issue from 2012-2014, writing: “Evaluating the Efficacy of an Artificial Fish Habitat in the Chicago River.” My research gained local notoriety, with an article about it being published in Crain’s Chicago Business. This local buzz got me in touch with a few other like-minded individuals who were embarking on a similar project. It wasn’t long before the four of us joined forces. We now work under the name Naru Project and our mission is to reconnect communities to urban rivers by focusing on innovative rehabilitation and education.
The Naru Project truly embraces the innovative engineering that changed the Chicago River into what it is today; we just don’t think our work is done yet. The Naru Project urges everyone to realize the next stage in the river’s evolution—employ those same engineering principles to now rehabilitate the river’s ecological functioning. We are raising money, filing for permits, and aligning partners to bring a riverbank back to the Chicago River. We realize that restoring the Chicago River to its pre-development form would be economically infeasible and could detract from the city's urban functionality. So we propose an alternative—an artificial floating riverbank.
Our goal is supported by three years of preliminary research of a five by ten foot experimental module. Although this was on a small scale, it was a necessary step to determine the engineering modifications needed to support a larger floating riverbank in the Chicago River. In addition, this module also performed admirably as wildlife habitat; fish have been found underneath it, birds on its surface, and flowering plants growing more vigorously upon it each year. Now imagine this installation on a larger scale—a destination where city dwellers can experience vast floating gardens with native plants flowering, waterfowl grazing, and fish swimming in the water below—all with the Chicago skyline in the backdrop. The Naru Project is committed to making this a reality and improving the quality of life in and around the river— for all Chicago residents, human and otherwise.
Among the geese I mentioned earlier, I also observed several plants growing out of the piling they rested upon. I noticed that the piling’s rotting wood was the only seedbed and bird habitat as far as I could see. Despite how inadequate the piling was to host life, birds and vegetation still made use of it. My point is: the Chicago River is primed for an ecological comeback. The water is cleaner than it has been in over a century, and the animals and plants seek to return. All we have to do is give them a little help, and they will do the rest on their own.