What’s in a River?

More specifically, what’s in an urban river?

Of course, in literal terms (litoral?), there’s water, algae, insects, fish, turtles, waterfowl, and all manner of microbial life.

But on my walk to the Redline after work last week along the Elston industrial corridor, which follows a stretch of the Chicago River near the Urban River pilot floating wetland, I considered a broader definition. Three simple observations became clear indicators that there was more to the river than, well the river.

  1. Green stuff, i.e. plants - I stepped outside my office, which happens to be right on the river, and I immediately found myself drawn to the vibrant green riverfront. Wherever there was more green, I was more drawn to. Not only a buffer for stormwater runoff, I found myself thinking about the riverfront green space as an inviting “buffer” between concrete jungle and the watery life source that is, despite it’s dirty history, the Chicago River.

  2. Bees! - Not only useful for transportation of goods and services, the river is home to multitudes of life, and not only aquatic life. There are two bee hives situated within 15 feet of the river, right outside my office. Fantastic! This got me thinking about all the myriad uses of the river corridor, including pollination stations (aka beehives).

  3. Accessibility - The truth is, there aren’t enough access points to the river. The most obvious way to enjoy the glories of the Chicago River, is to get on it in a kayak, but probably the more accessible option is to walk across a bridge. On my walk to the Redline, I took my usual path across the North Ave. bridge. I couldn’t help but stop at the zenith of the bridge and take in a breath of cool air off the river as the crowds of traffic cruised by, totally unaware of the beauty of the river right outside their windows.

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All this supports well-documented research on the many benefits of urban riverways for mitigating environmental threats and overcoming public health issues, even depression, in cities. Check out this paper from UCLA’s Center for Occupational and Environmental Health for more on that. My deep philosophical findings here also align with what the Great Rivers Chicago collaborative are doing to enhance and implement riverfront revitalization projects in the connecting waters of the Chicago region -- this includes our work at Urban Rivers with our floating island project. The reality is urban rivers are valuable, and they can be whatever we want them to be. It’s up to us!

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