fish-hotel.jpgOne of the defining features of downtown Chicago is the river which bears its name. The Chicago River has been inextricably linked to the growth of the city–Chicago became a transportation hub in the 19th century because of shipping routes from the Great Lakes into the Midwest and points beyond. In fact, Chicago is home to more movable bridges, 38 currently, than any other city in the country, and they all span one of the three branches of this river.

But the river which made the rise of this metropolis possible endured an incredible amount of abuse as the city grew up around it. For most of the last 200 years, the river was treated essentially as an open sewer, where household and industrial waste was dumped with abandon. (One particularly rancid part of the river earned the nickname “Bubbly Creek” because of methane buildup due to decomposing animal remains dumped by the Chicago stockyards, famously depicted in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.) The contamination led to many outbreaks of cholera, typhoid, and other diseases in the 1800s because the sewage flowed out into Lake Michigan, the source of the city’s drinking water. In 1900, a massive engineering project succeeded in using locks to reverse the flow of the river so that the pollution was sent southwest through the newly completed Chicago Sanitary and Ship canal and into the Missippi River watershed, away from Lake Michigan. When Chicagoans weren’t trying to ignore the stench of the river or actively abusing it, they seriously messed with the natural hydrology. Not much respect.

This human disrespect for the Chicago River continued up through the 1980s, when the river was often still clogged with garbage. But beginning in the 1990s, things started turning around for this urban waterway. Pollution levels started to drop (due in no small part to enforcement of Clear Water Act legislation) and people began to notice that the river, no longer smelly and unsightly, could actually be an enhancement to city life, a corridor of somewhat natural green space in an urban setting. People began using the river for recreational activities that put them in closer contact with the water, such as canoeing and kayaking, in addition to the larger pleasure boats and sightseeing ferries. New buildings along the river are now built so that people can walk along the shore and appreciate this natural asset, rather than being sited facing away from the river, as much architecture did in the 20th century.

Part of the reason for this river renaissance has been the work of the nonprofit group known as Friends of the Chicago River. This organization, active since the 1970s, focuses on creating “a greener river with healthy habitat, an accessible river that people can use and enjoy, and a river cared for by a broad group of supporters.” The group works in partnership with municipalities, businesses, community groups, schools, peer organizations, government agencies and individuals on projects that benefit the river.

One of the group’s more interesting projects is a “fish hotel” designed to create a more natural habitat for fish in an area that is otherwise very unhospitable. Much of the riverbed in Chicago currently consists of a concrete canal, devoid of the kind of vegetated nooks and crannies normally found in health river ecosystems. To help solve this problem, Friends of the Chicago River commissioned ecological consulting firm WRD Environmental to design and build a floating garden planted with native wetland vegetation that can provide food and shelter for fish that otherwise wouldn’t thrive there. The design the firm came up with is a floating structure containing native aquatic plants on the surface to attract insects for fish to eat; a second level with more wetland plants for shelter; and four deeper fish cribs, where bigger fish can linger and hide. A description of the project in Chicago Wilderness magazines describes it in more detail:

“Located just off the Michigan Avenue Bridge at the south end of the Magnificent Mile shopping district, the structure is anchored to the steel walls lining the river so that it doesn’t affect boat traffic. The habitat is about the size of a pontoon boat — 42 feet long by 10 feet wide. Eventually, the structure will be equipped with underwater cameras so people can see green sunfish and largemouth bass snack on clasping-leaf pondweed and bristly sedge. “

The project recently won a City of Chicago GreenWorks Award for WRD. Though the structure has to be removed during winter, it will be back in the water come spring, allowing life to return to what had formerly been a watery wasteland.

It may be argued that attracting a few fish for the tourists to look at really doesn’t address the big issues (such as reducing pollution of stormwater runoff) of returning a 156-mile river system to ecological viability. Is this project getting attention from Mayor Daley because it fits in nicely with his grand vision of a commercial and retail riverwalk redevelopment in the Loop? Probably.  But it’s a start.  And if this design can be replicated in other cities facing the similar problems, we might see the day when some of our urban engineering insults to nature are at least mitigated, if not reversed.

Further Reading:

Firm Awarded for Fish Hotel – Gurnee Review

Michigan Avenue “Fish Hotel” – Chicago Wilderness

Photo Credit: WRD Environmental