Rewilding of the Chicago River System

New landscaping at a residential tower on Wolf Point in Chicago is a good example of successful rewilding along the river. Photo by Adam Flickinger.

Since our founding, Friends of the Chicago River has been focused on creating and implementing innovative policy tools to advance our vision for the future of the river and its surrounding communities. In the early days, few besides Friends and our supporters could look past the 1970's neglected conditions of the river. We were able to see the possibilities and the urban planners that made up Friends' leadership quickly got to work writing regulatory tools (such as the original waterways ordinance, adopted in 1983) to make sure to our vision was realized. Today, we are seeing the fruits of our labor. New developments along the river are held to high environmental design standards and river edge sites are prized locations. In Chicago, new guidelines, supported by Friends and adopted in 2019, have added greater detail and tools to help us continue to advocate for developments that enhance rather than detract from the success of the river system.

As we face the challenges related to the pandemic, including less opportunity to travel outside of our immediate neighborhoods, many are re-discovering how the place where they live contributes to their overall health and happiness. The pandemic has brought into focus the inequities related to access to natural areas, safe recreation spaces, clean water, air, and land. The American Planning Association recently published a report outlining how our urban "nature deficit" exacerbates challenges in cities and how our innate need to connect to nature, referred to as Biophillia, is critical to our future success as and urban community.

"The natural system of the Chicago and Calumet rivers and their tributaries can play an important role in addressing these issues," said Adam Flickinger, director of planning at Friends of the Chicago River. "To enhance its function as a natural community asset, we need to continue to seek projects that "rewild" the Chicago River system."

Urban "rewilding" seeks to encourage biodiversity, ecosystem function, and the persistence of native species across urban areas to reap a multitude of benefits. Friends is again looking beyond where we are today, to a future where the advancements we have seen in some areas of the river system can be replicated throughout. Friends' policy and planning team works every day to realize our vision of a wilder, greener, cleaner, more natural river system that everyone can access and enjoy.