World Water Crisis Forum

WHEN Thu 5/17, 7 PM

WHERE DePaul University Museum, 2350 N. Kenmore

INFO 773-325-7506 or

If Chicago continues to think big when it comes to water, there may be hope for us as the fresh stuff starts to run out. As every schoolchild knows, in 1900 the city reversed the flow of the Chicago River to re-direct pollution away from Lake Michigan. Now, after several decades of labor, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District is finishing up the Deep Tunnel project, the underground network of tunnels where combined sewage and storm water overflows are stored before treatment. Both works were designed to keep Chicagoans’ waste out of their drinking water, and both are world-class engineering feats.

Sarah Dunn and Martin Felsen of the Bridgeport architectural firm UrbanLab have an idea that might outdo both. They envision a self-contained system that would take water from Lake Michigan, use it, and then run it through a natural treatment system dispersed throughout the city before returning it to its source. We could turn the Chicago River back around and use the Deep Tunnel for new subway lines. This closed-loop water system could set an example of water reuse to the world, as increased demand makes water ever scarcer. Unmake no little plans?

The idea came about in one frenzied week last November, when Dunn, Felsen, and a handful of others worked 16-hour days and pulled a couple of all-nighters at UrbanLab to prepare for a contest sponsored by the History Channel to promote its Engineering an Empire series. The channel gave select architects in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles seven days to come up with a design for their city 100 years from now, something that “like the marvels of past civilizations, would have the staying power to endure for centuries to come.”

UrbanLab’s proposal won the Chicago round and went on to beat the New York and LA winners for the $10,000 top prize. The model they built will go on display at the Museum of Science and Industry June 8, along with the other finalists and the other Chicago entries. Growing Water: Chicago in 2106, their 67-page book illustrating their project, is available from

Dunn and Felsen propose that the city switch over to a decentralized all-natural water treatment and recycling system that would double the city’s parkland. A series of 50 “eco-boulevards” spaced every half mile from Rogers Park to Roseland would run east-west from Lake Michigan to the subcontinental divide between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins at about Harlem Avenue–thin green ribbons running across the city that would replace pavement with green space, greenhouses, and wetland for the treatment of waste and storm water.

Each eco-boulevard would jut out into Lake Michigan and end in a man-made peninsula to accommodate solar arrays, wind turbines, and geothermal wells to power the treatment processes. “Terminal Parks” would mark the eco-boulevard’s western extremes. These large green spaces would be surrounded by residential and work complexes to accommodate returnees from the outer suburbs, who by 2106 will have moved back closer to town to obtain running water.

That’s right: Felsen and Dunn are among those who see a future in which freshwater is “the new oil” and the Great Lakes region–already the third-largest economy in the world–could be the new Saudi Arabia; the Great Lakes contain 20 percent of the earth’s freshwater. As water becomes an expensive commodity, sprawl may become unaffordable, if not illegal: suburban households west of the Great Lakes drainage basin will have to sink deeper and deeper wells to reach groundwater as it’s depleted. An early warning comes from Campton Township, just northwest of Saint Charles in Kane County, which in 2004 initiated an unusually thorough study of its groundwater resources by the U.S. Geological Survey. The USGS found that two deep aquifers in the northern part of the township are being used faster than they replenish.

Under UrbanLab’s plan, eco-boulevards would ultimately replace the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s seven centralized water treatment plants with natural processes involving various bacteria, small organisms, and wetland plants–“living machine” systems in the phrase trademarked by Living Designs Group, a firm in Taos, New Mexico, that focuses on “ecologically engineered natural wastewater treatment and reclamation systems.” Wastewater from a few blocks along, say, Cermak Road would be piped to a series of greenhouses along a nearby eco-boulevard. Inside it would pass through vats of microbes and other organisms that break down waste, much as is done on a larger scale in the MWRD plants. Storm water would be collected separately from wastewater (something cities like Atlanta and Minneapolis have already managed to pull off) and then filtered and cleaned aboveground in small or intermittent streams and wetlands along the eco-boulevard. Ideally, gray water–used water not containing human waste–would be dealt with separately too, but that’s not part of UrbanLab’s design at this point. It’s a vision, not a blueprint, that would take different forms in different neighborhoods.

How would all this happen? Gradually. Eco-boulevards wouldn’t require spending billions all at once, evolving instead over generations. The process might start with something as simple as the city offering incentives for how south-side brownfields are redeveloped: just as developers can add “bonus” floors to a building if it has a green roof, they might get a similar bonus for separating rainwater and wastewater and routing them to a nearby eco-boulevard installation.

Such a project would require a certain fixity of purpose not often displayed by political bodies. But Dunn and Felsen think that just as parks raised land values and attracted developers in the 19th century, the prospect of green parkland within a quarter mile of every property in Chicago might be sufficient incentive to keep things moving. And what better occasion to jump-start their proposal than the 2016 Olympics, where a housing complex that cleaned its own used water and returned it to Lake Michigan might show the world a thing or two?

On May 17 at the DePaul University Museum, Dunn and Felsen will have eight minutes to sketch their scheme as part of a panel discussion on the “world water crisis” sponsored by Global Green USA, an affiliate of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Green Cross. Joining the discussion will be Debra Shore, commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District; Thomas Murphy, former head of DePaul’s Environmental Science Program; and Joe Deal, assistant to Mayor Daley for water initiatives. Things could get interesting, since Green Cross steadfastly opposes the commodification of water, and UrbanLab’s proposal assumes that water will soon become not just a commodity, but a very expensive one.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.