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Great Rivers Chicago is key to City’s Building on Burnham plan

As a key partner in the Great Rivers Chicago initiative to deliver a long-term vision for the city’s three rivers, Metropolitan Planning Council is thrilled to see work from the vision fueling the mayor’s “Building on Burnham” announcement.

If you’ve been following Great Rivers Chicago and have basic knowledge of the history of Chicago’s rivers in general, you know that they are largely characterized as working rivers, manipulated and molded over time to serve the needs of the City That Works.

Fast forward 100+ years since Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago, and Chicagoans have broadened our collective perspective to appreciate the rivers as assets to residential communities, as recreational hubs, transportation corridors and attractive business locations—an asset that is different from Lake Michigan, yet highly important and ripe with opportunity.


Walk down to the Riverwalk on a summer day and you’ll see a heavily congested river, maxed with tour boats, water taxis, recreational vessels and kayaks. The Riverwalk offers entertainment, dining, bike rentals and plenty of people walking, jogging and enjoying the sunshine and architecture. Whereas in the past, there was little interest in boating or recreating on the river, today it is easy to find an electric-powered boat or kayak to rent—both downtown and at one of the new boathouses on the north and south branches.

The Building on Burnham plan calls for the Chicago River to be the city’s next great recreational park, using “Chicago’s two bodies of water – our river[s] and our lake – to enhance the quality of life in our neighborhoods.”

For the last 15 months, Great Rivers Chicago staff and partners have been learning from stakeholders—community members, local officials, business owners, environmentalists and technical experts—how they currently think about the river and what aspirations they have for its future, while exploring strategies for achieving those visions.

While the release of the vision and action agenda is planned for this summer, one of the leading ideas percolating through this process is the opportunity to create a continuous trail, particularly in areas where segments don’t exist today. We will be examining opportunities for near- and long-term feasibility in the coming months with partners like Active Transportation Alliance and Friends of the Chicago River.

Through this process, we’ve heard from almost 5,500 people, hosted 85 group interviews and five regional public meetings (with four more on the books for spring). We’ve learned that no matter what stretch of the river they are closest to, Chicagoans want to have a personal relationship with the river: as a place to bring the family for a picnic, run/walk/bike, fish, read a book, dine or launch a boat, while maintaining space for cleaner industry that fosters local employment. Great Rivers Chicago is defining the vision of a rivers system that is productive, inviting, personal and living.

Chicagoans should plan to attend any of the [[LINK]] in April and May to weigh in on the draft Great Rivers Chicago vision.