A Vision for the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Region

On March 22, 2012, in celebration of the United Nations’ World Water Day, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s (SOM) City Design Practice launched the Great Lakes Century Vision video. The goal of the video, produced in collaboration with the award-winning design firm Thirst, was to broadcast and garner international support for a bold 100-year vision for the environmental and economic renewal of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence region.

SOM has been advancing a comprehensive vision for the Great Lakes region since 2009 when it offered to make a thoughtful contribution to the Burnham Plan Centennial. Philip Enquist, SOM partner leading the firm’s City Design Practice, answered the question, “What would Daniel Burnham focus on today?” by identifying Chicago’s greatest planning issue of the 21st century: the city’s invaluable relationship to the Great Lakes.

The health and resiliency of the Great Lakes has never been more important to the future of the city and the region. Unquestionably, the growing global demand for clean fresh water and a rapidly urbanizing world define a core issue of our time. Addressing this issue requires holistic ecological thinking at an unprecedented scale.

Research has revealed hundreds of important efforts to clean and protect the Lakes and St. Lawrence River, but a regional vision for the entire watershed was missing.

SOM has brought the impactful graphics and urban design principles of its professional toolkit to the challenge and, in the process, has become a passionate thought leader for the region. The vision communicates eight strategic principles. Taken together, these principles have become the basis of the goal to catalyze a comprehensive plan, like the Burnham Plan was a century ago, to guide regional decision making for the next 100 years:

  1. Bigger than a national park – envisioning a single, borderless region of natural and cultural heritage and a global example of international peace and environmental stewardship
  2. Green cities and Great Lakes – restoring a healthy relationship between city and nature
  3. Great minds and Great Lakes – focusing the region’s world-renowned research institutions on innovating a post-carbon economy
  4. Blue is the new green – achieving clean, drinkable, swimmable, fishable water – and ensuring its availability forever
  5. Tapping renewable energy – innovating beyond coal and oil to the region’s abundant sources of eternal, renewable energy
  6. Achieving mobility – reducing carbon and synergizing economic capacity by connecting urban centers with high-speed rail, adjacent communities with bikeways, and compact neighborhoods with transit.
  7. Leaders in new economies – anchoring economic growth in environmentally sustainable industries and technologies
  8. Commitment to local food – supporting healthier people and healthier land with a regional, sustainable food system

In the process, SOM has discovered the important role designers can play in activating meaningful dialogue and advocating for progressive policies towards realizing a shared regional vision for the future. To date, the vision has been endorsed by 86 American and Canadian Mayors; honored by the American Institute of Architects; and served as the keynote presentation at dozens of international conferences.

Perhaps the most powerful outcome of this multi-year public service initiative is that it has informed and inspired ecosystem-scale thinking across SOM’s global practice; rooting its urban designs, from Beijing to New Delhi, in the core principle that the quality of the environment determines the economic strength and vitality of the city.

Lyndon Valicenti is the Environmental Strategist for SOM’s City Design Studio, where she contributes to the Great Lakes Century initiative.

Check out other Metropolis posts on the Great Lakes Century initiative.

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