Cleaning Up Our Lakes, Reinvesting in our Waterfronts

We have a rare opportunity in redeveloping the shores of our precious lakes to realize our best ideas and policies in building 21st Century communities.

In 1969 Ohio’s Cuyahoga River, a tributary of Lake Erie that meanders through Akron and Cleveland, combusted into flames after years of pollution and waste accumulated along its shorelines. While this was not the first time the river caught on fire, it ignited the nation’s attention and inspired significant environmental action, including the creation of our Clean Water Act, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Nearly forty years later, Lake Tai, China’s third largest freshwater lake, was engulfed in a mat of blue-green algae large enough to be seen from space. The toxic bloom left 2 million people without drinking water for a week. Within the last decade, Lake Tai has been overwhelmed by pollution from rapid development, harmful industry, and chemical-heavy agriculture practices.

In the wake of these infamous events, the U.S. federal government and China’s central government have invested billions of dollars to clean up and redevelop their lakefronts. While the cost of a second chance to create a healthy balance between economic development and environmental integrity is steep, it also leaves an invaluable legacy of hope.

Cities along Lake Tai have agreed upon a bold ecological framework that sets back future development and wraps the lake in a thick band of reconstructed wetlands to filter runoff. In the U.S., Great Lakes cities are reclaiming industrial land, lot-by-lot along the shore, to remediate soils and build a foundation for future growth. We at SOM have had the privilege of working with forward-thinking municipalities in master planning these “second chances” from Wuxi, China to Chicago, Illinois.

In Chicago, on 470 acres formally occupied by one of the country’s largest steel mills, we are providing a vision for revitalizing this brownfield into a model community for truly sustainable living. The site, known as Lakeside, will reuse all potable water on site and return every drop of rain to the lake, restoring the natural water balance and treating water as a resource not as waste. The design will require an update to the state plumbing code to allow for greywater and rainwater reuse within buildings – a hurdle indicative of our often laggard policy frameworks.

We have a rare opportunity in redeveloping the shores of our precious lakes to realize our best ideas and policies in building 21st Century communities. Today, the City of Waukegan, which lies 40 miles north of Chicago, on the coast of Lake Michigan, is relishing in its waterfront reinvestment. After bringing to life SOM’s downtown master plan, Waukegan made real the great vision of its late Mayor Dan Drew who once said, “We will make our Lakefront the polished gem that we all know it can be. And that polished gem will create more jobs, generate more revenue, and be the source of more civic pride than any (industrial development) would have allowed for.”


Wuxi’s water edge is paralleled by a cement levee that was originally constructed to keep harmful runoff out of the lake. Today municipal leaders are determined to create a new city center that provides the highest quality of life derived from a renewed relationship to the lake. Close to 75% of the land area is dedicated to green space dominated by restored wetlands. As wetlands are reconstructed and nonpoint source pollution is reduced, the levees may soon be unnecessary and a city in harmonious balance with the lake may emerge as a model for all freshwater basins.

Despite past degradation, our global great lakes are undergoing an exciting rebirth as a result of the bold municipal leaders, visionary planners, and hopeful residents that, together, are transforming our urban lakefronts into the treasured gems we all know they can be.

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.

Categories: Planning, Sustainability