Skip to main content
Global Goals

Spotlight: Urban Rivers Reclaims The Chicago River

By February 17, 2022August 31st, 2022No Comments

Reversing The Way Chicago Connects With The River

Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources

According to the United Nations: “Roughly 80 percent of marine and coastal pollution originates on land – including agricultural run-off, pesticides, plastics, and untreated sewage.”

The Chicago River has an extensive history of pollution and mistreatment.  Ideally located in the center of the North American continent and on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan, Chicago experienced a population and commercial boom as settlers moved west during the 19th century.  NPR’s WBEZ Chicago explains further:

“…As the city grew, so too did its sewage problem.  The Chicago River, once a shallow stream teeming with life, began to function more like a common gutter.  It captured the waste of more than 1.5 million (not to mention the growing stockyards), flushing it directly into Lake Michigan – where Chicago also sourced its drinking water.”

Local leaders came up with a bold solution for this public health crisis: creating the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.  The canal reversed the flow of the river and sent sewage down the Mississippi River.  Josh Mogerman, national media director at the Natural Resources Defense Council put it plainly: “Rather than clean up our act, we decided we’d do something audacious and reverse the river and send our poo down to St. Louis instead.”

Completed in 1900, the reversal of the Chicago River was hailed locally and nationally as an engineering marvel and a great success, much to the chagrin of the people of St. Louis. 

Unfortunately, this bold, yet short-sighted solution created a myriad of problems for the environment, locally and nationally.  From invasive species gaining access to the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River Basin, to Chicago sewage contributing to the Gulf of Mexico’s 5,300 square-mile dead zone, the reversal of the Chicago River has been disastrous for the marine ecosystem. 

The non-profit Urban Rivers aims to change Chicago’s relationship to the river with projects like the Wild Mile, the world’s first-ever mile-long floating eco-park.

Phil Nicodemus of Urban Rivers expands further in our UNA Chicago Spotlight:


SPOTLIGHT: Phil Nicodemus, Urban Rivers


What is Urban Rivers’ mission with the Chicago River?

The mission of Urban Rivers is to transform city waterways into urban wildlife sanctuaries and to reconnect people of all backgrounds to nature in new and innovative ways. 

Where is the Wild Mile?

The Wild Mile is located in the Ogden canal that creates the east side of goose island, in the North Branch of the Chicago River.

When will the Wild Mile open?

The first floating gardens of the Wild Mile have been accessible to the public since 2017, and have grown steadily in footprint since then. The Grand opening of our first section of floating walkway and educational platform will be in the spring/summer of 2022.

How do you achieve the natural habitat the Wild Mile has to offer?

The Ogden canal has mixed characteristics and requires different strategies depending on the specific context. Only where river edges cannot be naturalized do we employ artificial habitat structures. We work extensively with Biomatrix Water in Scotland to design and deploy floating habitats that can counter the unnatural environment with something suitable for diverse plant and animal life.  Some areas on the other hand, have already been partially reclaimed by nature, so along those stretches the name of the game is habitat management rather than creation. The floating habitats are rectangular pontoons with a flexible planting matrix that gives plants surface to grow hydroponically from only river water. Other modules allow us to host trees or submerged or emergent plants and other types of substrates.

I’ve heard about “mussel bunkers” being deployed – how does that work?

One of the most endangered types of organisms in the world are burrowing freshwater mussels. They are enormously important to aquatic ecosystems, require healthy waters, strong fish populations, and diverse substrates in order to survive and reproduce. While Chicago has done great work to clean the river and help many populations rebound, one issue that persists is a lack of diverse stretches of river bottom. To counter this issue, we have designed metal boxes to hold this substrate (chiefly sand) and keep pockets of it below the water’s surface. This allows the mussels to filter in all the food and oxygen they require from the river water.  We gather these mussels from elsewhere in the north branch and take pregnant females over to the DuPage County Urban Stream Research Center where they rear juveniles and return them to us so we can supplement our populations in the Wild Mile.

What’s your favorite aspect of working for Urban Rivers?

There’s no challenge too great or daunting. Whenever we answer one question or solve one problem, two more pop up as a result. It’s that constant learning and exploring that makes it all worth it. 

Do you have a favorite animal on the Wild Mile?

The Banded Killifish or the Black Crowned Night Heron. They were both once listed as threatened species in Illinois, and their recovery is a testament to what we can achieve when we take care of the natural world rather than just dismissing and paving over it.

A favorite plant on the Wild Mile?

Lobelia Cardinalis – the Red Cardinal Flower is one of our summer bloomers and one of the most vibrant and beautiful shades of red you can imagine.  

How did you become involved in this project?

Before Urban Rivers was even formed, I volunteered to help one of our co-founders collect data for his masters thesis work: to determine if a prototype floating island was more attractive to fish than under docks or elsewhere along the canal. A few years after he completed his thesis, a group of like-minded individuals came together to take that concept and make floating gardens the centerpiece to a new river-based park, which would later be dubbed the Wild Mile.

How can Chicagoans get involved in the Wild Mile?

The Wild Mile is meant to be free and open to the public. Besides coming by, enjoying the park and telling their friends about it, anyone can join our River Ranger program. This is our base of volunteers who help maintain the Wild Mile, and support Urban Rivers during installation, research, and beyond.  



Urban Rivers

Goal 14: Life Below Water

United Nations: Oceans


Author Charles Kay

More posts by Charles Kay

Leave a Reply