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What if Chicago’s rivers were seen not just as waterways, but as treasured cultural and economic assets, similar to Lake Michigan?

In 2016, the Metropolitan Planning Council, in partnership with the City of Chicago, the Trust, and others, launched Our Great Rivers, the first-ever comprehensive vision for the Calumet, Chicago, and Des Plaines rivers. Created with the input of more than 6,000 residents, Our Great Rivers reimagines the river system as a vital lifeforce that sparks economic development, brings communities closer together, and makes our region healthy and beautiful. 

The Trust saw a natural opportunity to advance the Our Great Rivers vision while furthering our goals for catalytic neighborhood investment. To that end, we created a fund to support community-led projects seeking to drive equitable development along Chicago’s 150 miles of riverfront. To expand the number of projects that could receive funding, we invited contributions from donors who share our passion for the rivers vision. Through our donors’ generosity, nearly $1 million has been granted to 19 community-driven projects since 2017. 

One of these projects is Calumet Connect, a collective of civic and community partners created by the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The group provides data and research on public health impacts in the Calumet Industrial Corridor to help guide future land use decisions. Thanks to Calumet Connect’s efforts, two new development projects are set to bring 78 units of affordable housing with adjacent commercial space alongside a Calumet River garden and play area by 2023. 

The impact of Our Great Rivers extends far beyond the city. StormStore, an innovative pilot program launched in 2020, is using a credit trading model to solve the problem of stormwater management in the Lower Des Plaines and Little Calumet watersheds. By allowing developers with limited stormwater storage to buy credits from properties that can accommodate extra, StormStore helps developers save money in the long run while incentivizing landowners to continue creating green infrastructure to reduce local flooding. The pilot has the potential to expand throughout the region—so that we can keep floodwater out of everyone’s basement.

The community-led projects supported by the Trust and our donors have achieved meaningful progress for Our Great Rivers:

  • $1.5 million in additional investment leveraged for our rivers
  • 100 rivers-related events and programs
  • 130 active partners across the region