RFP: Our Great Rivers 2021

RFP release: July 16th
Information session: Aug 11th 2 p.m. – 3 p.m. Click here to view the recording.
LOI deadline: Aug 27th 2021
Full application deadline: Oct 22nd 2021
Funding decision: Dec 17th 2021
Announcement: Dec 17th 2021

On August 4, 2021, the Metropolitan Planning Council hosted an Our Great Rivers workshop. Click here to view the recording.


In 2014, The Chicago Community Trust met with advocates for the rivers to discuss how to institutionalize river priorities within government agencies and community structures. Because of the efforts of many, Chicagoans were celebrating improved water quality and the return of wildlife to parts of the system. But was an ecological agenda enough to secure commitments from the broader group of stakeholders necessary to unlock the full potential of Chicago’s rivers and tributaries? Out of these conversations came the recognition that resident-led community and economic development in river-proximate communities was also necessary to realize the system’s multi-functional potential, particularly in communities of color.

In 2015, the City of Chicago and a team of partners led by the Metropolitan Planning Council launched Great Rivers Chicago. This long-term initiative undertook as its signature task a visioning process for the Chicago, Calumet, and Des Plaines rivers and tributaries within the city’s boundaries. After 15 months and nearly 100 public events, the partners synthesized the thoughts and ideas of more than 6,000 residents into the Our Great Rivers vision, the city’s first-ever comprehensive vision for the entirety of its river system.

Since the formal launch of Great Rivers Chicago in 2016, 19 hyper-local initiatives funded by the Trust and others have begun to make changes along stretches of the river system. At last count, more than 130 organizational and institutional partners were involved in these collaborations, making Great Rivers Chicago a model program for using a shared asset to bring ideas, people and communities together. To date, there have been three rounds of funding for projects that align with the Our Great Rivers themes of Inviting, Living, and Productive rivers. Most of the projects have strong community leadership. The first two rounds emphasized the Inviting theme, resulting in projects to bring people to the rivers, including public art and riverfront improvements to enhance the visitor experience. For the third round, communities were asked to emphasize the Productive theme and create projects that make the rivers a driver of a sustainable economy. Now, in the fourth round of projects, the Trust is calling for ideas that align with the Living rivers theme of the vision.

Need/Opportunity Statement

According to Healthy Chicago 2025, between 2012 and 2017, Chicago’s Black, Latinx, and Asian populations experienced decreased life expectancy while life expectancy for white Chicagoans remained steady. Despite Chicago’s immense wealth and World City status, large swaths of the South and West sides suffer from disinvestment due to population loss, economic divestment, environmental degradation, and other factors. South of the Loop, riverfront communities are often struggling communities, particularly along the heavily industrialized Calumet and Little Calumet rivers and the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, where air, land, and water pollution regularly makes headlines. Furthermore, racial segregation and other structural ills starve communities of opportunities and resources to chart their own destinties. According to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, as of 2015, annual median household income in Chicago’s 32 riverfront community areas ranged from $13,345 in largely Black Riverdale on the Far South Side to $110,365 in largely white Forest Glen on the Northwest Side. In South Chicago, also predominantly Black, 28.5 percent of land was vacant, compared to 0.3 percent in Forest Glen. The heavily Latinx Lower West Side, along the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, had the highest industrial land acreage, at 26.2 percent, and the Loop had the lowest with 0.1 percent.

Data from the Chicago Department of Public Health suggests the life expectancy disparity between whites and people of color results from chronic health conditions tied to social, built, and natural environments. To be sure, the physical, emotional and economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the need for “complete” communities, where services and amenities are relevant, affordable, and nearby. This includes high-quality natural areas. At their best, Chicago’s riverfronts promote wellbeing by providing space for physical recreation, social connection, and psychological restoration. Even before the imperative of a global pandemic, some Our Great Rivers projects and initiatives were blending health, environment, and economic development. For example, Calumet Connect is a community planning process that integrates public health and environmental justice into industrial corridor planning. H2NOW Chicago, a project of “blue economy” pioneer Current, is piloting real-time water quality monitoring technology that will greatly inform how and when communities interact with the rivers.

More projects like these are needed in post-pandemic Chicago. Therefore, the Trust is calling for ideas to advance the Living rivers theme of the Our Great Rivers vision, described here:

From riverbeds to shorelines, plants, animals, and people will co-exist in vibrant, healthy ecosystems. Water quality management policies will proactively reduce pollution, restore the environment, create more habitat for fish and wildlife, and aggressively combat the spread of invasive species. Future riverfront development of all kinds will incorporate planned space for all forms of life, connecting people to nature.

Project & Initiative Qualifications

Applicants may submit ideas for programs, planning, place-making, research, studies, analyses, public awareness, policy development, and advocacy in river-proximate communities.

Competitive proposals will include most of these qualifications:

  • Advance the goals of the Living rivers theme of the Our Great Rivers vision. A limited number of proposals under the Inviting and Productive themes will be considered.
  • Position the rivers as catalysts for investment in communities of color with community residents and organizations leading or shaping the work. Majority Black and Latinx communities will receive priority.
  • Create built environment solutions that advance the fields of public health and the environment and improve the physical condition of communities.
  • Create natural environment solutions that advance the field of public health and improve the physical condition of communities.
  • Create public health solutions through the built and natural environments and improvement to the physical condition of communities.
  • Collaborate across communities and sectors (i.e., public, private, nonprofit).  Proposals without robust partnerships will not receive funding. Commitments from key partners, including elected officials and public agencies, must be confirmed through letters of support. Projects of similar topic or geographic overlap may be asked to combine efforts.
  • Promote co-benefits across topic areas (e.g., a built environment initiative that creates public health benefits).
  • Prepare communities to transition land to sustainable uses.
  • Advance the goals and leverage the resources of existing community/municipal planning processes and place-based initiatives, other than Our Great Rivers, such as Healthy Chicago 2025 and the City of Chicago Air Quality & Health Report, City of Chicago Green Recovery Agenda, Opportunity Zones, the Industrial Corridor Modernization Initiative, Neighborhood Opportunity Fund corridors, Chicago Prize initiatives, Invest South/West corridors, and others.
  • Address systemic barriers through policy change, engagement with public officials and agency leaders, partnerships with the private sector, pioneering research, or the creation of innovative and replicable processes, approaches, or structures.

Geographic qualifications: Chicago and suburban communities that share a land or river border with the City of Chicago and have a river or tributary identified in the Our Great Rivers vision. Proposals must demonstrate a direct and proximate impact on the rivers. A map of eligible community areas in Chicago can be found here.

Grant Type


Grant Amounts & Term

The Chicago Community Trust will make up to 15 grants under this funding opportunity. Grant awards will be between $50,000 and $150,000. Grant recipients will be expected to meet the Trust’s requirements for the submission of financial and narrative reports at the end of the annual grant cycle, including a final report.


For more information about the criteria and application for this RFP, please visit GrantCentral, The Chicago Community Trust’s online grants management system.

Download the full RFP here.