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American Society of Landscape Architects


July 2006 Issue

Industrial Revolution
At Lake Calumet, Chicago rethinks the boundaries between industrial development and nature. But can wildlife really coexist with heavy industry?

By Frank Edgerton Martin

Industrial Revolution From Calumet area land use plan. Courtesy Chicago DPD

“…Chicago seemed to break free from the soil and soar skyward as a wholly artificial creation. In appearing to be a triumph of human labor and will, it concealed its long-standing debts to the natural systems that made it possible.”

—William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West

Chicago is a big-shouldered city with a long tradition of confronting nature. In the nineteenth century, citizens reversed the flow of the Chicago River and built extensive canals to connect with the Mississippi River. A century later, Chicago became home to some of the world’s tallest buildings, visible for miles over the region’s flat prairies and wetlands. Less well-known is the story of the Lake Calumet region on the city’s southeastern edge. Since the nineteenth century, this area at the southern tip of Lake Michigan has been drastically altered by industry with landfills, slag from the steel mills, and other waste filling entire rivers and large portions of Lake Calumet.

Today, 60 percent of Chicago’s land available for industry remains near Calumet. Often considered undesirable in a “postindustrial” economy, heavy industry holds significant promise for the region’s employment base; the challenge is to plan and build it to coexist with urban nature. But, thanks to a visionary commitment from Chicago’s Mayor Richard M. Daley, Honorary ASLA, and the Department of Planning and Development (DPD), the war against nature may be over. More than 1,000 acres of potential development sites lie next door to Chicago’s most important wetlands, approximately 4,000 acres of which are to be managed as the Calumet Open Space Reserve.

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