Waste not, want not: A Chicago sustainability story
Hurricane Harvey forced urban planners around the world to confront the potential perils of developing major metropolitan areas on flat, swampy lands. Houston, Texas, is naturally susceptible to flooding because flat lands don’t drain; when it rains, there’s nowhere for the water to go. Covering flat lands with impervious surfaces like parking lots, buildings, and roads only compounds the problem, because rainwater has even fewer opportunities to infiltrate the ground. Instead, water inundates neighborhoods, pours into homes, and makes rivers out of interstates. During particularly intense storms like Hurricane Harvey, rainwater doesn’t just flow through paved urban corridors—it surges, threatening public safety with flash floods and swift currents. Moreover, storm surges pick up oils, chemicals, fecal matter, and other harmful urban residues, threatening the health of all those who come in contact with the water.
In cities like Houston and New Orleans, development patterns and natural resource management strategies are now exacerbating those cities’ vulnerability to the devastating effects of natural disasters. Houston demolished some of the nearby Katy Prairie that had absorbed water and served as an overflow area for nature’s water regime. New Orleans gobbled up wetlands that had served as natural buffers. How can cities become more resilient? Inspiration may be found in the history of a very different kind of coastal city: Chicago, Illinois.
The story of Chicago’s development is inextricably linked to its relationship with the natural environment, beginning 16,000 years ago when an enormous glacier sat on (and flattened) the land. Ever since, urban planners and policymakers have grappled with how to manage a city built on flat, swampy land, and what to do with the animal and human waste that accumulates in urban environments.
Development decisions in the past, like the reversal of the Chicago River and the construction of the Chicago Area Waterways System, solved many pressing waste management problems at the time, but also created long-term problems that the city grapples with today. Undaunted, Chicago is implementing adaptive strategies to manage the unintended consequences of past decisions in the face of present-day circumstances, and the agency responsible for treating the city’s wastewater—the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District—is at the forefront.
How we think about managing waste has changed radically over the last 100 years. Rather than discarding waste products, wastewater treatment plants are beginning to recover and harness the resources that flow through them—including nutrients, energy, solids, and water—and transform them into assets that generate revenue and protect the environment. Environmental and economic changes are putting new pressures on metropolitan areas, but water and wastewater utilities across the nation are uniquely positioned to lead urban sustainability efforts.
Chicago’s successful transition from waste management to resource recovery underscores the importance of imaginative planning and being willing to question fundamental axioms. As the effects of climate change become more acute, cities will be increasingly forced to reconsider long-held strategies for managing waste, floods, fires, heat waves, power outages, hurricanes, and other challenges. Urban planners must consider the particular needs of their city as they chart a path forward, but it behooves them to also understand how other cities embarked on remarkable transformations allowing them to thrive in the 21st century. Chicago’s sustainability story is rich with insight for planners, policy makers, scientists, and curious citizens.