Philip Enquist Envisions a New Future for the Great Lakes Region

Philip Enquist and his team envision a future for the region that would make Daniel Burnham proud.

Affiliation Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
Location Chicago

It’s easy to admire Chicago architect Phil Enquist’s commitment to water quality and sustainable growth in the Great Lakes region. When we first met in mid-November, he was so eager to show off a new lakefront development site on the city’s south side that he was willing to drive his spiffy new hybrid SUV over freshly laid asphalt to do it.

Taking care to avoid hot spots that could explode his tires, Enquist steered around a crew steamrolling the still-warm blacktop. A thunderstorm was coming, and he was in a hurry to show me around before the rain hit. Once the location of a massive U.S. Steel plant, the nearly 600-acre site is now little more than slag covered with topsoil, scattered with few trees and drifts of prairie grass. Soon, however, it will become home to the first phase of Lakeside, a project that will take decades to complete and will eventually include housing for 13,000 to 15,000 residents plus offices and retail spaces, and a waterfront park and marina (and involve rerouting a highway). For Enquist, the partner in charge of urban design and planning at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), Lakeside has special meaning as the first concrete outcome of his crusade to rally the region around a 100-year plan for the entire Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River basins. He calls his effort (also a blog) the Great Lakes Century: Toward a Vision.

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As Lakeside rises over the next few decades, Enquist hopes it will demonstrate how redevelopment projects in the Great Lakes can lure new residents to vacant urban land and boost impoverished areas like Chicago’s south side. Admittedly, an asphalt boulevard might not seem the most auspicious start for a project that aspires to cutting-edge environmental sensitivity. Enquist pointed out that portions of the right-of-way, which is being built by the city, are permeable, and that it’s designed to accommodate bike lanes and a light rail line that will zip residents to and from the distant downtown Loop. If Lakeside grows as Enquist envisions, lake water will sluice through heat exchangers in a central plant to provide cheap air conditioning. Living machines and “membrane bioreactor systems” will return clean effluent to the lake, rather than the Chicago River, whose flow the city famously reversed in 1900 to channel sewage away from Lake Michigan. Lakeside “will be the biggest chunk of Chicago that doesn’t send its water to the Mississippi,” Enquist says. It will also exemplify his broader vision for the water-rich region that stretches over 1,700 miles from Duluth, Minnesota, to Toledo, Ohio, and then to the mouth of the St. Lawrence River in Québec and New Brunswick. It’s a big area. If it were superimposed on a map of Europe, as it is in a slide in Enquist’s basic stump speech on his project, it would extend from London to Marseilles, France, and from there to Warsaw.

A 60-year-old native of Los Angeles, Enquist has overseen urban design and planning in SOM’s Chicago office for 15 years, and the entire firm for the past five. His group has tackled large-scale plans for cities and regions around the world, but he’s been frustrated by obstacles to regional planning in the U.S., where land use and zoning are locally controlled, election cycles are short, and money for new infrastructure—much less the maintenance of crumbling old systems—is tight. Nevertheless, he got hooked on the idea of addressing the Great Lakes region four years ago when the nonprofit Burnham Plan Centennial challenged organizations across the city to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan for Chicago with new ideas for the twenty-first century. Enquist saw it as a chance to think big. “It is frustrating to go to China and see a national infrastructure investment that takes your breath away,” he says. “We’ve got to have a revved-up view of the future.”

The idea of seeing the Great Lakes holistically is not new. In 2005, the governors of eight U.S. states and the premiers of Ontario and Québec signed the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact, which is designed to prevent large-scale diversions of water to thirsty regions elsewhere. Within three years, state legislatures on the U.S. side had all ratified the agreement and President George W. Bush had signed it into law.

Across the region, local initiatives on water quality and development are under way. The Canada United States Law Institute of Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, and the Mowat Centre in Toronto are participants in the nonprofit Great Lakes–St. Lawrence Regional Council. They hope it will be the leading voice on binational cooperation in the region.

To Enquist’s knowledge, however, urban design and large-scale planning are not yet part of the dialogue. In essence, he assigned himself to the task, gratis, for a client group that in theory includes everyone who lives around or cares about the Great Lakes. “It’s a heavy lift, but the general consensus is there is no one in charge of this vast water system and what we’re doing with it,” he says. Working over the past four years on a pro bono basis with staff members Clinton Bautz, Paul O’Connor, Lyndon Valicenti, Daniel O’Shaughnessy, and Michael Kavalar, Enquist has produced a series of planning documents, a pair of videos, and launched a blog called the Great Lakes Century.

The core argument is that the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River are in danger of being spoiled by invasive species such as Asian carp, air pollution from coal-fired power plants, and agricultural runoff that nourishes toxic algae and leads to vast aquatic dead zones. Cities and suburbs packed with hard surfaces flush storm water into combined sewers that overflow and spoil beaches after heavy rains.

Enquist estimates that the region’s population could grow from 55 million to 71 million by 2050, spreading 3,000 to 4,000 square miles of additional sprawl around cities on both sides of the U.S.–Canadian border and adding a greater burden to aging sewer systems. Other threats include climate change and hydraulic fracturing—known as fracking—the practice of releasing natural gas from shale by drilling horizontal wells and injecting the earth with water and chemicals under pressure.

Addressing such challenges requires rethinking the way the entire region is governed. Enquist frequently asks his listeners to imagine erasing the border between the U.S. and Canada within the region to facilitate a high-speed passenger rail line from Minneapolis to Montréal, with spurs from Chicago to St. Louis, from Cleveland to Pittsburgh, and from Montreal to New York City.

He’d like the watersheds of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence designated as a new kind of international park system to foster tourism and to celebrate the region’s rolling terrain, meandering shorelines, and culturally rich cities. He wants to recruit colleges and universities to train new generations of students to better manage the region’s resources. And he’d repopulate vacant areas in shrinking cities as a way to halt sprawl and preserve agricultural land. The Chicago region could accommodate another 2.5 million residents simply by developing 60 square miles of vacant residential land already within the city.

Another goal of Enquist’s is to foster a more positive and nuanced identity for the region than that of the Rust Belt, which brings to mind ruin-porn images of Detroit and abandoned neighborhoods reverting to prairie. The Great Lakes region doesn’t have snow capped peaks or warm beaches, but it does have thousands of square miles of forests, marshes, and intricate shorelines formed by glaciers during the last ice age 10,000 years ago. From the satellite point of view in Enquist’s documents, the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence watersheds are only four percent urban. Forests account for 42 percent of the region, agriculture another 21 percent. And 33 percent of its surface is cold, fresh water.

Enquist has given 30 speeches on his vision across the U.S. and Canada since 2009, but has yet to capture a large following. As of mid-November, the Great Lakes Century blog had received only 3,297 hits since it was launched in April, and only 2,404 unique users. Yet Enquist is gratified about the positive feedback he’s getting from elected officials. Former Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley has praised his work. In 2010, the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, a group of 95 U.S. and Canadian cities, endorsed it. David Ullrich, director of the group, says Enquist’s work “is really, really important as a coalescing force in the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence. I think it has advanced our region in identifying itself as a region.” Lynn McClure, the Midwest regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association, says, “the influence Enquist’s thinking has had on the region is profound.”

What comes next is harder. Enquist clearly feels challenged by the difficulty of implementing a vision that still remains somewhat abstract. That’s why he likes to focus on Lakeside, which gives him a chance to talk about how a larger Great Lakes vision can be made real.

At one time, the U.S. Steel South Works employed 20,000 workers and produced much of the steel used to build the Chicago skyline. The company closed the plant in 1992 and scraped it flat in 1997 to avoid taxes on the unused buildings, Enquist says. In the mid-2000s, U.S. Steel and McCaffery Interests Inc. hired SOM and Sasaki Associates of Watertown, Massachusetts, and Antunovich Associates, to create a master plan for the development.

Today, all that’s left of the old plant is a pair of huge parallel concrete walls that form a giant trench into which ships had moored in an adjacent slip, depositing mountains of pea-sized iron-ore pellets. Resembling a Roman-scale ruin, the walls will become the armature of Lakeside’s future central park and housing district. Stepping out of his car, Enquist disappeared momentarily through a break in one of the walls and emerged with a handful of ore pellets, which leave reddish-gray dust on the skin when handled. “There’s something beautiful about them, isn’t there?” he said.

A moment later, a heavy downpour started and it was time to leave. Water from the storm would end up filtering through slag on the site. If Enquist and his team have their way, Lakeside will capture rainwater in the future with green roofs, finger parks, cisterns, and bioswales that filter it cleanly back to the lake instead of sending it down the Mississippi. That’s an idea big enough to make Daniel Burnham truly proud.

Game Changers 2013

Game Changers | Architecture: Women’s Opportunity Center

Game Changers | Advocacy: Edward Mazria

Game Changers | Planning: The Great Lakes Century

Game Changers | Patronage: Jamie Gray

Game Changers | Research: Dream:In

Game Changers | History: Vincent Scully

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