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Chicago's Deep Tunnel: Is it the solution to urban flooding or a cautionary tale?
Slate | January 2, 2019
That the Chicago River is reborn, that its tree-shaded promenades are thronged with strolling families, that new buildings turn toward the water and old buildings have opened new windows to face it, that people kayak in what was once an open cesspool in the middle of downtown—all of this is a point of pride here. People laughed when then-Mayor Richard J. Daley said in the ’70s that he’d one day like to see people grilling freshly caught fish on the river’s banks. Though it would have seemed insane in 1980 (or 1880), people do fish in the Chicago River today, and the number of species to be found here has multiplied tenfold in the past four decades.
That’s because Chicago built a second river, an infernal reflection of the first, tracing its course hundreds of feet below ground. On rainy days, this subterranean passage, a conduit that can hold more than 1 billion gallons of wastewater, welcomes a roaring torrent of shit, piss, and oily runoff from the downtown streets. This megasewer, a filthy hidden portrait to the Chicago River’s Dorian Gray, is dynamic enough to create its own wave action if not properly supervised. That’s what happened on Oct. 3, 1986, when a geyser blasted through a downtown street, lifting a 61-year-old woman’s Pontiac Bonneville into the air like a toy, nearly drowning the driver in dirty water. [...]
Chicago is vulnerable. Of the 15 largest metros in the United States, only Houston and Miami have higher rates of flood-insurance adoption. There were more than 181,000 flood-insurance claims in Chicago between 2007 and 2011 amounting to $773 million in damage, according to a 2014 report by the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a Chicago think tank. The figures almost certainly underestimate the problem, because not all insurance companies release flood-claim data, and many homeowners don’t have policies that cover street flooding or sewer back-ups. A separate study by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources recorded $2.3 billion in damage between 2007 and 2014, with more than 85 percent of payouts occurring in the Chicago metro area. What happens in Chicago is paradigmatic urban flooding: There is no correlation between FEMA flood plains and flooding damage. The dimensions of the crisis are human-made.
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