As this comparison of lakes and islands from 1855 shows, the Great Lakes combined are roughly the size of the United Kingdom. G.W. Colton, Colton's Atlas of the World Illustrating Physical and Political Geography, vol. 2 (New York, 1855).

The book Third Coast Atlas seeks to illuminate the Great Lakes—America’s “third coast”—through maps, plans, photos, and more.

Stretching across eight states and two Canadian provinces, the Great Lakes region contains the world’s largest freshwater system and is likely the greatest single surface aggregation of rare resources on the planet. If it was a standalone country, its economy would be the fourth largest in the world. Yet its natural resources and vibrant urbanity are seldom studied as a unified zone, and have rarely been considered the center of the North American continent’s cultural life.

The book Third Coast Atlas is an expansive attempt to define the Great Lakes region and re-evaluate it as a place with a story to tell beyond its constituent cities. Editors Charles Waldheim, Mason White, Clare Lyster, and Daniel Ibañez have compiled maps, plans, diagrams, timelines, photos, and more. In keeping with the subtitle—Prelude to a Plan—they aim to describe the current state of the Great Lakes more than offer prescriptions for the future. From the intro: “Third Coast Atlas offers a telescopic survey of the synthetic and natural phenomena of a specific place in the world. It is equal parts cartographic compendium, photographic record, resource index, urban analysis, ecological almanac, and design projection.”

The Great Lakes’ loss of status is due to the parallel trends of media and service-industry consolidation and the waning of regional industrial economies. As the American economy shifts toward services and information, media and technology companies cluster more along the coasts. Meanwhile, U.S. manufacturing has been de-emphasized and globalized, and there’s less demand for cars from Detroit or glass from Toledo, to name just two faltering Great Lakes industrial hubs.

It’s especially dispiriting when you consider that one of the things the Great Lakes used to be known for was wild experimentation in the built environment. Described in several essays in the book, this is a mantle claimed by Chicago, but which really belongs to the entire region. “This region has really been at the forefront of urban and architectural experimentation over the last century and a half,” said co-editor Charles Waldheim, a landscape architecture professor at Harvard. “Almost any major developments in urbanization have been tested in this region.”

The Great Lakes were where the skyscraper and the shopping mall were invented. The urban street grid was perfected here, and the field of urban planning took some of its earliest steps here toward becoming a formalized profession. Its ports and shipping distribution districts were trendsetters. And all manner of Modernist campus and quasi-megastructure experiments took root in the humble middle of North America. Think of Mies van der Rohe’s campus at Chicago’s Illinois Institute of Technology and his Lafayette Park neighborhood in Detroit; Bertrand Goldberg’s city-within-two-towers Marina City, also in Chicago; and Moshe Safdie’s influential Habitat 67 in Montreal.

It is a vast legacy, matched by the physical dimensions of the Great Lakes themselves.

Comparison of North American coastlines (courtesy of Ibañez, Daniel, Lyster, Clare, Waldheim, Charles, and White, Mason. Third Coast Atlas: Prelude to a Plan. New York: Actar, 2017)

The Great Lakes contain 20 percent of the world’s fresh water and their shores are home to 36 million people. The shoreline dwarfs both the Canadian and American East and West Coasts, stretching on for almost 11,000 miles. That’s 42 percent of the circumference of the Earth.

The advance and retreat of glaciers in North America (courtesy of Natural Resources Canada)

But the Great Lakes originated from something much, much larger. As Geoff Manaugh and Anya Domlesky’s essay “Living in the Glacial Afterlife” explains, the lakes are the result of the Laurentide Ice Sheet, a continent-sized mass of ice two miles thick that originated in northern Quebec, stretching as far north as the Artic Circle and as far south as Missouri. As it advanced, it remade the region’s geology, carving basins and redistributing soil. Ten thousand years ago, the ice began to retreat, melting to fill the basins that would become the Great Lakes.

Detail of map showing piracy routes and Underground Railroad crossings (courtesy of Mark Hogan and Tim Maly)

Far away from the palm trees, rum barrels, and tropical parrots of the Caribbean, there was a bustling smuggling and piracy economy across the Great Lakes, as detailed by Mark Hogan and Tim Maly in the essay “The Longest Undefended Border.” But through the Antebellum Era, illicit border crossings via the lakes were often a benevolent act. The shortest (and thus one of the most popular) Underground Railroad routes leading to slavery-free Canada was through Ohio, across Lake Erie. The National Park Service commemorates this history at the Col. William Hubbard House in Ashtabula, Ohio, which was the last stop for many slaves before leaving America behind.  

There’s also a deep history of Great Lakes smugglers working in the traditional, less noble capacity. Prohibition boosted the smuggling economy of the Great Lakes dramatically. At its peak in 1929, 12,000 gallons of alcohol per day crossed into Detroit from Canada.

In 1838, Canadian-American pirate Bill Johnston famously led a raiding party of 40 onto the British vessel Sir Robert Peel in the St. Lawrence River. Disguised as Native Americans, he and his crew looted cargo and robbed passengers before dropping them off at a nearby island and then torching the ship, according to Shaun J. McLaughlin in The Patriot War Along the New York-Canada Border.

Likely the most colorful rogue of the Great Lakes was Dan Seavey, a pirate who ran a brothel and casino, and plundered ships for decidedly Midwestern cargo like lumber and venison. In 1908, he famously commandeered a ship, the Nellie Johnston, by drinking its captain and crew under the table and fleeing to Chicago to sell its contents. With a Revenue Cutter Service (a precursor to the Coast Guard) ship in pursuit, Seavey led a wild chase across Lake Michigan that lasted more than two weeks.

These tales of swashbuckling adventure sound like quirky historical curios, but Hogan and Maly end their essay on an ominous note: As regional inequalities grow across the Great Lakes, smuggling and piracy might become a more attractive option, “near Rust Belt cities like Buffalo or Detroit, much the way it was near the U.S.-Mexican border.”

The Great Lakes’ salt layer formed during the Silurian Period of the Paleozoic Era more than 400 million years ago. (Courtesy of Rosetta Elkin)

In terms of sheer tonnage, the greatest resource the Great Lakes region has to offer might not be fresh water, but salt. The Salina Formation is a layer of sodium chloride that lies under Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Ontario, Lake Huron, and Lake Erie. It’s saucer-shaped (closer to the surface at its edges and further underground at its center) and impossibly immense. It stretches across 70,000 square miles and is 260 to 660 feet thick. “Imagine that the salt deposit is the approximate width of a city block found at a depth greater than Toronto’s CN Tower,” Rosetta Elkin writes in her essay “The Great Salt Deposit.”

This mineral layer is the result of a saltwater sea that evaporated in the Paleozoic Era. There are 61 trillion tons on reserve in the U.S. alone (that’s 10 million times heavier than the Great Pyramid of Giza), and many times more that in Canada. Salt is generally considered to be the most readily available global resource.     

But Elkin, a landscape architecture professor at Harvard, sees particular value for salt in the Great Lakes, given its intense levels of urbanism and cold and snowy climate. “The history of mobility in the Great Lakes,” she writes, “is the history of salt.” Especially given the area’s proclivity for lake-effect snowstorms, the ubiquity and accessibility of road salt as an ice-melting agent has allowed Great Lakes cities to grow and subsist through the frigid months. The region is home to the world’s largest salt mine in Goderich, Ontario, on the banks of Lake Huron, and Detroit claims to have been the first city to use road salt.

Venetian cartographer Vincenzo Coronelli showed the relationship of the lakes to the Mississippi River. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Great Lakes’ development has progressed along a shared trajectory, with urbanization occurring most rapidly in places where the lakes connect to inland river basins, allowing the spread of commerce. Chicago is the largest and most historically successful version of this relationship. Its small, formerly swampy river fed into an expansive lake, and is near enough for portage to a major Mississippi River tributary (the Illinois River). From there, ships had access to the Gulf of Mexico.

Access to these waterways made Chicago an early industrial shipping titan, but similar patterns played out across the lakes. The Venetian cartographer and monk Vincenzo Coronelli noted the close geographic link between the western lakes and the Mississippi, illustrating it as a thick, axial artery in his 1688 map “Parti Occidentale du Canada ou de la Nouvelle France.” Tendrils from the Illinois River and the “Chekagou” River get close enough to kiss, but don’t quite consummate the deal. When it was completed in 1848, the Illinois-Michigan Canal linked the two rivers, setting the stage for Chicago late-19th-century rise as one of the world’s fastest-growing cities.

Proposal for a “Free Water Zone” in Chicago (Courtesy of UrbanLab)
(Courtesy of UrbanLab)

Throughout the Great Lakes’ history, the presence of fresh water has ignited rapid urbanization not because of its value as an extraction resource, but because it allowed easy mobility. But with climate change and the continuing degradation of freshwater resources, that’s likely to change very soon.

In his essay “Fresh Water Planning,” Illinois Institute of Technology architecture professor Martin Felsen foresees a future when the value and scarcity of fresh water skyrockets, as thirsty and growing Sunbelt cites exhaust their aquifers and carbon emissions heat up the planet. Potable water is a basic necessity for human life, but it’s also an industrial necessity for any developed economy, either as part of the manufacturing process (it takes 6,600 gallons of water to make a laptop computer, for example) or as a primary resource in the supply chain. That bodes well for Great Lakes cities, especially considering their proud industrial traditions and underused manufacturing infrastructure.

But Felsen’s proposal (developed with his partner in the design firm UrbanLab and wife, Sarah Dunn) doesn’t treat the Great Lakes water like Saudi Arabia treats its oil. His “Free Water Zone” leverages the value of water in a way that’s not purely extractive and corrosive to the ecosystem. There’s one simple rule: “In exchange for free water to run their factories, companies opening up or relocating to the free water zones will be asked to play by a series of closed loop water rules,” Felsen writes. All water extracted and potentially polluted must be returned in a pristine state.

Felsen envisions a mega-development of many city blocks that reaches out towards Lake Michigan. It’s centered on a landscaped flood control plain with bio-filtration streets and constructed wetlands radiating outward. This floodplain houses a research university, with factories huddled around it, where the landscape and urban fabric itself helps remediate water drawn in for industrial purposes. This becomes the impetus for a new mixed-use urban district, with all the attendant commercial, residential, and cultural amenities.

It’s an ambitious vision that’s right at home in the Great Lakes pantheon of urban experimentation.

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