Rebecca Cook / Reuters

A 100-year plan for the region focuses on harnessing abundant freshwater to fuel an economic rebirth

There’s a shirt you’ll see people wearing every once in a while in Detroit, or Chicago, or Milwaukee. It’s a local pride sort of thing, but less touristy than those “I Heart NY” shirts and not quite as macho as “Don’t Mess with Texas." It’s simple and speaks more directly to Detroit and Chicago and Milwaukee and all their neighbors. It’s just the outline of the Great Lakes. No cities, no states, no nations, no borders. Just the lakes.

The implication is that the lakes themselves are what define the region, not the various cities, states and countries that rely upon them. It’s not a new idea, but one that’s complicated by the reality that these lakes are surrounded by more than 15,000 individual jurisdictions and governmental entities.

The shared resource of water is increasingly recognized as the world’s most important asset. The five interlinked bodies of the Great Lakes account for about 84 percent of the freshwater in the U.S. and roughly 21 percent of the freshwater in the world. In a sense, it’s everyone’s water.

“I think the world has become a smaller place, and we have to literally make ourselves forget about the boundaries,” says Philip Enquist. He’s director of urban design and planning at Skidmore Owings & Merrill, an international architecture and planning firm. Enquist has been leading a new charge to create a regional framework for the Great Lakes that preserves their health and improves the economies of the cities that surround them.

The Great Lakes Century is a proposal to create a 100-year plan for the region focusing specifically on improving water quality, and harnessing its abundance to fuel industrial and economic rebirth. It’s intended to serve as a comprehensive vision for the region.

“We’ve found that there are a tremendous amount of organizations focused on the health of the Great Lakes. But there aren’t really any groups focusing on industry and agriculture and the overall sustainability of the lakes,” says Enquist.

He and his team have written up a vision document for what this 100-year plan would entail, which includes addressing the widespread infrastructure issues that lead to sewage overflows into the lakes, improving mobility across the region, and reducing agricultural runoff. While it has broad goals, the plan’s two central issues are the environmental and economic sustainability of the region.

“There’s a real need for new economic activity in the Great Lakes to strengthen these communities,” says Enquist.

While the lakes themselves make up a third of the region, only 4 percent is urban, according to the report. But it’s a region supporting around 50 million people. Water, Enquist says, can play a huge role in industry, and the region needs to focus on ways to bring water-based manufacturing back to the Great Lakes, but using new water technologies that will enable more sustainable use of the resource.

“I think many of the cities in the Great Lakes are interested in how to look at water as a developing industry. Taking water out, using it for industry, filtering it, then returning it. That’s different from now, where we use it, treat it like waste, and dump it into the Mississippi River,” says Enquist.

He cautions that environmental protection should be the guiding principle.

“China is a great example of where economic growth has outpaced environmental health,” says Enquist.

He’s been presenting this idea to a variety of governments and stakeholders to gain support and, mainly, to plant the seed. He’s had positive feedback in Chicago, Grand Rapids, Detroit, Windsor, Milwaukee, Montreal, Quebec and others. At this stage, it’s primarily an idea, and Enquist and his team look at it as pro bono design work. But urging a bi-national strategy for the Great Lakes is a little different than designing a building.

“We’re architects and urban planners. We’re not accustomed to working with this large an audience when we’re not hired for a specific job,” says Enquist. He and SOM are also partnering with the Brookings Institution and the Mowat Centre in Toronto to help develop and share the idea.

Enquist has no misunderstandings about the massive scale of the idea. He argues that many of the issues facing the lakes will require significant government involvement, but that the level of participation isn’t unprecedented. He points to Glacier National Park in the U.S. and Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada, which have been merged into one bi-national “peace park.” The scale is smaller, but the principal is the same: natural resources don’t care about political boundaries.

And as population growth makes water an even more important resource to preserve, ideas like this may enmesh themselves with emerging public policies, in the Great Lakes region and beyond.

“It’s a model that other countries could learn from and be inspired by,” says Enquist.

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