Photo © Jill Paider Photography/Courtesy SOM

The Great Lakes and surrounding environs could sink well below the definition of “great” if this unique but often abused region of North America is ignored. That is the informal warning issued by Vision for the Great Lakes & St. Lawrence Region, a master plan recently crafted by the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). Philip J. Enquist, leader of the firm’s global city design practice, spearheaded the project. For drafting the plan, he will receive the inaugural Society of Architectural Historians (SAH) Award for Excellence in Design, Planning & Sustainability at the organization’s gala on November 10.

The Vision “addresses the phenomenal increase in human population, the impacts of urbanization, and the threat of climate change to the largest fresh water lake system in the world,” cites Chicago-based SAH in the award announcement. Enquist says the Vision plan was inspired by the 100th anniversary of Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago. What would a Burnham Plan for the 21st century look like? SOM’s team of planners identified a “family” of issues that command attention if the Great Lakes are to be protected and enhanced.

What inspired you to create this master plan?

I spend a tremendous amount of time with large-scale, complex problems, mostly dealing with emerging cities and global migration. On the flip side of that coin is the larger environment. Rather than putting boundaries or borders around urban areas, we sought to take a more holistic view of this unique geographic region and the challenges it faces in dealing with a myriad of issues that impact both human and natural health and wellbeing. The Great Lakes constitute 95,000 square miles of surface fresh water—20 percent of the world’s fresh water and the largest single collection of fresh water in the world, and more than 40 percent of the fresh water of North America. And yet we found there’s very little governing the protection or restoration—or future—of this amazing gift we’ve been given.

What did you learn from the process?

We wanted to understand what’s in place to protect this water, and what we could do as urban planners and designers to understand the issues facing us in this ecosystem, and what we can do in terms of guiding growth of urban areas and reducing the impact of man’s footprint, so we aren’t continuing to erode the quality of this resource. Just looking at the political boundaries, you can say no one’s in charge of this watershed. We came to a realization that agriculture is a real culprit. We’re putting nutrients and pesticides in the runoff going into the lakes, along with millions of gallons of raw sewage. There are issues with pharmaceutical wastes. And there are oceangoing ships loading iron ore from the Minnesota iron districts. These ships dump ballast water from all around the world, and this is a source of invasive species. We all know about the zebra mussels and quagga mussels and how they are taking over and competing with native fish. And then there is the Asian carp issue and the threat that they could get into the lakes.

What do you and SOM hope this ambitious plan may initiate or facilitate? What have you already seen in this regard?

If we can bring our countries (Canada and the U.S.) together and reduce waste dumped into our air and water, from fertilizer and salt runoff, coal power plants, ballast waters, sanitary sewers, pharmaceuticals, etc., we will ensure a cleaner environment and cleaner water for all future generations. The two countries have a global responsibility as stewards of one-fifth of the earth's fresh surface water to protect this watershed. We are also seeing encouraging signs from mayors of cities along the Great Lakes, to rethink their city's infrastructure systems, shift to renewable energy sources, close old coal power plants, introduce clean public transportation, and encourage water conservation measures. This century will prioritize the reengineering of our cities to put us in balance with nature.

What does SOM plan to do with the knowledge acquired from the development of this plan and its findings and recommendations? Is the firm spearheading any projects aimed at implementing these recommended initiatives?

Yes. We have taken our research on the Great Lakes and applied this to the South Works steel plant redevelopment site in Chicago. This is a 650-acre brownfield site that has been designed as a new urban neighborhood. Compact, transit-based and with a system that catches and returns to Lake Michigan 100% of the stormwater, it is the biggest reversal of a stormwater system planned in Chicago.

I also just recently led a Harvard Graduate School of Design studio on the Chicago River, to rethink how to clean up the river and engage this engineered water system into a better ecosystem for Chicago's central city. The study has also affected and influenced our work in China (especially Beijing, a water-shortage region) and also our work in Saudi Arabia, to be smarter about using, recycling and capturing water.