Lake Michigan is one of Chicago’s greatest nature landmarks. Whether we visit the Chicago beaches, walk down the Lakefront Trail, or look out the window as we drive down North DuSable Lake Shore Drive, we are awestruck by our lake’s natural beauty. However, year after year, we are seeing our beaches diminishing with erosion, more frequent road closures due to flooding, and the deterioration of lakeshore structures due to intense water events. With climate change creating weather events that are more devastating than ever, we believe that it is time to utilize nature-based solutions to protect our lakefront, maintain our roadways and infrastructure, and cultivate our city’s beauty for future generations to enjoy.
Chicago's shoreline is at risk
With each passing year, we witness more impacts of climate change. Stronger, more frequent storms, an overall trend towards higher lake levels, a reduction in winter ice cover--these all fuel the high waves that batter beaches and paths, flood buildings, and close DuSable Lake Shore Drive. At the same time, we see more evidence of the inadequacy of “hard edge” solutions to manage these storms surges. Concrete revetments and metal girders just push higher water to other unprotected places. Sometimes they simply collapse, such as the Northerly Island revetment that failed mere months after it was built by the Corps. This Chicago Park District video shows drone footage of Calumet Beach House flooding in 2019.
Far North and Side communities are most vulnerable
A 2022 study by the Environmental Law and Policy Center identified communities most at risk of flooding and erosion along the shoreline: Chicago’s North Side neighborhoods of Rogers Park, Edgewater and Uptown and South Side neighborhoods of South Shore and the Southeast Sides. It is no coincidence that these locations have also been the focus of our Last Four Miles advocacy to complete Chicago's lakefront parks and path system, which currently falls short by two miles at both the north and south ends of our 26 miles of shoreline. This 2019 photo is from Juneway Beach in Rogers Park Rogers Park--only a year after the concrete breakwater was fortified. Read more from Block Club Chicago here: As Lakefront Levels Reach 30-Year High, North Side Aldermen Frantically Work To Find Fix To Shoreline Problem
looking to nature for solutions
We cannot build our way out of this crisis. Instead of fighting the lake, we need to work with it using nature-based solutions (NBS) such as native grasses, sand dunes, and other natural structures that have thrived for thousands of years in these areas. Adding more of these features along our shore provides a buffer, absorbing the impact of high waves before they reach more vulnerable areas. And these are the very design strategies we have been promoting since 2009 to help complete the Last Four Miles!
Despite the wealth of research and examples that demonstrate the effectiveness of nature based solutions to combat lakefront erosion, there's often skepticism. How can something as soft as a stand of dune grass provide more protection than a concrete wall? That's why Friends of the Parks is inspiring, equipping and mobilizing folks to learn and spread the word about nature based solutions and their many benefits through this year's Seed Grant Program, Netsch Lectures, Walks with FOTP in 2023, and direct calls to action. For example, the image showing four strategies for lakefront erosion are from a North DuSable Lake Shore study spotlight. The project team presented at our July, 2023 Netsch Lecture: Parks and Beaches as Nature-Based Solutions to Erosion.
a crucial Window of opportunity
We have a crucial window of opportunity to influence the lakefront’s future. The Army Corps of Engineers is currently doing a study to develop proposals for protecting Chicago's shoreline in the face of climate change driven storms. Historically, the Corps has opted for a most "cost-effective" solution rooted in gray infrastructure. It is our job to build community and political support for a green, nature-based approach to ensure our lakefront is resilient to climate change and truly open, clear and free for all.