In April of 2007 the UN made the shocking statement that “two out of every three people in the world will be facing water shortages by 2025.” Five years later, we might ask ourselves: what is being done to prevent this problem in major metropolitan areas? Chicago firm Urban Lab has developed a progressive solution known as “Growing Water” – a plan for Eco-Boulevards throughout Chicago that will use natural ecosystems to filter and then return 100% of the water extracted from the Great Basin and used by Chicagoans. According to Urban Lab founders Martin Felsen and Sarah Dunn, Chicagoans are extracting about 1 billion gallons of water a day from the Lake Michigan Basin without any reuse, and they hope their Eco-Boulevards proposal will close that loop.

The project was a proposal for the History Channel’s “City of the Future: A Design and Engineering Challenge” competition, in which designers from New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago were challenged to create a conceptual plan for their respective cities 100 years from now. It is is progressive not only for its biological and scientific merits, but also for the way in which it will “intensify social, cultural, and ecological effectiveness of the historic Emerald Necklace” in the city according to The project will cross historic, ethnic, and economic boundaries to enhance socialization among residents with the provision of new widespread greenspaces.

According to the Southern Lake Michigan Regional Water Supply Consortium, 20% of the earth’s freshwater is on deposit in the Lake Michigan Basin, and the Basin accounts for a shocking 95% of US freshwater. Water is a critical mechanism for supporting natural ecosystems in harsh urban environments like that of Chicago.  Urban Lab proposes two types of Living Machines® to be implemented in Chicago’s streetscapes.

First, a “Wetland Living System” will enhance existing parks and natural spaces as well as incorporate functional ecosystems into streetscapes and public right-of-ways. The Wetland Living Systems will weave together the city’s existing natural and infrastructure assets, create opportunities for stormwater infiltration rather than runoff and sedimentation, and enhance access to natural spaces within a 15-minute walk of most Chicago residents. How does a Wetland Living System work? What does it look like? It can be something as simple as an open greenspace, a pedestrian or bike trail, botanic garden, urban farm, or bioswale. The System and surrounding infrastructure will carefully incorporate specific micro-organisms and plant species that will break down pollutants added to water by users before returning it to the basin.

The second component of the project is a “hydroponic Living Machine®”, which will use aquatic life and micro-organisms in reactor tanks to treat wastewater organically. Though they would be contained in greenhouse-like spaces with access to light but the ability to trap blackwater odors, these tanks could be made visible to the public as an educational tool about the larger project.

Hopefully, “Growing Water” will soon advance from a vision for the future to part of Chicago’s Metropolitan Area Planning efforts as a phased initiative with the potential to turn a blue urbanism nightmare into a green urbanism dream. Check out the links and video below to learn more about this project.

Living Machine® is a registered trademark of Living Machine ® Systems, LC3. More information can be found at

Post by Holly Hendrix, Biophilic Cities Project Researcher, UVA Department of Urban & Environmental Planning