Engineering Safe Streets: A Cyclist’s Perspective

WBK Engineering Transportation Design Engineer Matt Cave describes the issue in simple terms: “Cities are primarily designed for cars, and cyclists are frowned upon. Too often there aren’t even shoulders on roads, so cyclists must share the lane with vehicles. Cyclists don’t like it because they’re worried about getting hit, and motorists don’t like it because they get slowed down. It’s a lose-lose for everybody.”

As Matt rides his bike to work most days, he knows this firsthand, and safety is forefront in his mind.

“We’re like 1/20th the size of a car so it can be scary sometimes.”

Matt Cave, Transportation Design Engineer, WBK Engineering

More Bikes on the Road

The main goal of a traffic project is simple. “The mission is straightforward,” says Matt, “for everyone to get from point A to point B safely.” This has become increasingly important as commuters who bike to work increased 61% from 2000 to 2019, and in a recent survey, 10% of respondents answered that they’re more likely to bike to work post-COVID.

Dave Simmons, Executive Director of Ride Illinois, a non-profit organization committed to cyclist infrastructure and safety, has seen the growth firsthand. “Interest in biking for both recreation and transportation has definitely increased,” states Dave. “The challenge for advocacy organizations is keeping interest level high so riding a bike becomes second nature for more and more Illinois residents.”

“One of our goals is to convince more people to integrate riding a bike into their lifestyle, not just for recreation. If one asks, ‘Can I bike there?’ and the answer is ‘yes’, we encourage them to hop on their bike and go! If the answer is ‘no’ because infrastructure is subpar or there isn’t parking at the end location, we encourage them to raise their concern to decision makers.”

Dave Simmons, Executive Director, Ride Illinois

Increased commitment to biker safety comes as a result of increased cyclist fatalities, due in large part to unclear markings and driver inattention. Naturally, this has forced municipalities to quickly rethink safety measures on their busy streets, partnering with civil engineering firms like WBK to redesign traffic for all to share the road.

“There are a variety of different bike safety designs to choose from,” explains Yemi Oyewole, PE, WBK Transportation Practice Manager, all with advantages and disadvantages. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach as needs and available space vary from town to town. The key is collaborative partnership to determine the right solution for the specific situation of the community.”

The Evolution of Bike Lanes

Bike lanes started as simply unprotected lanes on the shoulder of a busy street. While this is still the case in many areas of the country, especially in rural areas, urban centers have strived to go further to protect cyclists from their much larger counterparts and to clarify rights of way and traffic laws for both parties to travel harmoniously.

Regardless of the approach to bike lanes, municipalities have seen success in traffic-calming techniques such as narrowing the lanes for automobile traffic, which naturally causes drivers to slow down as the space between them and other vehicles is reduced. This creates roads that feel less like wide-open racetracks through the city and more like pathway of slower travel. Lane narrowing also creates space for cyclist-only lanes, of which there are a variety for municipalities to choose from.

Buffered Bicycle Lane

Example of a buffered bicycle lane.

Image from Urban Bikeway Design Guide, by NACTO. Copyright © 2014 National Association of City Transportation Officials. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

As a cyclist and transportation engineer, Matt Cave has a unique perspective of the options available. “At the very least, a buffered lane provides some space between cyclists and cars as it is specifically for cyclists, with a visible boundary, often painted crosshatches, between it and the closest car lane,” explains Cave. This increased separation provides adequate space for both types of transportation, but still allows potential risk at intersections and by parked car doors opening along the buffered lane.

Separated Bike Lane

Another best-practice Cave recommends to clients is a separated bike lane which, as the name implies, includes some type of barrier physically separating the bike and automobile lanes. This can be as simple as orange cones or as complex as an elevation change. “While a curb naturally discourages automobiles from getting too close to cyclists, much more so than cones,” says Cave, “any separation is safer than a simple painted line.

Example of a one-way, parking separated bicycle lane.

Image from Urban Bikeway Design Guide, by NACTO. Copyright © 2014 National Association of City Transportation Officials. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Bicycle box

Example of a bicycle box at an intersection.

Image from Urban Bikeway Design Guide, by NACTO. Copyright © 2014 National Association of City Transportation Officials. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Buffered lanes and separated lanes are effective safety measures while moving along a roadway, but intersections remain dangerous areas for cyclists in terms of being seen as well as understanding of rights of way by motorists. To this end, Cave recommends a concept called bike boxes, designated areas in front of all traffic at stops serves to guarantee bicycle visibility by drivers. Automobiles are required to stop behind the bike box, allowing cyclists to wait at the front of traffic. “This is especially important in cases where the motorist is taking a right turn,” comments Cave, “which requires them to travel through the designated bike lane.”

Simmons explains that simply designing a better solution isn’t enough. “When new road infrastructure, such as a bike box, is installed there is a high likelihood that the general public may be confused,” emphasizes Simmons. “Planners, engineers, and municipal staff must include outreach to the public, prior to installation, so the public knows how to properly use the new infrastructure.”

Cycling from City to Nature

While finding safe solutions for scenarios involving city roadway traffic tend to take the spotlight, ensuring safe passage for cyclists travelling on independent paths is important as well, as uneven material such as gravel and crossing over roads and railways can cause hazards for biker safety.

For the Fox River Trail Project within the Forest Preserve District of Kane County, WBK provided engineering services to transform a 7-foot-wide gravel path into a 10- to 12-foot-wide paved pathway with rails that connects the Fox River Trail to the Virgil Gilman Nature Trail. The highlight of the new trail is a bicycle/pedestrian bridge over the Fox River constructed of four spans of pre-engineered steel truss structures supported on reinforced concrete substructures. The overall trail improvement project, designed and managed by WBK, includes 6,000 feet of bicycle path along the west bank of the Fox River, including increasing safety and visibility for three roadway crossings, incorporating solar-powered lighted yield signs for drivers.

“Being able to work with local municipalities to help them better serve the people in the communities in which we live and work is gratifying. Projects like the Fox River Trail enable us as engineers to see the difference we make in helping people to move about safely and to interact with the environment because movement throughout has been made possible.”

Yemi Oyewole, PE, Transportation Practice Manager, WBK Engineering

Ryan Sikes, PE, PTOE Returns to WBK Engineering as Transportation Project Manager

 

WBK Engineering is excited to announce the hiring of a new Project Manager joining our Transportation Practice Group. We are pleased to welcome Ryan Sikes, PE, PTOE back to WBK Team in our St. Charles office.

Ryan brings more than 10 years of experience in transportation design and project management, spending five of those years with WBK between 2016 and 2020, completing numerous Phase I studies and Phase II design projects. Throughout his career, Ryan has accumulated experience in all phases of transportation engineering, contributing to traffic impact studies, capacity analyses including intersection design studies using both HCS and Synchro traffic modeling software, corridor and intersection improvement designs, traffic signal installation plans, categorical exclusion reports, cost estimating, public involvement, and all other related work necessary to complete Phase I preliminary engineering for intersections, highway segments, and bicycle/pedestrian facilities. He has extensive experience working with the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT), various counties, and municipalities.

In his spare time, Ryan enjoys spending time with his wife and three kids, and watching hockey and baseball.

Ryan Harth Joins WBK as Municipal Design Engineer

Ryan Harth Joins WBK as Municipal Design Engineer

WBK Engineering is excited to announce the hiring of a new Design Engineer joining our Municipal Practice. We are pleased to welcome Ryan Harth, as the latest member of the WBK team in our St. Charles office.

Ryan is a Municipal Design Engineer at WBK Engineering. She has previously worked as a project engineer on land development projects at Jacob and Hefner Associates. She also studied at Trine University where she was involved with women’s hockey and Engineers Without Borders.

Outside of the office, Ryan has cats at home and enjoys traveling and spending time outside during all seasons. She is excited to be a part of the WBK team and to learn from the opportunities and experience joining the Bodwé Group will bring. WBK Engineering extends a warm welcome Ryan in joining the Bodwé and family!

A Return to Nature: Spring Brook Creek

A river runs through it once again.  

Spring Brook Creek, located within the St. James Farm and Blackwell Forest Preserves of the DuPage River watershed, has been revitalized following a partnership of WBK Engineering, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County (FPDDC) and The Wetland Initiative (TWI).  

Decades of rapid population growth for the Chicago region, beginning as far back as 1850, precipitated the need for accompanying land development for commercial, industrial, and residential use. Land was altered to fit new demands, with some lasting environmental impacts that needed attention. 

This attention came in the way of a team of preservation and engineering experts converging on Spring Brook Creek, which had become a stagnant, channelized ditch to assist in irrigation and development of surrounding farmland. The team’s goal was to re-naturalize over two miles of creek, returning the environment to its days as a lively ecosystem for a variety of plants and animals. 

The first step in restoration was taking the stagnant ditch and re-meandering it back into its predevelopment condition as a winding, moving stream. The stream re-meander was hydraulically modeled using one-dimensional steady-state models to check the effectiveness of the geomorphological enhancements by assessing bank-full flow conditions, flood inundation areas, and flow velocities. In areas with complex flow regimes, where the flow could not be adequately captured by one-dimensional models, WBK utilized two-dimensional models to determine flow direction and distribution. Hydraulic models were also used for assessing hydraulic adequacy of bridges, evaluating impacts of dam removal, and ensuring regulatory floodway construction rules were met. 

Through this re-meandering work, the Creek channel length expanded from 2,000 feet to 3,200, with deep bends accentuating the turns. WBK engineers and ecologists, including Civil Engineering Practice Lead John Witte, were able to include a variety of natural features such as “riffles,” adding rocks and other natural elements at strategic spots in the stream to rouse the water, encouraging healthy oxygenation and the removal of excess water-borne nutrients. “This also facilitates micro-organism abundance within the water,” Witte explains, “creating more food sources for the many varieties of fish in the streams.” 

WBK staff then worked to bring back native plant-life, including blue flag iris and rose mallow, replacing the grasses that did little to offer nutrition for the surrounding wildlife. With clean water and new food sources, animals began to return to their former homes.  

Perhaps most importantly, the work by WBK Engineering and partners reconnected the stream to the greater floodplain, allowing for a more fully developed ecosystem to thrive. The waterway became a fish passage once again, thanks to the removal of a small dam and the regrading of a very steep segment of stream. 

“[Riffles] also facilitate micro-organism abundance within the water, creating more food sources for the many varieties of fish in the streams.” 

John Witte

The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County has been an integral partner in this revitalization effort. Their mission is “to acquire and hold lands containing forests, prairies, wetlands and associated plant communities or lands capable of being restored to such natural conditions for the purpose of protecting and preserving the flora, fauna and scenic beauty for the education, pleasure and recreation of its citizens.” 

Scott Meister, Manager of Natural Resources with the FPDDC, has been very pleased with the results of the Spring Brook project. “The restoration of Spring Brook has been incredibly successful and could not have been possible without the assistance of multiple partners, including WBK Engineering. The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County has been working with WBK on multiple phases of this restoration project since 2014, and we continue to partner on a third and final phase. The impact of this project will have long-lasting positive effects on our community, including cleaner water, reduced flooding, and improved wildlife habitat. From design to permitting to construction, WBK has been an integral part of project’s success, and we look forward our continued partnership to advance the mission of the Forest Preserve District.” 

This revitalization of the area is of great benefit to plants and animals alike, and it also transformed it into a nature getaway for people to experience the beauty of the area once again. The re-meandering and addition of the riffles brought back the sound of moving water. Greg Chismark, President of WBK Engineering, explains the benefit, “Moving water is healthier water and creates a calming backdrop for DuPage Forest Preserve District patrons taking advantage of the redesigned trails and bridges which were also part of the project.” With a vibrant, clean stream, the sounds of bird songs soon returned, as the surrounding environment is slowly responding to the area’s re-naturalization. 

The project also included a new way to appreciate the revitalized space with WBK’s design of a multi-use path and two bridge structures. The realignment of the stream impacted an existing equine trail and provided an opportunity for the FPDDC to introduce trail modifications that followed the site master plan. WBK structural engineers designed two bridges, an access road slab bridge to replace the existing deteriorating structure and a new single-span refabricated pedestrian truss bridge over the realigned channel. The new bridge served as a connection between the old and new trail systems within St. James Farm. 

“Moving water is healthier water and creates a calming backdrop for DuPage Forest Preserve District patrons taking advantage of the redesigned trails and bridges which were also part of the project.”

Greg Chismark

Living in an urban center like Chicago and its busy suburbs, it’s difficult to get a full appreciation for the calm and beauty of the world. Less than an hour outside the city, away from the trains and traffic, lies a nature reserve getaway for fresh air and exploration. With a revitalized ecosystem made possible through the strong and ongoing partnership between WBK Engineering and the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Spring Brook Creek has been returned to nature. 

Pride of the Fox: St. Charles Riverwalk

Pride of the Fox: St. Charles Riverwalk
Pride of the Fox: St. Charles Riverwalk

The Fox River begins just west of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and runs 200 miles south before converging with the Illinois River. On its path south, it flows through downtown St. Charles, Illinois, where it has undergone a transformation to become a focal point and resource for the city.

“It wasn’t long ago that grocery store loading docks backed up to the Fox.. Now we have apartment balconies and community spaces that overlook it,” explains WBK Engineering President Greg Chismark. “It’s been quite the change.” This change didn’t happen by accident or overnight and represents a concerted and organized effort by the City of St. Charles to transform Fox River from its past as an industrial resource to a modern, community-based vision of the river as the center of the city’s commerce and community.

Before After

Fox River, 2008

Fox River, 2021

Making this vision a reality was no small task, and a comprehensive plan in the early stages was key. WBK was contracted by the City to review the Fox River flood model and engineers determined that there was an opportunity for additional development along the river, making expanded community spaces a possibility like never before. This remapping of the floodplain and floodway facilitated the City’s plans for a riverwalk along the Fox.

Connectivity of the riverwalk was important to the City and Chismark explains, “Pedestrian circulation is important from a public use standpoint. Paths are more likely to be used when there’s a perceived loop to easily return to where you started. It also has the added benefit of allowing people to discover new areas they might not usually explore, simply because the riverwalk loops through those locations.”

Courtesy of the City of St. Charles

“It wasn’t long ago that grocery store loading docks backed up to the Fox.. Now we have apartment balconies and community spaces that overlook it.”

Greg Chismark

WBK’s responsibilities were wide-ranging, including creation of the construction documents, structural design of the retaining walls along the river, landscape design of planters, seating areas, brick pavers, and a rail along the riverwalk to protect the public from high river levels and fast-moving water. WBK collaborated with the City’s Electric Department to install a series of pedestrian lights for added security, safety and to extend the riverwalk’s accessibility into the late evening.

The Riverwalk has been effective in bringing more people downtown, allowing the adjacent First Street project to grow as both a commercial and residential area. By showcasing the river as its center, the City and WBK have infused new energy into downtown St. Charles, creating a focal point for the region.

Russell Colby, St. Charles Director of Community Development, describes the City’s partnership with WBK. “They’ve provided critical guidance and assistance over the years as the City has progressed on the First Street Redevelopment project, with a focus on planning for functional public spaces that can be efficiently constructed, and meeting standards and permit requirements for impacts along the Fox River.”

The Riverwalk is a point of pride for St. Charles, says Bob Rasmussen, construction manager collaborating with the City on development of the Riverwalk. “I spend most evenings on my balcony overlooking the riverwalk with its various elevations, planting areas and walkways. The design is truly special to our downtown and I could not be happier with the final layout. I am very proud of the work we performed together with the City of St. Charles and believe our citizens have benefited greatly from the design of this critical area in our downtown.”

Courtesy of the City of St. Charles

"[The path] also has the added benefit of allowing people to discover new areas they might not usually explore, simply because the riverwalk loops through those locations.”

Greg Chismark

The First Street public/private partnerships have become successful, with talented professionals coming together and overcoming challenges to solidify the city’s identity as a thriving river town.

Another significant element of the revitalization efforts has been the addition of plazas on the east and west sides of First Street, creating dining opportunities, a performance area, festival and event venues, and space for art right in the heart of the city. Future expansion of public plazas is anticipated along with improved connectivity from Main Street to the First Street riverwalk. Marty Serena of Serena Sturm Architects has been integral in developing the vision to close 1st Street from Main Street to Walnut Street to create additional pedestrian and public space.

“The Plaza has become the central gathering place of our community,” comments Serena, “showcasing the vibrant core of our civic, economic and ecological qualities for our entire community and visitors to enjoy.”

“I am very proud of the work we performed together with the City of St. Charles and believe our citizens have benefited greatly from the design of this critical area in our downtown.”

Bob Rasmussen
© 2022 WBK Engineering

WBK is again collaborating to provide civil engineering expertise for this future improvement, including  managing the relocation of utilities, additional landscaped planters, structural design and replacement of existing retaining walls, management of drainage and coordination with significant architectural elements – all with a focus on sustainability.

The first phase of this future plaza began when the City purchased the former Manor Restaurant site in 2020. The restaurant building had been demolished, except for a portion of the exterior foundation along the river. The existing wall was determined to be unsuitable for future plaza construction. Rather than remove the wall, which would have been costly with potential environmental impact, WBK developed a soldier pile wall solution allowing a cast in place concrete wall directly adjacent to the existing Manor restaurant wall. This concept minimized cost, permit time and maximized public space for the future plaza.

The concrete wall has the same aesthetic treatment as the riverwalk wall to the south, consisting of a rock faced form liner and stained concrete to emulate the existing stone river walls.  The project was recently completed by Martam Construction.

© 2022 WBK Engineering

“[WBK has] provided critical guidance and assistance over the years as the City has progressed on the First Street Redevelopment project, with a focus on planning for functional public spaces that can be efficiently constructed, and meeting standards and permit requirements for impacts along the Fox River.”

Russell Colby

It’s experience like this that Colby finds value, “The City has relied on WBK’s expertise to effectively navigate the regulatory steps and develop plans that the City has been able to execute. They are a valuable and reliable partner for the City’s development-related engineering work and have offered creative design solutions that have helped make 1st street a standout downtown project.”

The space won’t remain empty for long, as it has been filled in to bring it to ground level, and efforts have begun to create an inviting green space to gather in between shopping, dining and otherwise exploring the vibrant downtown area. Future plans for this space include an expansion of the existing plaza, solar pergolas, permeable pavers, and additional art installations.

Additionally, a portion of 1st Street will transition from a roadway to a pedestrian walking mall and community space to gather, shop and relax. WBK Engineering developed civil and structural plans on behalf of Serena Sturm Architects, and Martam Construction was tasked with making it all happen.

Courtesy of the City of St. Charles

The momentum of redevelopment has spread from First Street on the west side of the Fox River to the east side of the river. Kurt Hurst of Frontier Development has invested in downtown redevelopment opposite the First Street project on the east side of the river. “I’m very excited for what’s happening to downtown. It’s a revitalization of an area that’s been around for a long time.”  Frontier has engaged WBK Engineering to assist with a variety of redevelopment projects relying on their experience with floodplain management, urban site design, and utility planning.

“WBK has been a wonderful partner and a pleasure to work with on the First Street Plaza endeavor,” says Serena. “Greg and his team are quite talented, knowledgeable, and very conscientious in their efforts. Quality design is a dance between art and technology, and we very much appreciate our partnership with WBK in the development of the plaza. We truly feel that their work will push this project to high levels of creative engineering and execution of our work.”​​

The First Street project has revitalized downtown St. Charles living up to the City’s motto “The Pride of the Fox”. Chismark shares the same pride for WBK’s contribution. “It’s extremely gratifying to create meaningful public spaces and private opportunities, no matter the location. But there’s an extra feeling of pride when you’re able to make a positive impact and see it on a daily basis. Much of this work is right outside the doors to our office, and it’s not uncommon for our employees to spend their lunches or after work in these same spaces we helped develop. We appreciate the opportunity to be a partner with the City, culminating in special projects that have a positive impact on the region.”

Courtesy of the City of St. Charles

WBK Engineering Expands Expertise in Michigan

The Grand Reopening of New Office Significantly Enhances Firm’s Midwest Footprint. 

WBK Engineering, the Midwest’s premier civil engineering, planning and environmental resources consulting firm, is proud to announce the expansion of its office in Battle Creek, MI. The company will host a grand reopening and open house on June 16th. The WBK office is located at 68 East Michigan Avenue with the open house event running from 3:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. EDT. The event is complementary and open to the public.

WBK is owned by Mno-Bmadsen, the non-gaming investment arm of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, whose executives and elders will join in the celebration. Professionals from WBK, as well as those from sister companies, Seven Generations Architecture + Engineering (7GAE), and The Steelhead Engineering Co., will attend, as well as leaders from the municipal and business communities.

The new WBK office has grown to include the second floor as well as a redesign of its existing space on the first floor. The doubling in size of the office space will allow WBK to better serve existing clients and new clients throughout the Midwest, with a focus on Michigan and Indiana. Justian Crane, PE, who has been with WBK for six years, will continue to lead the new office.

“Justian Crane deserves recognition for his hard work in making the office start up and expansion successful,” says President Greg Chismark. “I cannot think of a more thoughtful, accurate, and hard-working engineer.”

WBK’s expertise includes extensive experience with water resources, municipal, site development and transportation work for state and local governments. The firm, which is part of Mno-Bmadsen’s Bodwé Professional Services Group, works with clients to develop and implement shared vision through service and stewardship, bringing a high degree of expertise and sustainable infrastructure solutions to municipal, public, private, federal, and tribal projects.

“We’re excited to enhance our capabilities and continue to work closely with our clients throughout the Midwest and the nation,” says Crane. “We’ve been fortunate to grow deep and meaningful partnerships with municipalities in Illinois and this expansion allows us to take this collaborative approach to benefit new cities in the Midwest to improve the communities in which we live.”

With 7GAE and Steelhead just 25 miles away in Kalamazoo, the proximity of the expanded WBK Engineering office strengthens cohesion under the Bodwé Professional Services Group. This allows for true collaboration on a variety of projects including tribal and federal initiatives.

WBK Welcomes Matt Cave, EIT as New Transportation Design Engineer

WBK Engineering is pleased to announce the hiring of a new Design Engineer joining our Transportation Practice. We are pleased to welcome Matt Cave, EIT,  as the latest member of the WBK team in our St. Charles office.

Matt Cave

Matt recently graduated from Purdue University with a BS in civil engineering. He has an EIT license and is looking to get his PE license in the near future. He has past experience with various IDOT and Tollway roadway projects.

Matt was born and raised in Batavia, Illinois. In his free time, he enjoys biking, disc golf, and spending time with friends.

Ravaging and Revitalizing: The Story of the Northern Illinois Watershed – Chapter 5

Chapter 5: Moving Forward

The history of the Illinois watershed offers many lessons. When the health of the land takes a backseat to the growth of an area, problems are sure to follow. Rapid development can have damaging effects, especially when compounded by decisions that ignore environmental impacts. As Native people were forcibly and tragically removed from their homelands, replaced by rapid population growth and dizzying land development, the drastic change has had lasting effects on the watershed, effects only now being addressed through a more holistic approach. In short, with exponentially more people using more resources and producing more byproducts, a plan that doesn’t acknowledge and address all these human-made problems cannot be successful.

Decades of attempts have proven that simply managing stormwater once the storm is happening isn’t enough. With over-developed land, simply shifting the water downstream only pushes the issue elsewhere, causing damage to the environment along the way as the streams carry contaminants across the region. Instead, the key to effective management of stormwater runoff is to reduce the amount of stormwater generated in the first place by maintaining and working with the hydrology of a site and managing stormwater at the source.

Civil engineers and scientists from WBK Engineering, headquartered in St. Charles, Illinois, are working with municipalities, governmental agencies, and environmental organizations to develop a holistic approach to the problem. “By determining the amount of land that needs to remain natural to take advantage of its innate absorption and filtering qualities,” comments John Witte, WBK Civil Engineering Practice Lead, “we can better manage development and better understand how to mitigate the damage our society has done.” While we can’t undo the impact of a metropolitan area the size of Chicagoland overnight, we can move toward the honorable harvest approach for how we live and grow.

For centuries before European settlers arrived, Native tribes lived in unison with the land, honoring it and their part in the circle. With this as a guiding principle, WBK Engineering is honored to play a role alongside many as the Illinois watershed is undergoing a transformation. With cleaner water and more food sources for the surrounding ecosystem once again, the land itself is providing healthier resources back to its inhabitants, human, animal, and plant alike.

Resources for Environmental Sustainability and Conservation

Ravaging and Revitalizing: The Story of the Northern Illinois Watershed – Chapter 4

Chapter 4: A Return to Nature

“We need acts of restoration, not only for our polluted waters and degraded lands, but also for our relationship to the world. We need to restore honor to the way we live, so that when we walk through the world, we don’t have to avert our eyes with shame, so that we can hold our heads up high and receive the respectful acknowledgement of the rest of the earth’s beings.”

Robin Wall Kimmerer, excerpt from “Braiding Sweetgrass”

As commercial development and rapid population growth of the Chicagoland area in the 20th century took its toll on the land and surrounding ecosystems, it was clear a holistic change was needed. The waters of the northern Illinois watershed that once flowed through the area like arteries through a body were unhealthy and polluted. Local governments and conservation organizations needed big thinkers to plan and model large-scale changes to the land and how it is cared for.

One example is Spring Brook Creek that runs within the St. James Farm and Blackwell Forest Preserves of the DuPage River watershed. What had become stagnant, channelized, human-made ditches needed a transformation, a return to the lively, moving waters of before. To accomplish this, WBK Engineering of St. Charles, Illinois, was brought in to help revitalize over two miles of land and return it to a natural state, creating an environment for the surrounding ecosystem to once again thrive.

John Witte, Civil Engineering Practice Lead at WBK, outlines the issue: “The areas around Chicago are a naturally wet area, with a Great Lake and many rivers encompassing the region. The waters are all interconnected, most ultimately flowing into the Mississippi River. Spring Brook is a natural stream that was degraded and channelized to facilitate agriculture.”

The first step in restoration was taking the stagnant, human-made ditches and re-meandering them back into winding, moving streams, spreading the water throughout the preserve. Through this work, the coastline went from 2,000 feet to 3,200, with deep bends accentuating the turns. Using hydraulic modeling, WBK scientists, including Witte, were able to include a variety of natural features such as “riffles” ,adding rocks and other natural elements at strategic spots in the stream to rouse the water, encouraging healthy oxygenation and the removal of excess water-borne nutrients. “This also creates micro-organisms within the water,” Witte explains, “creating more food sources for the many varieties of fish in the streams.”

Scientists then worked to bring back native plant-life, including blue flag iris and rose mallow, replacing the grasses that were brought over from Europe that did little to offer nutrition for the surrounding wildlife. With clean water and new food sources, animals began to return to their former homes.

Perhaps most importantly, the work by WBK Engineering reconnected the stream to the greater floodplain, allowing for a more fully developed ecosystem to thrive. The waterway became a fish passage once again, thanks to the removal of a small dam and the regrading of a very steep stretch of stream.

This revitalization of the area is of great benefit to plants and animals alike, and it also transformed it into a wildlife getaway for people to experience the natural beauty of the area once again. The re-meandering and addition of the riffles brought back the sound of moving water. Witte explains the benefit, “Moving water is healthier water and creates a calming soundtrack for nature explorers taking advantage of the redesigned trails and bridges which were also part of the project.” With a vibrant, clean stream, the sounds of bird songs soon returned, as the surrounding environment is slowly responding to the area’s re-naturalization.

Living in an urban center like Chicago and its busy suburbs, it’s difficult to get a full appreciation for the calm and beauty of the world. Less than an hour outside the city, away from the trains and traffic, Spring Brook now serves as a nature reserve getaway for fresh air and exploration. As part of the revitalization efforts, new paths and bridges allow nature lovers to safely and unobtrusively discover the thriving ecosystem of animals, plants and water living in balance.

Ravaging and Revitalizing: The Story of the Northern Illinois Watershed – Chapter 3

Chapter 3: Altered Landscapes

As tribes were pushed west, European settlers began to alter the land to their benefit. Rivers were dredged, factories and mills dumped contaminants into the waterways below, and increased sewage waste from a quickly growing population proved a serious health issue to the surrounding watershed. Without clean water, plants died, animals were forced to find new ecosystems away from agricultural, industrial, and commercial development, and the environment took a backseat to economic advancement.

The city of Chicago experienced unprecedented growth. From an official population of 4,470 in 1840, the area passed 100,000 by 1860, 500,000 by 1880, and a million by 1890. In the second largest city in the United States, development was in full swing, and it came with its fair share of environmental problems.

Population growth in northeastern Illinois, 1850-2010 (from Karstensen and others, 2013).

With nearby Lake Michigan just two feet below the riverbanks, effective drainage was nearly impossible and sewage and other contaminants flowed into the area’s rivers, creating health hazards across the region. In 1834, the first attempt to solve the sanitation problem included a drainage ditch dug to carry wastewater into the Chicago River, but the river could not cleanse itself of the sewage due to the high level of Lake Michigan. This continued to be an issue throughout the 1800s, as the high lake level proved to be a health hazard every time a hard storm hit, carrying the surrounding area’s pollution and sewage into the watershed, flowing from river to river throughout the region.

“The issue was more than simply too many people,” explains John Witte, Civil Engineering Practice Lead at WBK Engineering in St. Charles, Illinois. “The problem with rapid land development is two-fold; not only does it mean there are more people producing more by-products, there’s also less permeable land available as the vegetation that would normally assist in the absorption and flow of excess water has been cut away, replaced by concrete and buildings.” The Chicago area soon found its breaking point as there was no place left for the water to be directed.

In 1879, following another major instance of sewage and contaminants pouring into the water, the Farm Drainage Act was enacted, creating “drainage districts” to designate areas for water to drain. By 1929, with Chicago’s population having surpassed three million, there were 88 drainage districts covering 177,595 acres within the Chicago River, Little Calumet River, Des Plaines River, DuPage River, and Fox River basins. By 1971, there were 180.

By the 1960s, a new solution was presented. The Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP) resulted in 109 miles of tunnels within the Mainstem, Calumet, Des Plaines, and Upper Des Plaines systems, capturing 85% of the combined sewer overflows which had been discharging into rivers and streams.

Local, state, and federal agencies and individuals have become increasingly aware of the unmitigated impacts of urbanization on drainage and flooding. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District implemented the first stormwater detention ordinance in 1972. This ordinance required new developments to detain a portion of the increased runoff and to restrict the outlet capacity of the detention basin to a predevelopment discharge. However, flood damages continued to wreak havoc on the region, causing home and property damage as water levels rose during great storms, halting public services and interrupting daily life far too often.

In the 1980s, significantly damaging storms in back-to-back years, 1986 and 1987, pushed public awareness of the continued problems enough for the Illinois General Assembly to pass legislation authorizing the formation of regionwide stormwater management programs. This change in philosophy, to more forward-thinking, proactive measures, allows for stormwater management planning, watershed planning, regulation of construction within floodplain areas, and new sources of funding to manage local drainage and flooding problems.

Witte explains the importance of a new way of looking at the issue. “If you wait until a large storm hits before you begin to manage the rising water levels, you’re too late. Weather is a constant and not something you can control. And with climate change,” adds Witte, “it’s becoming increasingly unpredictable, so it’s paramount to have a plan for managing the water before it’s damaging homes and spreading pollutants.”

Emphasis on proactively caring for the land, rather than chasing solutions after the fact, is the first step to returning the Illinois watershed to the vibrant ecosystem it was centuries before when Native tribes emphasized a relationship of reciprocity between the land and its inhabitants.

Thankfully, priorities have begun to shift, and eyes are being opened to our ability to give back to the earth, such as helping a polluted, stagnant swamp to be restored to a lush, natural environment once again flush with wildlife.