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Metropolitan Sustainability

Martin Jaffe
Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant College Program

Issues of sustainability cover a wide arena, including clean air, accessible and clean water, the conservation of energy and natural resources, habitat protection and the challenges to the physical and cultural environment brought on by metropolitan growth. Great Cities Institute Fellows and Scholars pursue projects that enhance knowledge and shape environmental policy. Working with a variety of partners and funding sources, the Institute provides opportunities to publish, disseminate and share research results with the goal of bringing this knowledge to bear on policy-making in urban settings across the country.

IISGCP Coastal Business and Water for Our Future Initiatives
Southern Lake Michigan Regional Water Supply Consortium

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant College Program and the Great Cities Institute
The Coastal Cities and Water for Our Future Initiatives of the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant College Program support and guide the Great Cities Institute’s program in Metropolitan Sustainability. The Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant College Program seeks to provide academic research and technical support to local governments and planning agencies within northeastern Illinois and northwestern Indiana. This engaged research includes the development and application of practical, science-based decision-support tools to promote a more sustainable future for the southern Lake Michigan region.

The growth of coastal cities like Chicago, and the ecological problems linked to metropolitan expansion, is readily apparent and well documented. However, the natural processes critical to sustaining urban populations, economic activities, and highly-valued natural amenities are often subtle and invisible to most people. There is a growing realization that society must quickly find ways of integrating critical ecosystem services into regional development plans and the management of urban regions. However, science-based decision support structures and tools that can help urban regions accomplish this are not fully developed.

This is especially the case for the hydrological resources of metropolitan Chicago. Much of our region's existing water-related infrastructure (shoreline protection works, water distribution systems, and water reclamation plants) will need replacement or upgrading over the next 50 years, and there are ever-increasing demands and stresses on these coastal resources. Many of these stresses are indirect and complex, involving the alteration of natural water flow patterns, nutrient enrichment associated with human activities, accidental introductions of nuisance species, and long- and short-term cycles in water levels and temperature. The need to understand and incorporate such complex relationships in regional planning and management is the goal for the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant College Program’s Coastal Cities and Water for Our Future Initiatives.

The vision is to develop a portfolio of integrated land use, economic and ecologic research and outreach activities to promote better regional decision-making. These activities will provide guidance to achieving economically and ecologically sustainable development within metropolitan Chicago and which can, in turn, be used as a model for the nation.

Metropolitan Chicago and the Southern Lake Michigan region, an area covering four states and currently home to over 11 million citizens, continues to grow and will continue to rely heavily on the tremendous diversity of resources that Lake Michigan provides. Almost 10 million people rely on the Lake for drinking water and more than 6 million visitors annually use coastal lake resources for recreation. Interspersed within this metropolis are nationally and globally significant natural resources and ecosystems that miraculously have survived the last 150 years of urbanization. The southern Lake Michigan basin contains 40 percent of the Great Lakes coastal wetlands, as well as large forested areas and a number of wildlife refuges.

The growth of this region will inevitably impose more land use change. Although the City of Chicago has a history of seeking to preserve its important natural amenities and while regional planning agencies and suburban communities are increasing their sensitivity to the long-term environmental impacts imposed by growth, there is a striking lack of science-based information to identify and quantify the long-term economic and ecologic trade-offs being made. This lack of information and regional guidance is one of the factors which contribute to local development patterns that favor short-term economic gain.

There is a strong view that while the urbanization process generates wealth for the region, the fundamental substitution of natural capital for physical capital that occurs in land use change represents an unsustainable pattern. The loss of open land and functioning ecosystems is essentially an irreversible process, and little insight is available to those making land-use change decisions as to what tangible and intangible values are being lost. If society is committed to understanding what sustainable development means in a practical sense, it must be willing to preserve natural capital and conserve the region’s natural and water resources. Natural capital is broadly defined as the totality of natural systems that provide current and future flows of service, i.e. resources, flora, fauna, and ecosystems that provide human beings with tangible and intangible goods and services that have real use and non-use economic value.

What is the stock of natural capital within and at the fringe of metropolitan Chicago? What is the value of this stock and how much of this value is lost when land use change is accomplished in its current fragmented fashion? It is to these questions that we seek to assemble a coherent, science-based response.

The Great Cities Institute proposes a series of environmental research projects to begin to define the relationship of the region’s natural capital stock to the regional economy. These will provide insight and scale to the tradeoffs being made as natural capital is lost in the land use change process. Specifically, these projects are:

  • Development of water supply planning and management strategies to promote more sustainable regional development. Existing land use plans fail to adequately reflect the interaction between economic and environmental factors. We are working with the Illinois Department of Natural Resource’s Office of Water Resources, the State Water and Geological Surveys, and with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning to develop better policies for assessing and managing stressed or constrained surface and ground water supply resources within the metropolitan Chicago region. The water supply management research will be driven by an appreciation of the increasingly polycentric patterns of metropolitan growth, the variability in the quantity and quality of ground and surface water resources within the region, the complex legal and institutional mechanisms for managing water supply resources within the Great Lakes basin, and the difficulty of understanding the pricing (and economies of scale) of water withdrawal, treatment and distribution within the larger Chicago metro area. Research on metropolitan-scale water supply policy and economics will provide a means of comparing and contrasting the environmental impacts of regional land use plans.

  • Development of a spatial understanding of non-market economic values of environmental resources. An important starting point for a region’s search for economic and ecologic sustainability is a thorough exploration of the non-market economic value of the region’s natural capital stock – value that reflects the use and non-use value of environmental amenities and its capabilities to serve as “green infrastructure” for the region. A strong case must be made that the region’s biodiversity and its critical ecological assets must be protected for the benefit of the region’s residents and their progeny, even if no markets currently exist to price these environmental amenities and natural resources. This research will identify the economic use and non-use value of functioning ecosystem as well as the economic benefits accruing from interventions aimed at restoring urban ecosystems.

  • Development of sustainable coastal management policies. The Great Cities Institute is involved in several technical assistance groups of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ Coastal Management initiative, which is seeking to develop criteria and policies in support of the state’s application for participation in the federal Coastal Zone Management Program. The policies may include managing and protecting coastal, ravine, and near-shore habitats, assessing and mitigating the risks arising from natural hazards (seiches, bluff erosion and flooding) and anthropogenic sources (principally coastal development and invasive species), and promoting accessible recreation and appropriate and sustainable land uses within the state’s proposed coastal zone.

The impact of this long-term research effort is to integrate sustainable development theory within regional land use practice on a very large scale. This effort will provide insight and guidance into how similar efforts can be successfully conduced in other metropolitan areas throughout the U.S. The development of the models suggested above will provide information to support decisions to control land use change throughout the region. This research will guide decisions that:

  • Will provide more accurate information to support regional Smart Growth initiatives, including promoting development and redevelopment within central cities and close-in suburbs instead of encouraging growth further out on the urban fringe.

  • Provide science-based justification to limit the expansion of the urbanized area to areas and parcels that sacrifice the least amount of natural capital value.

  • Promote urban development in ways that preserve and enhance the quantity and quality of surface- and ground-water resources throughout the region.

  • Identify the optimum ways, both economically and ecologically, that coastal resources can be utilized.


This project is being conducted in partnership with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC) and the Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Commission (NIRPC), U.S. and state geological (and water) surveys and environmental protection agencies, local officials, and municipal, regional, and state water supply managers within the tri-state Chicago metropolitan area.

The metropolitan Chicago area encompasses southeastern Wisconsin, northeastern Illinois and northwestern Indiana. This tri-state region utilizes both Lake Michigan and groundwater to meet its current water supply needs. Given the significant growth forecasts for the region, considerable uncertainty exists as to how municipal and regional officials will be able to supply the growing water demand over the next 20 years. This is primarily due to the current legal limitation on expansion of Lake Michigan withdrawals for the State of Illinois. Given this limitation on lake water, it is most likely that future water supply will have to come from the region’s existing groundwater and surface water resources -- resources that are highly vulnerable to the inevitable land use change that will accompany the tri-state region’s projected economic expansion. Within Illinois, for example, cursory examination of this situation by the Illinois State Water Survey identifies significant spatial shortages in water supply and no formally articulated local or regional strategies to prevent these shortages. Similar analyses by the U.S. and Wisconsin Geological Surveys suggest similar water supply issues are also confronting communities in southeastern Wisconsin.

In partnership with the Illinois State Water Survey and the regional planning commissions in northeastern Illinois, southeastern Wisconsin, and northwestern Indiana, the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant College Program and UIC’s Great Cities Institute are developing joint research projects for the southern Lake Michigan basin that will include:

  • Scientific hydrological research to better identify and characterize the sustainable yields of deep and shallow aquifers used by the Chicago metro area, the watersheds within the tri-state region that can serve as drinking water resources, and the withdrawal and ecological improvements of Lake Michigan that may be required under emerging interstate agreements.

  • Research on the governmental and institutional arrangements needed to examine the current water resource supply systems in place to meet existing demand and to articulate any existing strategies and policy structures at the local and/or regional level to meet anticipated water demand growth for multiple water uses. This research, directed to local and regional officials and planners, would include the identification of a) current spatial water resource supply patterns; b) predicted/anticipated spatial water resource supply options/plans; c) existing plans to coordinate economic growth and land use change in terms of the provision of water supply and physical infrastructure for storm management and sewage; and d) current plans for cooperation with any neighboring municipality or county to manage water resource demand and/or supply.

  • Economic and institutional recommendations for managing regional water supply resources. Based on the research, IISGCP and GCI will work with water supply stakeholders to develop better strategies to assess and manage water supply resources within the southern Lake Michigan basin. These strategies could employ recommendations for the creation of new types of water resource institutions, the development of different types of regulatory or market-based proposals to encourage more effective conservation, more efficient pricing, and the wiser use of stressed or constrained water resources, and the promotion of enhanced intergovernmental management cooperation and analytical coordination for watersheds and groundwater aquifers that cross state lines.