Back in 2001, a group of cyclists organized the Campaign for a Free and Clear Lakefront. Their goal: to take a jackhammer to Lake Shore Drive and restore it to grassy parkland. They said that an eight-lane highway separating the people of Chicago from Lake Michigan violated Daniel Burnham’s dictum that the shoreline remain “forever free and clear.”
“We take the most precious piece of property in the city and devote it to eight lanes of automotive traffic,” organizer Michael Burton told the Reader. “Wouldn’t it make more sense to have it devoted to parkland? Wouldn’t that increase the value of adjacent property? Wouldn’t that make the city more livable? Aren’t we always looking for ways to scale back pollution?”
At the time, the cyclists were regarded as pastoralist cranks, using aesthetic and environmentalist arguments to promote an agenda that would inconvenience hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans. The group has since disappeared from the public discourse, its website and phone number gone dead. But maybe they weren’t all that crazy.
Today, Lake Shore Drive is under attack by Lake Michigan, which this year rose to a level approaching its all-time high. It may rise even higher next year. Just last week, flash flooding closed the Drive for several hours between Montrose and Hollywood. In May, the water opened a crack in the roof a pedestrian underpass near Oak Street Beach.
“In some cases, with the storms we’ve had recently, the lake water makes it all the way across Lake Shore Drive and is showing up on the west side of Lake Shore Drive,” Ald. Brian Hopkins, who represents the Gold Coast, said at the time. "The lake is actually eroding away Lake Shore Drive and its undergrid right now.”
Currently, the city is trying to hold back the rising waters with concrete jersey barriers. Hopkins, though, has an ambitious, expensive plan to rebuild the “crumbling” roadbed, using landfill to add more parkland south of Oak Street Beach.
“The types of erosion we're seeing through climate change … we can’t get our way out of this with jersey walls,” Hopkins said. “We have to rebuild Lake Shore Drive.”
Hopkins is right about one thing: the lake levels undermining LSD are the result of climate change. No matter how much money we spend to repair the roadway, the lake is going to keep coming. That raises the question: Is Lake Shore Drive even a viable thoroughfare in the era of global warming?
The Drive as we know it today runs across land that didn't exist a hundred years ago. Beginning in the 1880s, Chicago's shoreline was expanded eastward into Lake Michigan using landfill, much of it from the Great Chicago Fire, by as much as a half mile. (A historical marker in Lincoln Park, a hundred or so yards west of the Drive, indicates the original shoreline at that point.)
As Lake Michigan moves back toward its original dimensions, we can either retreat, or we can engineer our way out of the problem with barriers to hold back the water. But what's the point of walling off the natural feature that made us a city in the first place?
One solution, as outlined in this magazine a few years back, is to build permeable roadways to allow water to filter through. The Sun-Times recently advocated for building a reimagined Lake Shore Drive, with better walkways and bike lanes, rather than simply repairing the road. The city, they argued, has been thinking too “defensively.”
Architecture critic Anjulie Rao doesn’t believe Lake Shore Drive should be eliminated altogether, but she does think it should be closed off to private vehicles. (Currently, the Drive carries 160,000 cars a day.)
“It’s a viable roadway, sure, but not for cars,” Rao said in an email. “I didn't feel that the Sun-Times editorial spoke about the OTHER future of LSD: the one that could be a bus-only roadway. The piece complains about the effects of climate change on the road, but doesn't seem to say, ‘Hey, maybe if we want to stop climate change we should stop driving cars.’ In this vision, you’re not addressing climate change, only the effects of climate change.”
Lake Shore Drive is, obviously, a Chicago institution. It even has its own song. But its disappearance might not be as disruptive as people imagine. Anyone who lives close enough to LSD to use it to drive downtown also lives near decent public transportation. All the expressways go downtown, too. Having lived more than 20 years in Rogers Park, I can say that the best thing about my neighborhood is that it lies beyond the northern terminus of Lake Shore Drive, allowing unimpeded access to the lake.
Chicago has always imagined it will be a winner in the era of climate change. We tell ourselves that our 600-foot elevation, our temperate climate, and our enormous supply of fresh water will spare us from burning up like the South or drowning like the coasts. But even we’re going to have to make some concessions to our changing planet. Could our most famous road be one of them?