By Daniel J. McGraw

When Phil Enquist talks about the Great Lakes, he often jumps from being the serious, architectural engineering type to someone who is amazed how the lake can sometimes be moody and brooding before storms come in. He talks of the science of limiting phosphorus on farmland to keep algae blooms from exploding, but then wafts into a soliloquy about how the Great Lakes waves are calming and more rhythmic than those on ocean beaches.

Or about visual allure and harsh symbolism of the flames that belch out from the lips of the flare stacks at the steel mills, and the mountains of coal and taconite nearby. And the vast number of fish and wildlife and flora that share that space. And how rivers are often the natural feature that divides the land, while huge lakes like these inland seas tend to unite. But the 62-year-old who calls Chicago home always gets back to his main point, which he has been touting almost religiously for the past five years.

“Cities will be fighting over water in this century, and we as a nation and a planet have to figure out how we are going to deal with that,” says Enquist. “And globalization is a big part of that. We are all connected, and what we do here will affect what others are doing around the world.”

The Great Lakes are the largest freshwater concentration on the planet; 20 percent of the world’s water supply and 85 percent of the surface water in North America. There’s about 295,000 square miles of land in the watershed and 11,000 miles of coastline. That’s about twice as much waterfront here in the Midwest than there is ocean coastline in the entire continental United States. And here is one statistic that shows just how much water we are talking about: If you took all the water from the Great Lakes and spread it over the entire continental United States, the entire country would be under ten feet of water.

Enquist, as a highly recognized urban planning architect with Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) in Chicago, is known around the globe as a guy who specializes in planning for emerging cities and global migration. He chairs and fellows lots of academic institutions and planning organizations. His work takes him from the Bohai Bay Rim in China to Bahrain to an abandoned industrial wasteland on the south side of Chicago where the Calumet River flows into Lake Michigan and what was once a 600-acre steel mill is being converted into a community of 30,000 residents.

[blocktext align=”left”]That’s about twice as much waterfront here in the Midwest than there is ocean coastline in the entire continental United States.[/blocktext]Water and its relationship to a new urbanism is at the core of what Enquist does. Talking with him about the interconnected big five inland seas, he blends in all the evils of Asian carp, the water shortages the world faces, the history of industrial pollution in our backyard, and the impact of climate change. Plus carbon footprints and high density and renewable energy thrown in for good measure.

Great Lakes Century

Great Lakes Century

About five years ago, SOM decided to provide a free planning initiative headed by Enquist called The Great Lakes Century. Inspired by famed Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, who drew up masterful urban plans for Cleveland and Chicago and other cities pro-bono more than 100 years ago,  Enquist and his colleagues want to partly disengage the political and jurisdictional boundaries of all the government entities that border the lakes and get them thinking about common goals. And long-term rather than short-term planning.

From a practical standpoint, getting two countries and eights states and two provinces and hundreds of counties and 10,000-plus cities to have common goals and think of them in terms of 100 years instead of next week goes against of lot of human nature. And it’s not like this hasn’t been tried before. Plenty of commissions and agencies and overlapping academic and economic clusters have been part of Great Lakes planning for hundreds of years.

But Enquist gets a bit excited when talking about that side of the equation. “We aren’t talking about some utopian fantasy here,” he said. “The Great Lakes basin is unique and we are at a time in history when people can live and interact in ways that are unique. We have probably the most valuable resource on the planet, and we mostly have ignored its well-being for more than 100 years.”

“What we have done throughout those hundred years is to develop our cities with their backs to the lakes,” he continued. “If we change that attitude and develop our living areas where we face and interact with the lakes, a lot on interesting changes will come about.”

Bob Perkoski

Bob Perkoski

So we should face the toilet, instead of turning our back to the toilet, I suggest in a half-joking way.

“Yes, we have to face the toilet,” Enquist laughed. “Because those lakes are our toilet, but they are also our source of drinking water and commerce and transportation and agriculture and so many other things. So often, our political leadership haven’t understood that basic point, that the lakes are involved in almost everything in this part of the country. This part of the country should be the focal point of the United States and Canada in so many areas right now, but we need to change how we think about the Great Lakes. That’s what we are trying to do.”


I wasn’t completely joking about the toilet reference, because I heard that from my father many times. I grew up a few houses from the Lake Erie shoreline on the east side of Cleveland, and when we were kids in the 1960s, my Dad would advise us that swimming should be done in pools and not in toilets. He was born in 1930 and for his generation ,who grew up in Cleveland away from the shoreline, Lake Erie was the community toilet. It was where you put your factories and railroad lines and highways and other things people didn’t want to live near. Because steel mills and coal burning electric plants functioned well near toilets, people not so much.

My Mom, on the other hand, grew up right on Lake Erie and she saw it in a more communal way. She would throw us in the water when we were six months old or so, and let the waves wash us back to shore. When we went to Euclid Beach Park, we rode the Thriller and looked at the scary Laughing Sal, but she also made sure we brought our swimsuits. And we combed the beaches for the rounded glass pebbles, wondered where that glass came from, and looked out on the horizon at the ore carriers that came from places we could find on the globe. For her, Lake Erie had an important sense of place.

[blocktext align=”left”]But when you get Kaptur to step back from the minutia for a minute, she says there is one big problem in Washington when it comes to the Great Lakes. “They really have no concept of basic geography, you know, basic stuff that we learned in elementary school,” she said.[/blocktext]But I still have one memory from my youth that clearly defines in my mind what Lake Erie was like back then. We lived just east of the Cleveland sewage treatment plant, and as I stood on a small concrete pier near our house one day at age seven, there were turds and toilet paper floating in the lake. The water was the color of coffee with cream. There was a sheepshead fish floating on its back next to the pier with a dark lamprey sucking out its guts. There was a bad smell in the air.

So I had general pollution and fecal matter and garbage fish and an invasive species and stink all rolled up in one imprint on my brain representing Lake Erie.

I mentioned my fond Lake Erie memory to Ohio U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, who first got elected in 1982 and grew up in Toledo. “People have to remember that Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes were much worse back then, so we have made some progress,” she said. “But we still have so much more work to do, and the first on that list is getting the country to realize what we have here.”

Kaptur can run down a litany of issues she had deal with in her 34 years in Congress: Getting the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative up and running in 2010, and then fighting year after year for about $300 million of annual cleanup funding; Working with a US and Canadian joint commission to reduce by 50 percent the phosphorus fertilizer runoff from farms that has caused big algae blooms in western Lake Erie; Getting slag heaps near the Black River in Elyria cleaned up after a steel mill closed; Even working with Ohio tourism officials to find better access for bird watchers at the 6,700-acre Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge on the lakeshore just east of Toledo.

The Great Lakes Century: Visualizing sustainable land use, vibrant urban centers and intercity connections is the key to inspiring a long-term vision.

The Great Lakes Century: Visualizing sustainable land use, vibrant urban centers and intercity connections is the key to inspiring a long-term vision.

But when you get Kaptur to step back from the minutia for a minute, she says there is one big problem in Washington when it comes to the Great Lakes. “They really have no concept of basic geography, you know, basic stuff that we learned in elementary school,” she said. “And I’m talking about Republicans and Democrats.”

What the Democrat is talking about are the federal subsidies that have created farms and large cities out of deserts that we are still paying for. The Bureau of Reclamation goes back about 100 years, but began its huge influence in the 1930s with Depression-era spending on dams and reservoirs that make the bureau the largest wholesaler of water in the nation and the second largest producer of hydroelectric power, with 58 plants. It does this with about 250 dams and 350 reservoirs, which are used for power, irrigation, flood control, and recreation.

All that costs taxpayers about $2 billion a year in subsidies for electricity and water, with most of it going to agricultural interests. For Kaptur, the subsidies need to be scaled back over time, based upon the fact that growing tomatoes in the desert doesn’t make much sense anymore.

“A tomato travels between 1,200 and 1,500 miles to get from the farm to the household table in the US,” she said. “Now we have some of the most fertile land on earth here in Ohio, and we have the water that we can bring to farms cheaply and efficiently. But our national policy is to subsidize the farmers growing in a desert to such an extent that farmers in the Midwest have little chance to compete.”

“But once again, the point we are trying to make in Washington is that the Great Lakes basin is one of the only self-sustaining regions on the planet,” Kaptur said. “We have water, we have fertile soil, we have shipping for transportation that supports manufacturing, we have recreation opportunities, and we have our own unique energy sources. We should be investing more right here.”

Cleveland Lakefront - photo Bob Perkoski

Cleveland Lakefront – photo Bob Perkoski

“Doesn’t that makes sense?” she asked.

Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown echoed Kaptur’s take on the subsidies and told Belt: “It is not just subsidies for agriculture, it is subsidies for golf courses and swimming pools that we are all paying for. Clearly there is a reason that so much industry and growth and educational innovation took place around the Great Lakes through the years, but federal policy has turned its back on that in favor of growth in the west and the south.”

[blocktext align=”left”]Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown echoed Kaptur’s take on the subsidies and told Belt: “It is not just subsidies for agriculture, it is subsidies for golf courses and swimming pools that we are all paying for.” [/blocktext]And that is the major problem of future investment in the Great Lakes. The subsidies that the Midwest legislators helped approve throughout most of the 20th century led to population growth in the western and southern states and diminished power in the Midwest. And members of Congress aren’t going to easily give back those appropriations that have been a part of their states’ basic services for so long. And the western legislators will also ignore droughts that show that too much land is being farmed and wildfires that destroy homes in the mountains that could never have been built without grants for infrastructure.

Barry Rabe, a professor of environmental policy and the director of the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy (CLOSUP) at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, said the declining population in states like Michigan and Ohio make it difficult to reverse some of the billions of dollars in federal subsidies to which Rep. Kaptur and Sen. Brown allude.

“We all know that the ones who scream the most about budget deficits are from the states in the south and west that receive these huge grants for programs that subsidize their ability to live there,” Rabe said. “But a number of factors can come into play. Increased drought from climate change might make Washington look closer at the Great Lakes region. Having the shale gas here and wind farms on the lakes—along with an inexhaustible supply of cheap water—may make some investment companies look at this area differently.”

“I don’t think anyone or any business is just going to pick up and move to Detroit or Cleveland because they are on a large body of water,” Rabe said. “But if that body of water is clean and provides great parks and recreation for employees of a company, and if there are energy efficiencies that a company can’t get elsewhere, and it can tap into areas of expertise the Midwest has in manufacturing, then yes, the location is a big issue.”

“But it isn’t going to happen unless the different states join up in better ways to work together,” Rabe said. “That’s the bigger issue.”


John Norquist was the mayor of Milwaukee from 1988 to 2004 and now serves as the CEO and President of the Congress of New Urbanism (CNU), a collection of urban planners and architects who promote functional urban design in buildings and neighborhoods. When asked about his relationship with the State of Wisconsin during his time as Milwaukee mayor, Norquist said, “Milwaukee was like an albatross around Madison’s neck.”

Norquist said that that attitude came about because of the lack of understanding of the needs of a city on the water and the needs on those living in the interior. “It is really basic stuff,” Norquist said. “People who live in agricultural areas want things spread out and they fight congestion. They don’t want anything close together.”

“But cities, especially along the water, need to be concentrated around that port area. All of the state capitals in the Midwest are away from the lakes, and the state governments always spend money and time trying to spread the cities out.”

[blocktext align=”left”]“Lake Erie is part of an economic engine that crosses all boundaries and part of a Great Lakes region where the eight states and Canada have common interests,” FitzGerald said.[/blocktext]“[State officials’] goals were always to spread things out, because that is what they knew,” he continued. “I had to deal with it in Milwaukee and they dealt with it in Detroit and Cleveland. Rather than invest in the areas closest to the water, they engaged in policies and spending that moved everyone and everything away from the water. The problem is that the State of Ohio applies a rural standard to Cleveland, and that’s why Cleveland is the way it is.”

Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, who is running for Ohio governor, said he has seen some of those same state policies while in his current post and when he was mayor of Lakewood.  “There really has always been a lack of focus out of Columbus,” FitzGerald said. “While I served on city council and as mayor of Lakewood [1999-2011], the state rarely engaged us on any issue where being on Lake Erie came into play. Certainly not in planning where we would meet with leaders of other cities nearby to have a regional approach.”

“Lake Erie is part of an economic engine that crosses all boundaries and part of a Great Lakes region where the eight states and Canada have common interests,” FitzGerald said. “A lot of elected officials say they all want clean water and energy efficiencies and sustainable development and job growth, but you need to do something about it and not just talk. Our governor isn’t doing much to really use this precious and unique resource to make an impact. I don’t think he really tries to understand the issues at play.”

Ohio Gov. John Kasich did not respond to repeated requests for an interview for this story.


Cleveland Ore Freighter - photo Bob Perkoski

Cleveland Ore Freighter – photo Bob Perkoski

If cities are supposed to turn toward and not away from their lakefront, it will be interesting to see what Cleveland will do in coming years. Chicago has always had extensive parks along Lake Shore Drive, and Detroit has grown the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge from 300 acres in 2001 to about 6,000 today, with possible plans for another 10,000 acres. Under Norquist’s leadership, Milwaukee tore down a freeway downtown to better connect the downtown urban neighborhood to Lake Michigan.

Under FitzGerald, the county is working with the city on developing a small property just north of the Cleveland Browns Stadium. FitzGerald also met with “Lake Erie stakeholders” last fall—representatives from the fishing industry, manufacturers, shippers, and others—to get their views on water issues. The county now has an online page that will provide the latest news on subjects like invasive species, how much debris is removed from the lake, fishing reports, and others.

But neither FitzGerald nor Sen. Brown wanted to get into any discussion regarding what the City should do with Burke Lakefront Airport. Both said it was a city issue, and it was up to Cleveland to do what they wished with the airport, which has about half the number of flights it did in 2000 and sits on 450 acres of prime lakefront property downtown. Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.

Kaptur, however, wants to discuss the options the city of Cleveland might have in developing better access to the lake. She said she has been encouraged by the transfer of Edgewater and the Euclid Beach parks from the state to the Cleveland MetroParks, and wants to see if she can help facilitate federal involvement in getting more public access to Lake Erie.

To that end, she has invited U.S. National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis to speak at the Cleveland City Club on April 11, after which Jarvis will attend meetings to explore extending the Cuyahoga Valley National Park to the lakefront in some way. Kaptur said examining whether Burke Lakefront Airport can be included in that park expansion, “will definitely be part of the discussion.” She also said that “this is a tremendous opportunity, especially given that FirstEnergy is going to close its Lake Shore power plant just east of downtown, and Cleveland could have better lakefront access than most cities on the Great Lakes.


Of course, Enquist’s planning group is big on more parks in their 100-year vision. They are suggesting in very vague terms that an international park operated by the United States and Canada be formed in the Great Lakes basin, though how they might acquire property is not yet spelled out and what role local governments might have in the process is too far down the road at this point.

[blocktext align=”left”]“The fact that we have the largest freshwater inland lake system in the world and we have federal laws that make it pretty much impossible to ferry passengers around is just crazy.”[/blocktext]There are the environmental issues that have to be sorted out, particularly the invasive species that have run the gamut from lampreys  to zebra mussels to Asian carp through the years. “It is something that we really have to pay attention to and work hard at,” said Jon Allan, who grew up in Elyria, Ohio, and is now director of the State of Michigan’s Office of the Great Lakes. “Some of the invasive species could be benign, but others could suck the life out of the Great Lakes.”

The Great Lakes Century also thinks a high-speed rail line running from Chicago to Toronto (in three hours’ time) would be a good investment, providing a transportation option that would be quicker and less polluting than airplanes. And then there is the issue of passenger boat lines. A federal law called the Jones Act, passed in 1920, requires all ships operating between U.S. ports be owned by U.S. companies and have a completely American crew.

The freight shippers operating on the Great Lakes have lobbied hard to keep the antiquated act as federal law so that foreign competitors find it more difficult to operate in the Great Lakes, but Enquist and others think there might be a way to separate passenger service from the shipping regulations. “It is amazing the Jones Act is still on the books,” said CNU’s Norquist. “The fact that we have the largest freshwater inland lake system in the world and we have federal laws that make it pretty much impossible to ferry passengers around is just crazy.”

And that is a perfect example on how difficult it will be to make significant changes in how the Great Lakes are used and improved. Most everyone agrees that there would be a market for cruise ships running from Toronto to Chicago, with stops in Buffalo and Cleveland and Detroit and other cities along the way. But that can’t be done easily because freight shipping companies transporting iron ore between Duluth and Cleveland want to protect their business interests.

And one would think that the passenger and the ore shipping interests would be unrelated, but everything having to do with the Great Lakes is connected to other parts of the region. No one ever thought that some shellfish native to the Black Sea might one day affect the cost of producing electricity in Ohio, but they did and are still doing so 25 years later.

Enquist likes to point out that the Great Lakes basin on the U.S. side could easily handle an increase in population between 50 and 75 million by 2050, given the vacant property and water resources available. And he said that while the region experiences that growth, it can adapt new ways to reinvent itself.

“We used to just focus on carbon-based industries in the Great Lakes, but most of those have left or are leaving,” Enquist said. “And part of the problem is that we have let governmental and jurisdictional boundaries get in the way of doing development and progressing in the right ways. We can reinvent our relationship with the lakes.”

And maybe that’s why The Great Lakes Century is opting for the 100-year plan. Because, to use a shipping reference, you can’t turn the Queen Mary around on a dime. It will be difficult to get the federal government to stop dumping money into the desert so they can grow tomatoes, harder still to get away from the coal-fired power plants and into renewable energy, equally tough to move highways and railroads and factories away from the water, and probably impossible to get eight states and two countries and two provinces and thousands of local governments to agree upon these things.

But Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur is ever the optimist. “The federal government needs a course correction when it comes to the Great Lakes,” she said. “We live in a most wonderful part of the earth and it is a part of the earth that produces. And we’ve proven that we can produce in a private market without those huge subsidies.”

“Maybe we just need to teach the rest of the country about this,” she laughed. “Maybe a little basic geography.”

Daniel J. McGraw is a Lakewood freelance journalist and author.

Photo Bob Perkoski

“The Great Lakes: Plans For The Next 100 Years” by Daniel J. McGraw appears in Dispatches from the Rust Belt: The Best of Belt Year One, our first-year print anthology. Order the book here: