Case Study: The Great Lakes

The Five Thousand Pound Life: Water, a symposium on issues of water supply in the context of climate change, examined case studies on Los Angeles, the Great Lakes region, and New York City. The event was organized by The Architectural League and The Cooper Union Institute for Sustainable Design in February 2015.

The Great Lakes session brought together five experts to discuss and debate the problems and solutions facing North America’s primary source of fresh water.


5KL: Water | Case Study: Great Lakes Region | Recorded February 7, 2015 

Henry Henderson, in “Water, Infrastructure, and the Sustainable City,” looks to the impact of the built environment on the Great Lakes watershed. Focusing on the Chicago River, where the Mississippi River meets the Great Lakes, Henderson details the sewage and pollution issues that continue to plague local environments, neighborhoods, and the drinking water supply. In calling for enhanced visibility of water issues, Henderson asks us to acknowledge “how water, community, people, and our energy economy are deeply integrated.”

Peter Mulvaney (18:25) shares The Great Lakes Century, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s 100-year vision plan for the basin, a watershed that contains 20 percent of the earth’s and 84 percent of North America’s fresh water. Moving from the regional to the city scale, Mulvaney details specific conservation activities undertaken by the City of Chicago to save and recycle water, including a hydrant custodian program, a performance-based stormwater management ordinance, and an extensive municipal green roof effort.

Jen Maigret and Maria Arquero de Alarcón (34:21) turn their attention to another major Great Lakes city, Detroit, and the failings of its water infrastructure. The two call for “a sense of shared responsibility and common purpose” in the design of water systems, which they term “water civitas.” Outlining research on the stormwater and wastewater systems of Detroit and its suburbs, they present a vision for a new generation of green and blue water infrastructure that connects residents to their water system.

In a closing discussion (51:02), the presenters are joined by Ila Berman for a conversation on their ideas for this critical region.


Maria Arquero de Alarcón and Jen Maigret are partners in MAde-studio, a research-based design practice that uses data, geographic analysis, and visualization techniques to make vivid the complexity of the constructed environment and its effect on water resources. Both teach at the Taubman College of Architecture at the University of Michigan.

Ila Berman is principal of Scaleshift design and the O’Donovan Director of the University of Waterloo School of Architecture.

Henry Henderson is Midwest Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, where he leads NRDC’s work to advance clean energy, protect the Great Lakes and clean water resources, build sustainable communities, and safeguard our natural resources in eight Midwestern states.

Peter Mulvaney leads the sustainable water resource strategies in the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), where he designs solutions for a healthy and sustainable world. He is a contributing author to the SOM project The Great Lakes Century, a 100 Year Vision.


The Five Thousand Pound Life (5KL) is an initiative of The Architectural League on new ways of thinking, talking, and acting on architecture, climate change, and our economic future.