A U.S. architectural firm best known for creating some of the tallest skyscrapers in the world has turned its creative eye to the Great Lakes, advocating for a new economic and environmental vision that spans borders.
The bi-national blueprint from Chicago-based Skidmore, Owings and Merrill is still in its infancy, but the concept has garnered support from several mayors in Canada and the United States. The proposal calls on the two nations to re-imagine the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River region as a shared space, where Canadians and Americans work together to protect waterways, ease traffic congestion, promote tourism and develop new economic ventures.
"This isn't a collection of lakes that divides two countries. This is a collection of lakes that should unite two countries," said Philip Enquist, one of the firm's senior urban designers.
The bi-national vision, presented this week at a global green-building conference in Toronto, isn't so far-fetched. The Brookings Institution in Washington and Mowat Centre in Toronto have been studying the idea, consulting 250 business, government and community leaders. The public-policy think tanks will present their regional blueprint at an international Great Lakes water-quality meeting in Detroit next week.
Genesis of a vision
At first blush, the pairing of the Great Lakes and an architectural company seems odd. Skidmore, Owings and Merrill has built a global design empire with such towering wonders as the iconic John Hancock Center and Sears Tower in Chicago and downtown Dubai's spiralling Burj Khalifa, which, at 828 metres, is the tallest building on the planet.
But when the firm was asked to draft a vision to mark the centennial of the 1909 Burnham Plan that helped shape Chicago, Mr. Enquist, who's done regional planning in China and Bahrain, began wondering why there wasn't a holistic strategy for the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River area.
And so Skidmore, Owings and Merrill began envisioning an environmental and economic plan.
The environmental case
The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River region is massive, encompassing Ontario, Quebec and eight U.S. states. It contains about 84 per cent of North America's fresh water and almost 18,000 kilometres of lake frontage. Nearly a third of Canadians and about a tenth of Americans live here, in more than 15,000 towns and cities.
The National Parks Conservation Association, a U.S. advocacy group, and the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, which includes about 80 mayors from both sides of the border, have joined the push for a bi-national strategy. The proposal urges greater collaboration to improve water quality and conservation. The plan also calls for the designation of a Great Lakes international park, which would increase the region's cachet, said Lynn McClure, a regional director with the U.S. parks group.
The economic argument
Unlike provinces and states in the Pacific Northwest that forged formal economic and political alliances two decades ago, the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence region doesn't have an entrenched culture of co-operation, observes Josh Hjartarson, policy director at Mowat Centre. Rather, the jurisdictions are more accustomed to competing for tourists, manufacturers and other economic opportunities.
But with the manufacturing sector waning in many parts of the Great Lakes and glum forecasts of a deepening economic downturn, Mr. Hjartarson says the region should forge closer ties to capitalize on its assets. Those would include top-notch educational institutions, a wealth of corporate head offices and a population of 105 million people. New industries could be created through stronger co-operation. Mr. Enquist, the urban designer, points to renewable energy and green technology as possible opportunities for the region.
Windsor mayor Eddie Francis supports crafting a bi-national strategy for the area, but notes the central challenge will be mustering the necessary political will. With so many players and levels of government involved, striking a consensus won't be easy. The vision needs a powerful political champion, Mr. Francis said.
"Given the economic crisis that's taken place, I think there's a sense of urgency that's being developed to try and get this group to work together," added the Windsor mayor, whose city has grappled with the decline of auto manufacturing.
"The region has an ability to compete. It's either we work together or lose together," he said.