Press Releases

SOM City Designers Focus on World’s Urban Water Supply

Image © SOM

Chicago, IL: Dramatically redefining the contextual scale of urban planning, the City Design Practice of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM) is winning international support in its urgent call for a 100-year vision to protect environmentally and revitalize economically the entire U.S.-Canada Great Lakes region, the world’s largest source of surface fresh water.

The vast binational basin of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River – holding more than 20 percent of the earth’s increasingly precious surface fresh water and sustaining a population of 50 million – has become a passionate public service cause for SOM’s city design studio, and has inspired ecosystem-scale thinking across its global practice.

“The availability and quality of fresh water to sustain a radically urbanizing world is unquestionably a core issue of our time and requires holistic environmental thinking at an unprecedented scale,” said Philip Enquist, SOM partner in charge of urban design worldwide.

“Pioneer city planner Daniel Burnham saw this a century ago, and drew his 1909 Plan of Chicago in the context of the entire freshwater sea of Lake Michigan – with a surface area of 50,000 square kilometers. The earth’s explosive, city-based population growth must be planned for now within even larger environmental frameworks. It is encouraging that our pro bono call for a shared Great Lakes vision is being enthusiastically embraced throughout this North American megalopolis,” Enquist said.

Endorsed by 86 American and Canadian mayors, honored by the American Institute of Architects, and the keynote presentation at international conferences, the SOM city design studio’s volunteer initiative – begun in 2009 as its contribution to the Burnham Plan Centennial – is helping to catalyze a shared regional vision among national, tribal, provincial and local governments, environmentalists, legal experts, public policy leaders, the media and the public.

SOM’s call to vision intends to reverse environmental degradation throughout the basin defined by the 11,000-mile shoreline of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence and to revitalize its USD $2-trillion regional economy, sometimes called “the cradle of the carbon economy.”

Presenting at the U.S. Seventh Circuit Bar Association Foundation’s recent symposium on the Great Lakes at Chicago’s Field Museum, Enquist urged his Canadian and American audience that "now is the time to halt degradation of this unique environment by redesigning our cities, our energy sources and our farming practices,” and later added his studio’s support for United Nations World Water Day on March 22.

He encouraged the audience of government, legal and public policy leaders to see the region as an all-connected whole – “without borders” between its nations, states, first nation reserves and tribal reservations and 15,000 municipalities.

Using the powerful graphics and design principles of its architectural and urban planning professional toolkit, SOM dramatically documents the damaging impacts on the Great Lakes of coal-fired power plants, invasive species like the Asian carp, and urban sewage overflows and agricultural runoff.

The SOM team has created and communicated eight strategic and positive “pieces of the vision:”

Green cities and Great Lakes – restoring a healthy relationship between city and nature
Bigger than a national park – envisioning a single, borderless region of natural and cultural heritage and a global example of international peace and environmental cooperation
Great minds and Great Lakes – focusing the region’s world-renowned research institutions on innovating a post-carbon economy
Blue is the new green – achieving clean, drinkable, swimmable, fishable water – and ensuring its availability forever
Tapping renewable energy – innovating beyond coal and oil to the region’s abundant sources of eternal, renewable energy
Achieving mobility – reducing carbon and synergizing economic capacity by connecting the region with high speed rail, walkable neighborhoods with transit, and adjoining communities via bikeways
Leaders in new economies – focusing economic growth on environmentally sustainable industries and technologies to meet global water needs
Commitment to local food – supporting healthier people and healthier land with a regional, sustainable food system

The leader of the world’s most highly awarded urban design practice, Enquist said a shared regional vision will lead to a comprehensive plan, like the Burnham Plan, to guide decision making for the next 100 years in a largely self-sustaining region that traverses an area the equivalent of London to Marseille to Vienna to Warsaw.

SOM’s binational Great Lakes public service initiative has been supported by Enquist and his partners and by untold hours of voluntary work by staff in the City Design Practice. The initiative was honored with a special award by AIA Chicago, and has been endorsed unanimously by the mayors of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative. Complete details can be found on the initiative’s blog site at

About Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM) is one of the leading architecture, interior design, engineering, and urban-planning firms in the world, with a 75-year reputation for design excellence and a portfolio that includes some of the most important architectural accomplishments of the 20th and 21st centuries. Since its inception, SOM has been a leader in the research and development of specialized technologies, new processes and innovative ideas, many of which have had a palpable and lasting impact on the design profession and the physical environment. The firm’s longstanding leadership in design and building technology has been honored with more than 1,500 awards for quality, innovation, and management. The American Institute of Architects has recognized SOM twice with its highest honor, the Architecture Firm Award—in 1962 and again in 1996. The firm maintains offices in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., London, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Mumbai and Abu Dhabi.​