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September 29, 2011


Imagining A Sustainable Future for the Great Lakes and Saint Lawrence River Region

Rick Findlay is Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors of the Canadian Water Network and is the Chair of the Great Lakes Futures Roundtable. 

Canada and the United States share one of the globe’s most impressive natural features: The Great Lakes and Saint Lawrence River basin, one of the greatest watersheds in the world. Seen clearly from space, the Great Lakes watershed has a shoreline of more than 10,000 miles and contains approximately one fifth of the world’s total fresh surface water supply. Lake Superior is the largest lake in the world by surface area and the far western end of Lake Superior is more than 2000 miles away from where the Saint Lawrence River discharges into the Atlantic Ocean.

Protecting and sustaining this watershed is a challenge of global significance – and an opportunity that will only be realized if citizens who live in the basin effectively share the responsibility for its shared environment, combined economy and unique social identity and strengths. That will require, first of all, a shared recognition of the region as a place of global significance and exciting opportunity. It will then need a clear vision we can all work to advance – a vision that can be imagined, shared and implemented by all, for the benefit of present generations and those to come.

But how do we imagine and annunciate this vision? How do we develop the leadership to advance it and the resources to implement it? What can we learn from other examples of visionary leadership that have emerged over the past, say 100 years in this region that have been crucial to its development? And what could be a possible path that we could all walk, towards the next 100 years? What kind of future would we like our grandchildren to inherit?

Let’s look back to understand the kind of vision and leadership that influenced us over the last 100 years. One leading visionary was Chicago based architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham, Director of Works for the World’s Columbian Exposition (The Chicago Word’s Fair) held in 1893 and who designed several famous buildings in Chicago, New York and Washington D.C.

In 1909, Burnham prepared “The Plan of Chicago” that set the standard for urban design that has shaped Chicago into the city that it is today, with its boulevards, transportation system, its parks, waterfront and of course many of its institutions and structures. Though the Burnham Plan was never completely implemented it did set a standard for urban design that continued to influence development not only in Chicago but throughout the region for the next century. The Daniel Burnham Memorial Competition was held in 2009 to celebrate his vision and contributions, 100 years later.

If, once upon a time people could embrace and achieve an ambitious 100 year vision for Chicago, why not develop and advance a vision for the next 100 years for the whole Great Lakes region?

The challenge is first to ask ourselves; what, if our children and their children are going to live here for the next 100 years do we need to do right now, to ensure that they will be able to feed themselves sustainably, lively healthy lives, power and transport themselves and their goods and have a strong, viable regional economy of global significance? That is the challenge of achieving sustainability and the challenge that people in the Great Lakes and Saint Lawrence region are increasingly recognizing and embracing.

By any measure, it is clear that this economically strong region and its thriving society has developed because of the plentiful availability of its water and natural resources. Perhaps most important from a sustainability point of view, while the basin is ecologically rich with a diversity of fish, wildlife and plant species supporting a population that overall enjoys a relatively progressive quality of life compared to just about anywhere else in the world, that rich natural diversity is under threat. This region has developed into a vital global hub of activity and it represents a huge opportunity as well as a significant challenge to ensure that it is sustained for future generations.

The Great Lakes and Saint Lawrence River watershed is the major natural feature of a globally powerful economic, social and political region that straddles the boundary of Canada and the United States including two provinces of Canada; Quebec and Ontario, plus the eight States within which the Great Lakes basin is situated. Of course, only 1% of the volume of water in the Great Lakes is replenished each year, so this fragile balance must be maintained in order to sustain the watershed, the lakes and the huge resource that they represent. The sustainability challenge is basically to continue to prosper by living off the interest that the natural resources of the basin provide while not depleting the natural capital they represent, and leaving a globally significant region that our grandchildren will be proud to inherit and continue to protect, for their children.

Can we afford to do this? Can we afford not to? Already an economic powerhouse, the jurisdictions of the Great Lakes Saint Lawrence River region generates more than a third of the combined domestic product of Canada and the United States with an economy that rivals other nations. Indeed, if the region were “a country” it’s economy would rank in size ahead of most other countries of the world. Of course, in addition to this economic strength there are other social and environmental values. The region is home to twenty of the world’s top one hundred universities. The population of the region has grown based on a century of immigration bringing people with diverse skills, knowledge and perspectives from around the world.

There are significant continuing and new challenges to the region’s sustainability that have emerged from four centuries of human induced stresses. We find evidence of chemical, physical and biological threats to the integrity of the waters of the basin that simply must be overcome. But if we cannot establish a truly sustainable society in this region of natural and created riches where on earth can it be done?

The good news is, there are exciting new kinds of collaboration and cooperation that are emerging in this region that are transcending and helping our traditional binational institutions, governments, corporations and organizations to both imagine and work together towards the most healthy, stable, just and prosperous binational region in the world.

1 comment

1 Clint Bautz { 09.29.11 at 2:02 pm }

We should govern our lands based on watersheds rather than artificial political boundaries. The Great Lakes and St Lawrence could be a world example of this.