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Daylighting the waterways: Urban river restoration

March 2, 2012

The industrial age for many cities was a transformative one, for many reasons. But of particular interest is the storm water, wastewater, and plumbing technologies that were developed during this time.

There are many criticisms of these systems, although I have to hand it to those guys, it was innovative for the time. In those industrial times, efficiency and production were prioritized, without any consciousness of environmental impacts. Needless to say, these systems are ineffective and wildly outdated. New York, for example, has a combined storm water and sewage treatment system. So, when there’s moderate storm, the system overloads with run-off from the streets. And to prevent infrastructure damage, the city releases untreated combined sewage and urban run-off into the New York Harbor. It’s really awful, and stinky. A big no-no.

Many cities across the world are acknowledging the many problems associated with poorly designed and ill-fitted water systems. At the same time, municipal leaders are noticing the positive impacts of green infrasture and regenerative spaces. The combination of these two design challenges, to increase public green spaces and improve water infrastructure, has got engineers and designers mutually excited. And many communities are already enjoying the new projects and parks that it has created.

Artist rendering of the new downtown park that surrounds the Saw Mill River

Let’s jump into an example that’s close to home. In Yonkers, NY (where yours truly has familial roots), the Saw Mill River was once a wild tributary, running its course through the Taconic landscape. But with the rise of New York’s industry, the river became quickly polluted and no longer viewed as a resource, but a lifeless waterbody that took up valuable space and posed flood threats. It was channelized and buried in a concrete casket, where housing and commercial developments now stand. This river cuts through downtown Yonkers and borders the Bronx. But you wouldn’t have guessed it.

The Saw Mill River Coalition and the City of Yonkers started a project in December 2010, called the Saw Mill River Daylighting project. The design process included community charrettes and inputs from leaders in education, community gatherings, and urban revitaliztion.  With its completion, the city will resurrect the waterway, releasing it from the massive culvert that currently contains it. A community park will be part of the evolution from car-oriented downtown commercial zones to pedestrian-friendly community spaces. Not to mention the potential habitat restoration.

Stepping stones bridge two sides of the park on the Cheonggyecheon River

There are similar projects, like the Cheonggyecheon River Project in Seoul. This South Korean city remembered the once-revered, flowing waters of the river, that had been buried as a massive storm drain and sewage pathway. The river was recently re-opened, and the storm drains were modernized to allow the river its freedom. There is now a three-mile park that parallels the banks, with both community spaces and riparian habitat buffers. It was one part in a huge urban renewal project that began in 2003. Go Seoul!

The Spanish Bank Creek in Vancouver

In Vancouver, municipal leaders uncovered the Spanish Bank Creek, which at one point was an important waterway for salmon before it was culverted. But the removal of infrastructure and the creation of parks along the banks has lead to “restored riparian habitat that has attracted species such as river otter, mink, eagles and heron; and annual spawning returns occurring since 2001.”

I’m really enjoying this trend in urban waterway revival. I think that a community’s interest in the forgotten rivers, and the energy spent on bringing these sacred places back to life, is a reflection of a changing consciousness. Of course, there are ecological, communal, micro-climatical and financial incentives to complete these projects. But I’d like to think that there is something more. I think that the connection between nature and human communities is finally breaking through the concrete.

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