For years, rivers were a source of transport and power, upon whose banks our cities were born. But as cities industrialized, many of them clogged with filth and disease – making them not only ugly, but dangerous. Unless they were useful, rivers were often diverted, covered, pushed underground, and forgotten.
Not anymore. Reclaiming rivers seems to be the newest trend in urban design, and cities across the world are hopping on the bandwagon. In the UK, the Environment Council is working to restore 9,500 miles of river; in Los Angeles, the eponymous river is about to undergo a complete transformation.
It won’t be easy. Once the primary water source of the Los Angeles Basin, the bed and banks of the Los Angeles River were encased in concrete in 1938 following a series of devastating floods. Since then, the waterway has become little more than an outlet for the city’s storm drains - and often sits completely dry. The story of the river’s death is one that resonates with cities across the world.
However, in the eternally-arid, car-centric city that is LA, this “anti-freeway project” has the potential to change everything.
River reclamation projects have proven to be unparalleled catalysts for urban renewal, spurring the creation of functional and beautiful community spaces. The San Antonio Riverwalk is Texas' second most visited attraction (after the Alamo), and completely revitalized the once small city. Chicago's river/riverwalk restoration project took off in the early 2000s, and was such a success that a second phase of renovation is about to begin.
On a slightly smaller scale, Yonkers, a city in upstate New York, recently saw just this happen when it rehabilitated its Saw Mill River, which runs through the city center. The meticulously planned project, which took over a decade to be completed, has transformed an old parking lot (which covered the river) into a vibrant and dynamic public park. It’s become wildly popular with residents, and boasts a number of educational exhibits to educate the public on the area and river’s history.
A lot of these outcomes were simply a byproduct of the larger goal: reinvigorating the river as a natural habitat. The Saw Mill Project placed great emphasis on making sure the rehabilitated river could support the variety of pre-existing native species. The river’s become an important part of the American Eel’s migratory journey. Everyone, it seems, is a winner.
However, the movement has, up to now, remained relatively small scale. A recent documentary, entitled Lost Rivers might change all that.
The film follows the stories of forgotten waterways in London, Toronto, Seoul, Montreal, Brescia, and Yonkers, highlighting the efforts of the advocates uncovering their history and nature. The global scope of the film is likely to catapult it onto the world stage –somewhat fortuitously, as the issue couldn’t be more urgent.
The threats posed by flooding are becoming increasingly dire, and have been exacerbated by climate change and the runoff from pavements born out of urban sprawl. And, as we continue to urbanize, these problems will likely only become worse.
But not to fear. If recent successes are any indication, the answer to our problems might have been under our feet all along.