7 Things You Should Know About Urban Rivers

Once rel­e­gat­ed to the dirty work of stor­ing waste prod­ucts of heavy indus­try, urban rivers are under­go­ing a revival, now rank­ing as many cities’ main attrac­tions. All over the world, old indus­tri­al dis­tricts are being con­vert­ed to focus rivers as the flow­ing heart of urban areas. Exam­ples range from Portland’s con­ver­sion of Har­bor Boule­vard to Water­front Park to the Kaalang Riv­er in Sin­ga­pore, or Canary Wharf on the Thames. They’re becom­ing clean­er and used more for recre­ation than indus­try. Urban rivers are also help­ing us to rethink our rela­tion­ship with nature. Here are 8 things to get your wheels turn­ing.

Where We Are
83% of Amer­i­cans live in met­ro­pol­i­tan areas. But instead of dri­ving two hours into the moun­tains for a swim or a dose of nature, we want it where we live and work. In Port­land we see it in the East­side Esplanade, the rede­vel­op­ment of the South Water­front and the Labrador retriev­ers splash­ing after sticks at Sell­wood Park. 

Non­point Pol­lu­tion is the Point
The first wave of riv­er cleanups in the 1970s fought pol­lu­tion from sin­gle sources, usu­al­ly large indus­tri­al plants. This “point source” pol­lu­tion was easy to find and pre­vent. Now the chal­lenge is “non­point source” pol­lu­tion that emanates from the com­bined actions of mil­lions of res­i­dents: fer­til­iz­er that wash­es off lawns, rain that sends motor oil into storm drains, and sed­i­ment that wash­es into side streams. Fix­ing this means chang­ing our dai­ly habits, a more chal­leng­ing task.

Curb Your Enthu­si­asm
As rivers become more of a focal point for tourism and recre­ation, cities are focus­ing more on keep­ing them clean, which means doing some inno­v­a­tive think­ing about  streets and build­ings. Instead of curbs direct­ing water into drains (and the riv­er) “green streets” direct this runoff into swales, where plants can fil­ter out pol­lu­tants. Roof down­spouts can flow onto lawns or flower gar­dens instead of into the storm drains. Eco­roofs and rain bar­rels cap­ture rain­fall. Exper­i­ments with per­me­able pave­ment allow rain to re-enter the soil through roadbeds, reduc­ing the amount of urban pol­lu­tants that find their way to the riv­er.

If You Build It, They Will Comesalmon
When we restore streams, wildlife finds out. When a sec­tion of Portland’s Crys­tal Springs Creek that had flowed through a pipe under­neath a golf course for four decades was freed from its pipe, Coho Salmon found their way upstream to spawn with­in two years. Restore the stream­side for­est and wet­lands and bald eagles, riv­er otters, and beaver will find their way there. 

It’s the Econ­o­my, Stu­pid
For decades, some have claimed that pro­tect­ing rivers is bad for the econ­o­my. This has been proven false—in fact, it’s quite the oppo­site. Healthy rivers spur invest­ment, bring peo­ple into urban cores, increase prop­er­ty val­ues, attract skilled work­forces in a knowl­edge-based econ­o­my, and are a fac­tor in busi­ness relo­ca­tion.

Rivers For Every­one
Unfor­tu­nate­ly, not every­one has access to a riv­er these days. Poor neigh­bor­hoods are less like­ly to have access to rivers, and water­ways in poor com­mu­ni­ties are more like­ly to be pol­lut­ed. As we embrace our urban rivers again, we need to think about ways every­one can enjoy them.

Use It or Lose It
If we don’t restore our urban rivers, we’ll lose them. Con­vert­ing indus­tri­al land­scapes to parks, trails, and green­ways begins a vir­tu­ous cycle where more peo­ple care about urban rivers and push for parks, clean water, and green devel­op­ment. Where urban rivers remain dif­fi­cult to access, like North Port­land Har­bor, they remain unused by the local pop­u­la­tion, and then lan­guish wait­ing for a solu­tion. The biggest thing that can help our urban rivers is us.