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 Come
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.