There are few natural features as important as rivers and streams in defining cities, in shaping sense of place, and in connecting us with nature. Many cities began their histories, and owe their economic fortunes, to proximity to rivers. Yet urban rivers have often been abused and undervalued, and we have been more likely to build highways along them (that profoundly block our physical and visual access to them), cover them over, and generally understand them either as natural hazards or pollution sinks. Only more recently have we understood urban rivers as valuable, living systems, as essential to urban health and well-being, and important community assets to be cherished.

The change in view in recent years has been dramatic and encouraging, as many cities seek to restore connections to rivers and streams and understand the many larger ecological, social and economic values of these systems, and the emotional and psychological value of rivers to people especially in urban settings. New York City’s Director of City Planning, Amanda Burden, has recently declared the need to think of water as the city’s “Sixth Borough,” and that city has worked hard to create new connections to its waterfront (for instance the new Hudson River Park). Richmond, Virginia, has adopted an urban design plan for its downtown that seeks to re-connect to the James River, declaring it to be that city’s Central Park.

Almost all of the cities we have been studying and working with through the Biophilic Cities Project have a compelling river or water story. Milwaukee has undertaken impressive river conservation efforts, and recently saw the opening of a third branch of the Urban Ecology Center, focused on a vision of restoring and re-connecting surrounding neighborhoods to the Menomonee River.  Oslo has developed a bold green plan which imagines restoring and bringing back to the surface all its major river systems, connecting its large forested zone with the Oslo fjord. The value of such efforts here can already be seen in the Akerselva, where residents come to walk, run, bike and picnic along the banks of this former industrial river. Complete with water falls, pedestrian bridges, and expansive meadows, it is a popular daily destination.

In Singapore, through its ABC water initiative (active, beautiful, clean), a major shift in thinking has taken place, moving that city away from engineered water management and flood control, towards one of re-naturalizing rivers and streams. The premier example is the Kallang River at Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park which has been taken out of a concrete encasement and returned to a meandering, beautiful, biodiverse river.

In Portland, Oregon, there is even a Rivers Office, created in 2009, to give more concerted attention to protection of and development along the river (see our recent interview with Director Ann Beier here). In many ways Portland exemplified the re-discovery of urban rivers, and famously took out a section of interstate highway in the 1970s to create the Tom McCall Waterfront Park.

Urban rivers and streams lay an important foundation for outdoor living and physical activity in cities.  I’ve just returned from a trip to the UK where I spent time in Birmingham, a city beginning to develop new and innovative strategies for connecting health improvements with environmental conservation. A key element in this new vision of the city as a green and healthy place are the 400 km of mostly above- ground small waterways.  While lacking a large, major river, this is an impressive blue network that reaches every part of the city. Nick Grayson, who heads up the city’s program in Climate Change and Sustainability, explained to me his notion that by opening up access to this network, it could become the basis for a city-wide grid of walking trails and pathways. Grayson envisions a future in which the health-enhancing value of those streams might then flow back to the city in the form of funds (from forgone medical expenses as more residents walk and spend time in nature), allowing the city to better manage and maintain them.  And there are other potential new income streams, for instance from the sustainable harvesting of wood and its use as a biomass energy source.

Here in our own small City of Charlottesville there is a remarkable stream restoration story unfolding, showing what water and access to water can mean in enhancing quality of life, and promoting outdoor activity. It is an impressive restoration project—some 9000 linear feet—and has involved realigning the stream, restoring meanders, enhancing aquatic habitat, and planting native trees and vegetation. A collaborative project between the City of Charlottesville and the Nature Conservancy (TNC), it will have many benefits, including water quality enhancement and restoring the ecological functioning of the stream. But most importantly will be the benefit to the surrounding neighborhoods, as a place to stroll and wander, and for kids to explore. Our family is there often, and the allure is great: each stretch of water is bit unique and there are many different places and ways to cross and follow this gurgling blue ribbon.

Rivers and streams are in many ways the hydrologic “veins” of our communities. They provide many ecological services, of course, but they also provide the basis for emotional connections with nature and the other life forms with which we share the city, extending as a kind of blue web of mutuality and interdependence. We are typically never very far from a river or stream in a city, and if we commit to it, never far from a restorative walk, touch or gaze that adds immeasurably to urban living.

 Post by Timothy Beatley
Timothy Beatley, PhD, is the Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities & Chair of the Department of Urban & Environmental Planning at the UVa School of Architecture.