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December 21, 2012
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by George Patten

Recent US population growth trends show many cities are growing faster than suburbs, reflecting shifting lifestyle choices that favor urban living. There is also a concurrent interest in restoring natural features of the urban landscape, particularly river corridors, as part of this urban living renaissance. Urban development has impacted rivers and streams in many cities through flood control engineering, stormwater runoff, and industrial discharges, which sometimes resulted in rivers being paved over altogether. These impacts fundamentally altered the ecological structure and function of rivers, and removed them as a central feature of the landscape. Increasingly, cities and other entities are working to restore degraded urban rivers and “daylight” streams forced underground to reintroduce ecological functionality as well as create a valued resource for their communities.

Daylighting is being considered by many cities as a way to manage flows and water quality while simultaneously revitalizing downtowns and urban areas. The Cheonggyecheon Stream restoration in Seoul South Korea in 2005 received significant worldwide attention. The stream was paved over during the rise of industrialization following the Korean War to create more space for traffic lanes. The stream restoration project involved removing three miles of elevated highway and daylighting the stream. The project also led to improvements in the local environment and provided access to green space for local citizens.

In the US, small and large cities, as well as recently many federal agencies, are getting more involved in urban river restoration. Restoration projects can have significant environmental benefits and community development opportunities, especially in underdeveloped areas. In addition, a restored river corridor can also have economic development benefits by attracting people and businesses to areas that were once underutilized and degraded. See the Greening Makes Dollars and Sense post on the economic benefits of urban greening.

In Kalamzoo, Michigan, daylighting Arcadia Creek, a creek concealed underground for decades, simultaneously solved flooding and local urban decline. The project helped revitalize the area and resulted in a 10-fold return on investment from private development. A similar project occurred in San Luis Obispo where the city daylighted and revitalized the San Luis Creek. Since 1980, more than 20 daylighting projects have occurred and at least 20 more are in the works. The town of Yonkers New York is involved in an ambitious revitalization effort of its downtown, in which daylighting the local Saw Mill Creek is a centerpiece of the plan. The city hopes to attract more businesses to the downtown area through the $17 million restoration effort. In November 2011, the creek reached daylight for the first time in 90 years.

Federal agencies have also acknowledged the value of urban rivers, and in 2011 established the “Federal Urban Rivers Partnership”. The program is a collaborative effort among about a dozen federal entities including the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to revitalize urban river corridors, especially those in economically distressed areas. The efforts are community-led and promise to utilize federal resources more efficiently through coordination to produce economic, social, and environmental benefits (US EPA).

The Urban Waters Partnership program initially identified seven pilot communities to enhance existing restoration and revitalization work. Among these pilot communities is the South Platte River corridor which runs through Denver, Colorado. Portions of the South Platte corridor are underutilized, and the river has impairments for water (US EPA). The City, along with several local organizations including the Colorado Brownfields Foundation has helped restore and enhance the river. Through extensive public outreach and collaboration with the city, the Greenway Foundation developed master plans for the corridor to improve access and add more pedestrian-friendly amenities. The Federal Urban River Partnership program aims to support these existing efforts and leverage others at the Federal level to enhance overall restoration outcomes and engage a wider portion of the community.

These restoration projects reflect the shift in attitude towards urban rivers, where it’s no longer a liability but rather a resource both ecologically and economically. Urban river restoration efforts promote multi-level partnerships between cities, engineers, designers, ecologists, and private developers, which supports investment returns and long-term project success. These efforts are likely to become more sophisticated in the future with improved science and greater public involvement. For now, it’s exciting to see healthier rivers in our cities and communities.