Lost Rivers

In the Ryan Gosling movie, Drive, there is a scene where Gosling drives his neighbour and her son along a long concreted culvert, the remains of a river, in LA to reach a paradise,a place of wonder, which is what the river once was.

This is the fate of many of our urban rivers – cleaned up, concreted to fit in with the concrete landscape, but when heavy rains come, there is no chance there for the water to soak into the soil,to be absorbed by plants, so in many instances, these culverts are making floods worse. As well as depriving children of access to natural habitats, places to inspire them to become interested in the natural world, and perhaps to become involved in protecting it.

This film by Caroline Bacle is part of the UK Green Film Festival, and shows how notions of greenness have entered into everyday life. It is about how cities once dependent on rivers for drinking water, transport, and energy, have in the process of expanding, buried many of the rivers, merging them with sewers, and of the dangers this process now poses.

The film is amazing, as it shows the fate of rivers in North America, Europe and Asia, and how local people are dealing with them. It begins with urban explorers going in search of underground rivers in Montreal, often at great risk to themselves from infection, and from prosecution.

In Toronto, landscape architects discuss the increasing number of incidents where sewers overflow after heavy rain, the result of increasing population pouring sewage into the underground tunnels, but also due to the increasing rain from climate change. Because the fact is, stormwater does not need to go underground, and there is increasing agreement that it should be diverted into the original river beds, forming parks which can act as reservoirs to hold the water till the floods subside. This can mean building urban wetlands, as has happened in the East End of London, a low lying area always prone to flooding; they have built a wetland that can be sealed off during floods to protect surrounding areas, and intend to open up a total of 17 kilometres of above ground rivers in the capital. Unfortunately for Toronto, these plans have been ignored, with authorities building more underground tanks to deal with floods, which is, as they say, like putting out buckets to catch the water when you should be mending the roof.

The story in England is an interesting one, as the covering over of rivers was largely carried out by an engineer in London, Bazalgette, following the discovery that cholera epidemics were caused by contaminated water, so a huge engineering scheme was built to clean up the capital, to bring in clean water and to dispose of the waste. Like many European and American cities, these Victorian sewers are still the basis for cities, but they are increasingly struggling to deal with the surging volumes.

The most surprising is the story of the river in Yonkers, where their town was based on its river to drive sawmils and bring in traffic. It has long been buried under a carpark, but has now been opened up as an urban space, revitalising a former run down area and bringing human and other life into a derelict urban space.

In Seoul, slum clearance made way for an 8 lane highway in the centre, but by improving public transport, they managed to remove this huge road, with the markets nearby, to create a thriving urban space. The only downside with this is that in order to keep the water flowiing, it needs water to be pumped upstream, the equivalent of powering something like 40,000 homes, so complaints have been made of its green credentials, as well as complaints from market traders who were forcably relocated to make space for it.

In Brescia, Italy, underground explorers have done such a great job mapping the underground streams, with medieavel and roman remains that they have been recognised by the local government as historians, and now lead tours of the underground spaces.

This is the film director’s statement:

“A colleague of mine asked me why I had such an interest in lost urban rivers given that I am not an urban planner, an architect or a historian. Quite simply, I’m a city citizen continually captivated by whatever urban environment I find myself in, and by the myriad human stories that exist in such places.These stories transcend boundaries, borders and time. They are found walking along straight North American boulevards and winding European roads and roundabouts. I often find myself wondering about these landsacapes. How were they intheir natural state? How did their urban metamorposis occur?

Bygone throughfares, liquid avenues, and pathways urban rivers are a subject of fascination for many their concealment and abandonment excite the mind much more than the here and now. And there is nothing more fundamental and precious than water. It’s the mirror of our humanity; it guides us toward reflection and reason; whole philosophies have been based on the knowledge that life flows like a river.
Mine isn’t a political film. It’s a film about human stories, about the evolution of our way of perceiving our built environment, about our disconnection with the natural world that has occurred alng the way. My hope is that this film will ignite discussions, and inspire us to look at our cities in a different light. We may well all be active participants in our cities’ evolutions to come.”

In Yonkers the woman who instigated the revival of the river is seen with young people catching baby fish, showing how, in such a short time, the river has in every sense, come back to life. She makes a very valid point about urban life, that if children don’t learn about nature, how can they become the next generation of scientists and environmentalists?

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