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New uses for old rivers: Rediscovering urban waterways

Published onDec 20, 2019
New uses for old rivers: Rediscovering urban waterways

Rivers have played a fundamental role in the history of many cities around the world. Major rivers such as the Nile and the Tigris-Euphrates attracted “large numbers of people,” which “led eventually to the creation of the first cities and what are popularly thought of as the first civilizations” (Middleton 2012, 48). As industrialization and urbanization accelerated from the late eighteenth century onward, rivers were subjected to extensive changes to make room for new development: “They were straightened, shortened, bordered with levees, and harnessed into narrow channels” (Knoll et al. 2017, 11). Urban rivers were turned into canals, serving predominantly as shipping arteries, flood control channels, hydropower sources, and “sinks” for urban wastes in the quest for modernity and economic growth (Gandy 2014; Gumprecht 1999; Hill 2000; Tarr 1996). In some cases, stretches of urban rivers were paved, filled, or diverted into underground tunnels, making them disappear entirely from the cityscape.

However, after decades of deterioration and neglect, urban waterways across the world are being rediscovered and repurposed. Deindustrialization, grassroots activism, and environmental regulation have done much to reverse the widespread decline of rivers (Kibel 2007; McCool 2012; Stradling and Stradling 2008). In the United States, for example, researchers have identified more than 37,000 river restoration projects designed to improve water quality and address environmental concerns (Bernhardt et al. 2005). While many rivers and river banks remain heavily polluted today, especially in rapidly growing cities of Asia and Africa (Figure 1), efforts are underway in both the global North and South to “daylight,” revitalize, and restore the environmental quality of rivers, to redevelop riverfronts, and to reintegrate waterways into the urban landscape.

Figure 1. Garbage on the banks of Lilongwe River, Malawi | Source: Andrea Beck, November 2018, Lilongwe, Malawi.

This volume of Projections explores the variety of “new uses for old rivers” that have emerged in conjunction with urban transformations. It attends, in particular, to the social, political, and economic processes shaping efforts to turn “old” rivers into “new” ones. While the literature on urban waterfront development is growing (for a recent review, see Avni and Teschner 2019), urban rivers and river waters themselves, and our interactions with them, have received scant scholarly attention. Exceptions include Davies’s (2015) history of swimming in the Thames river, Taufen Wessells’s (2011) analysis of rowing in Seattle, and Kowalewski’s (2014) reflections on urban wild swimming in European cities as a form of political protest and challenge to existing urban orders. Within the fields of planning, public health, and environmental psychology, scholars have begun to explore the concept of “blue space,” with a focus on the social and health impacts on city dwellers (e.g., de Bell et al. 2017; Taufen Wessells 2011; Völker and Kistemann 2015).

A few decades ago, proposals to create public “blue space” in the centers of major European and North American cities might have been dismissed out of hand given the extensive pollution and inaccessibility of many inner-city rivers. Today, however, urban design initiatives such as Flussbad Berlin demonstrate the importance that river restoration has acquired in public forums and political circles. The Flussbad project, which aims to make part of Berlin’s Spree canal accessible for swimming (Kutner 2015; Figure 2), has been endorsed by city officials due to its potential to make the German capital more liveable and sustainable.

Figure 2. Spree canal and Flussbad exhibition | Source: Andrea Beck, August 2019, Berlin, Germany.

Yet, efforts to revitalize urban rivers and riverfronts are far from straightforward design and engineering endeavors. Rather, they entail the political reimagining and reworking of the city itself. They raise questions not only about our relationship to water but also about the social, economic, and political dynamics at play in attempts to redevelop and reshape urban landscapes and waterscapes. What forces are driving efforts to restore rivers and redevelop waterfronts? What factors influence the implementation and effectiveness of these projects? How stable are these efforts over time and how can they be sustained? Crucially, who benefits from new river uses and who loses? What are the social and environmental impacts of these projects? The four contributions assembled in this volume of Projections engage with these questions from a variety of theoretical perspectives and geographical points of departure.

In Metropolis on the water: Varieties of development logics along the Seine, Yonah Freemark examines the political economy of riverfront redevelopment along the Seine river in Paris, France. Freemark uses historical analysis of archival documents and official statements to dissect the programming and design of five riverfront mixed-used redevelopment projects completed in the city since the 1960s. He asks whether these projects were driven purely by economic development logics or whether they also served to advance social equity goals such as expanding public housing. Freemark finds that politics and design play a fundamental role in creating opportunities for the achievement of socially desirable goals. He thereby challenges dominant planning narratives that read urban development and river restoration in relation to the advancement of neoliberal policies and the imperative to attract private investment, particularly in “global cities” such as Paris. Situating project development within institutional and political changes over time, he finds that left-wing governments, in particular, have sought to increase the availability of social housing and to use riverfront development to better integrate neighborhoods spatially. While dominant literature suggests that redevelopment projects favor the narrow interests of economic elites over social inequality, Freemark demonstrates that multiple, and at times contradictory, decision-making rationales—or “development logics,” as he calls them—are at play in efforts to redevelop riverfronts.

In From boats to bikes? Assembling contestations along the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok, Thailand, Leonie Tuitjer extends the examination of political dynamics by shifting attention to bottom-up contestation and collective action around riverfront redevelopment. In 2015, the newly established military government in Thailand announced a project to develop a bike lane along the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok, arguably to improve mobility and the use of public space. Tuitjer relies on qualitative fieldwork and analysis of media materials to trace how two non-governmental organizations sought to (1) challenge the government’s official narrative about the project, (2) expose its potentially negative social and environmental impacts, and (3) explore alternative designs through participatory planning and community engagement. Navigating a complex political terrain in which open public contestation is not officially allowed, Tuitjer shows how these groups devised creative strategies to foster conversations about the river and translate issues to a broader public. Deploying analytics from assemblage theory, the paper illuminates how the river not only served as an object of planning and contestation, but was itself enrolled in the struggle as an actant that transported alternative development visions across the city.

In Infrastructural instabilities of urban river restoration: Towards a metropolitan political ecology in the Tel Aviv region, Oren Shlomo and Nathan Marom draw attention to the scalar politics and temporal stability of river restoration efforts. The authors take a critical look at the long-term success of a project aimed at restoring the ecological system of the Yarqon river in Israel. The project sought to turn the river into a green corridor cutting through the dense metropolitan region of Tel Aviv. Drawing from a variety of empirical sources such as policy documents, media coverage, and interviews with relevant actors, the authors demonstrate that river restoration efforts are punctuated by “infrastructural instabilities.” At first glance, the Yarqon restoration project appeared to be a triumph: after nearly a decade, the river’s ecological health had been restored and a surrounding park served as a popular amenity providing opportunities for kayaking and other recreational activities. However, the authors find that periodic pollution events threatened the sustainability of the restoration effort. Shlomo and Marom explain these instabilities by zooming out to metropolitan governance. Specifically, they note that political differences between upstream and downstream municipalities—especially their capacity to execute environmental policies—help account for episodes of “infrastructural instability.” With the case of the Yarqon river, Shlomo and Marom show that river restoration is not a linear process, and that a broader (metropolitan-level) lens may be required to understand a river’s political ecology and successes and setbacks in its renewal.

Finally, in “A river runs through it”: Using small urban rivers as catalysts for revitalization in post-industrial New England cities, Judith Otto brings the analysis of river restoration efforts to the scale of small towns. Her approach seeks to correct for a bias in planning studies towards the examination of development processes in “global cities” and metropolises. Instead, she deploys a political economy lens to understand the role of rivers and streams in the promotion of local economic development and urban regeneration in post-industrial small towns in the United States. She combines historical analyses of archival materials, fieldwork, and interviews to compare river revitalization efforts in Amesbury and Peabody, Massachusetts, from the 1970s to the present. She finds that successful efforts to restore urban rivers in support of local development require at least three factors. First, they entail the articulation of a transformative vision that resonates with local residents—even if introduced by outsiders. Second, leadership buy-in is vital for the sustainability of efforts over time. Third, financial backing from multiple scales of government is necessary to support project implementation. Like Tuitjer, Otto finds that educating the public is fundamental, particularly when river restoration issues are very localized such as in small towns.

Taken together, the articles in this volume offer several insights. They take us from the Seine in Paris (Freemark) to the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok (Tuitjer) to foreground the crucial role of politics—whether institutional or grassroots—in shaping riverfront redevelopment, particularly as it intersects with other urban development policies such as housing and mobility. They demonstrate that “new” uses for rivers and riverfronts do not emerge in isolation but—much like water flows themselves—are fundamentally enmeshed in the urban fabric and entangled in broader political programs and urban development logics. Moving from the sprawling metropolis of Tel Aviv (Shlomo and Marom) to the small towns of New England (Otto), the contributions further highlight that the politics of revitalizing rivers is also, and fundamentally, a politics of scale. The effectiveness and sustainability of these efforts over time thus require both a spatial and a scalar sensibility. As an ensemble, the papers offer historically and contextually grounded accounts of various attempts to revitalize and redevelop urban rivers. Crucially, they underscore the need to understand these efforts in relation to broader political economies and political ecologies of urban development.


As editors, we would like to acknowledge and thank several people for their indispensable contributions to this volume of Projections. First, we are thankful to the authors who contributed to this volume and worked hard to respond to reviewers’ comments as well as to our editorial suggestions. Second, we are immensely grateful to several reviewers who agreed to read the papers. Their comments and suggestions were crucial to the development of the articles. Third, we would like to thank the members of the editorial board—listed below—for their willingness to participate in the board and support this volume. Fourth, we are grateful to MIT Press and to the PubPub team, particularly Catherine Ahearn, for their invaluable support in the publication process. Finally, we thank Professor Lawrence Vale and the PhD Committee at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT for the opportunity to edit this volume and for their guidance and advice.

Editorial Board – Projections Vol. 14

Matthew Gandy (University of Cambridge)

Martin Knoll (University of Salzburg)

Claudia Pahl-Wostl (University of Osnabrück)

Dieter Schott (TU Darmstadt)

Erik Swyngedouw (University of Manchester)

Anne Taufen Wessells (University of Washington Tacoma)

James Wescoat (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)


Avni, Nufar and Na’ama Teschner (2019). “Urban Waterfronts: Contemporary Streams of Planning Conflicts.” Journal of Planning Literature 34, no. 4: 408-420.

Bernhardt, E. S. et al. 2005. “Synthesizing U.S. River Restoration Efforts.” Science 308, no. 5722: 636-637.

Davies, Caitlin. 2015. Downstream: A History and Celebration of Swimming in the River Thames. London: Aurum Press.

de Bell, Siân, Hilary Graham, Stuart Jarvis, and Piran White. 2017. “The Importance of Nature in Mediating Social and Psychological Benefits Associated with Visits to Freshwater Blue Space.” Landscape and Urban Planning 167: 118-127.

Gandy, Matthew. 2014. The Fabric of Space: Water, Modernity, and the Urban Imagination. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Gumprecht, Blake. 1999. The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Hill, Libby. 2000. The Chicago River: A Natural and Unnatural History. Chicago: Lake Claremont Press.

Kibel, Paul Stanton (ed.). 2007. Rivertown: Rethinking Urban Rivers. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Knoll, Martin, Uwe Lübken, and Dieter Schott. 2017. “Introduction.” In Rivers Lost, Rivers Regained: Rethinking City-River Relations, edited by Martin Knoll, Uwe Lübken, and Dieter Schott. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 3-22.

Kowalewski, Maciej. 2014. “Producing the Space, Contesting the City: Urban Wild Swimming.” In Understanding the City: Henri Lefebvre and Urban Studies, edited by Gülçin Erdi-Lelandais. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 171-187.

Kutner, Max (2015). “Two Brothers Want to Make an Arm of Berlin’s River Into a Swimming Pool.” Newsweek, November 29.

McCool, Daniel. 2012. River Republic: The Fall and Rise of America’s Rivers. New York: Columbia University Press.

Middleton, Nick. 2012. Rivers: A Very Short Introduction: Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stradling, David and Richard Stradling. 2008. “Perceptions of the Burning River: Deindustrialization and Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River.” Environmental History 13, no. 3: 515-535.

Tarr, Joel A. 1996. The Search for the Ultimate Sink: Urban Pollution in Historical Perspective. Akron: University of Akron Press.

Taufen Wessells, Anne. 2011. “The Ultimate Team Sport?: Urban Waterways and Youth Rowing in Seattle.” In The Paradox of Urban Space: Inequity and Transformation in Marginalized Communities, edited by Sharon E. Sutton and Susan P. Kemp. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 53-71.

Völker, Sebastian and Thomas Kistemann. 2015. “Developing the Urban Blue: Comparative Health Responses to Blue and Green Urban Open Spaces in Germany.” Health and Place 35: 196-205.

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