A follow-up to the previous post allows for a bit more expansion on the fundamental sources for New York City.  This includes the Welikia Project and it’s beginnings as Mannahatta, as well as the comprehensive book by Sergey Kadinsky on the Hidden Waters of New York City.  We delved deep with Steve Duncan’s sewer explorations and blog Watercourses and Undercity,  Together these make up a solid fundamental base of hidden hydrology work in New York City.  This also complements some of the projects I’ve covered, including the project Calling Thunder, which evoked the power of historical ecology via animation, the explorations around hidden infrastructure of photographer Stanley Greenberg, and some of the walks and installations focused on hidden streams with artist Stacey Levy.

That said, there’s still much more, so a postscript is in order to provide a bit of additional context to even claim to be a passable (although not even close to comprehensive) review of some of the city, with a focus on including some tours, art, history, and more.


One aspect of any place is explorations, and there is no shortage of tours around hydrology in New York City.  The group NYC H2O is a great resource for this, with a mission “…to inspire and educate New Yorkers of all ages to learn about, enjoy and protect their city’s local water ecology.”  They’ve hosted some great events in the past year alone, including tours with Steve Duncan, Sergey Kadinsky, and artist Stacey Levy as well as many others. City as a Living Laboratory (evolved out of the work of artist Mary Miss) also provides some great events, include walks, such as this one exploring the past and future of Tibbetts Brook with Eric Sanderson and others.

There are some less formal characters as well, like local activist Mitch Waxman, featured here in a NY Times article from June 2012, “Your Guide to a Tour of Decay”.  The article shows how he discovers, teaches and advocates about the hidden history of Newtown Creek in Queens, where, as quoted in the article: ““You have these buried secrets,” he said, explaining the thinking behind the occult conceit. He’s spotted early-19th-century terra-cotta pipes protruding from bulkheads, antique masonry sewers connected to who knows what. He added: “There really is no telling what’s in the ground there.”

And, for a somewhat related example, there’s always the amazing precedent of Safari 7, a self-guided subway based audio tour and map that highlighted “…urban wildlife along New York City’s 7 subway line”.  A map of the guide is found below.


In terms of some hidden hydrology based art installations, there are many that span permanent to ephemeral.  In the site specific realm, is Collect Pond Park, which was located in Manhattan historically as “…a large, sixty-foot deep pool fed by an underground spring” that was filled in the early 1800s.  A post here by Kadinsky & Kevin Walsh on Forgotten New York discusses the project and includes this rendering that highlights the interpretation of previous pond in the design of the new park. This includes a “…footbridge spanning the pond’s waist hearkens to the original pond’s shape, providing a historical link to a pond that has had such a huge role in the city’s history, before and after its burial.”

Another site is a fountain at Albert Capsouto Park, which references some hidden hydrology. From the Parks website:  “The centerpiece of Capsouto Park is a 114-foot long sculptural fountain by SoHo artist Elyn Zimmerman. This fountain bisects the interior space. Water spills from an 8-foot tower into a series of stepped “locks” evoking the canal that once flowed along the Canal Street. A sunning lawn rises up to meet the fountain from the south and granite seat walls adorn the fountain to the north.”

Capsouto Park Water Feature, 2009 – Elyn Zimmerman & Gail Wittwer-Laird

We discussed previously some of the hidden hydrology art of Stacey Levy, which was the tip of the iceberg of vibrant art scene in NYC interpreting hydrology as the medium.  One larger effort worth noting is Works on Water, which is “…an organization and triennial exhibition dedicated to artworks, theatrical performances, conversations, workshops and site-specific experiences that explore diverse artistic investigation of water in the urban environment.”  Their mission statement by the team sums up the potential:

“New York City has 520 miles of coastline. Its waterways are often referred to as “The Sixth Borough”. We are artists and curators dedicated to working with water to bring new awareness to the public of the issues and conditions that impact their environment through art.”

The sum of work there is worthy of it’s own future post.  In the interim, a few of the key contributors to Works on Water have their own complementary endeavors, such as Liquid City, a water based project by artist Eve Mosher, a self proclaimed “…water geek, urban enthusiast and playworker in training”, whom is “…fascinated by our waterways, the space they inhabit the roles they play in our daily life and finding ways to create a greater engagement across disciplines and a greater awareness in the public narrative.”

Liquid City: Currents (Eve Mosher)

Her project aims to be the following  “1. A research database of collected resources and video stories of people working on the urban waterways. An open source compendium for creative inspiration,  2. An interdisciplinary floating think tank/lab working on creative interventions about the urban waterways, and 3. A traveling think tank/lab sharing resources, traveling the Great Loop’s urban waterways.”   A fascinating work on her site is the Waterways System Map below (click the link for the fully interactive version) which involves “mapping the existing system of the waterways” in extraordinary detail.

Below is another of Mosher’s project, from  exhibit: “As part of Works on Water, I collaborated with Clarinda Mac Low to create a large scale floor painting of the NY waterways. Intended to ground people in the specific site of water as material within the exhibition, the waterways acted as a guide into the exhibition space.  Overlaid on the waterways was a video in which I represented the historic waterways and Clarinda imagined the future…”

A different project led by Kira Appelhans, adjunct assistant professor, Integrated Design Curriculum, Parsons The New School and Richard Karty, postdoctoral fellow in Environmental Studies, from 2011 is entitled Waterlogged. The endeavor “…explores the process of mark-making in the landscape from glacial to hydrologic to human.  We will examine the existence of remnant waterways and their relationship to the city’s organizational patterns and forms.   Using printmaking, restoration ecology, public space design we will explore the ecological impact of the intersection of historic waterways and urban infrastructure.”  The diverse artworks are captured in a video as well as a booklet ‘Remnant Waterways‘ (pdf) which showcases the work of students, including prints inspired by buried streams.

Iteration 3 – Eve Neves
Print by Mikaela Kvan

In the realm of photography, the work of Stanley Greenberg and Steve Duncan show two sides of underground New York City, and photographer Nathan Kensinger, who investigates “The Abandoned & Industrial Edges of New York City” shows a third.  He has an ongoing series entitled “New York’s Forgotten Rivers” where he has been documenting “New York City’s last remaining aboveground rivers and streams, in all five boroughs.”  An image below shows one of these photos.

Another recent exhibition “To Quench the Thirst of New Yorkers: The Croton Aqueduct at 175” that just completed it’s run at the Museum of the City of New York, offers a similar theme, with the tag line: “Uncover the hidden history of New York’s original water source, buried beneath the city”, it features “…newly commissioned photographs by Nathan Kensinger, tracing the aqueduct’s route and revisiting sights that Tower had sketched nearly two centuries before.”

Shifting from the visual to the literary, I previous mentioned the great Robert Frost poem covered in Hidden Waters blog, focused on Minetta Creek.  Another literary reference worth a look is this 1998 poem by Jim Lampos “Gowanus Canal” about the partially hidden and very polluted waterway in Brooklyn.  The whole thing is worth a perusal in detail, but I was struck by this passage, which evokes some of the history of place so acutely:

“I’ve come with a notion 
Old Gowanus, to recollect 
the splinters of dreams 
and severed fingers 
you’ve tucked away, 
the stolen pistols 
and sunken treasures 
you’ve saved 
the piss, tears 
dreams and sweat 
you’ve claimed. 
Recollect–shitty Canal 
stinking to the heavens– 
that you were once a river 
and hills rose from both 
your banks.  Brooklyn Heights 
nourished you as it returned 
your borrowed waters sweetened 
with the blood of revolution. 
A city was built 
all around you– 
a city of pizza parlors, churches and 
Whitman.  A city of pigeons, 
ice factories and hit men.”


Tons of possibilities to cover in the history genre, as New York City has a million stories, In picking a few, I decided to focus on the ones that rose to the top due to their sheer uniqueness.  The one that was amazing to read about comes via Geoff Manaugh at BLDGBLOG, referencing a complicated series of posts about Fishing in the Basements of Manhattan that goes back to the NY Times blog ‘The Empire Zone’ and eventually a post link to a comment from 1971 Letter to the Editor, which mentions this potentially tall tale:

“”…We had a lantern to pierce the cellar darkness and fifteen feet below I clearly saw the stream bubbling and pushing about, five feet wide and up-on its either side, dark green mossed rocks. This lively riverlet was revealed to us exactly as it must have appeared to a Manhattan Indian many years ago.  With plum-bob and line, I cast in and found the stream to be over six feet deep. The spray splashed up-wards from time to time and standing on the basement floor, I felt its tingling coolness.  One day I was curious enough to try my hand at fishing. I had an old-fashioned dropline and baited a hook with a piece of sperm-candle. I jiggled the hook for about five minutes and then felt a teasing nibble. Deep in the basement of an ancient tenement on Second Avenue in the heart of midtown New York City, I was fishing.  Feeling a tug, I hauled up in excitement and there was a carp skipping before me, an almost three pounder. I was brave enough to have it pan-broiled and buttered in our upstairs kitchen and shared it with my brother…”

Going way back, a few folks referenced what seems an interesting resource, “Springs and Wells of Manhattan and the Bronx, New York City: At the End of the Nineteenth Century” by James Reuel Smith, in 1938, in which “…he reflects on the rapidly changing city and on the practical and aesthetic pleasures offered by the remaining springs: “In the days, not so very long ago, when nearly all the railroad mileage of the metropolis was to be found on the lower half of the Island, nothing was more cheering to the thirsty city tourist afoot or awheel than to discover a natural spring of clear cold water, and nothing quite so refreshing as a draught of it.” 

A photographer as well (see more in this collection “Photographs of New York City and Beyond” , his images are great documents of these sites which I’d imagine are mostly gone, although recently noted is a new discovery of a well in Brooklyn that dates back to the Revolutionary War era.

James Reuel Smith. Unidentified woman drinking at Carman Spring, on W. 175th Street east of Amsterdam Avenue, New York City. undated [c. 1897-1902]. Glass plate negative. New-York Historical Society.

Some more recent books note I’d love to delve into include the recent “Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City” by Catherine McNeuer (2014), Gotham Unbound: An Ecological History of Greater New York,  (Steinberg 2015) and Water for Gotham: A History. (Koeppel, 2000) all of which paint a portrait of historical ecology that complements the inquiry of hidden hydrology.

Other short reads include Thomas J. Campanella’s essay in Terrain.org, “The Lost Creek”, and a great article connecting west to east worth from Nathan Kensinger, “What Can NYC Learn from San Francisco’s Last Wild Creeks?” where he looks at Islais Creek (and of course includes some amazing photos) as a model for how aboveground creeks can be a model.  He summarizes: “Flowing through an increasingly gentrified city,…this historic stream offers up a refreshingly untamed landscape. Though it travels just five miles from its headwaters in Glen Canyon to its mouth in the San Francisco Bay, and is bisected by a three mile underground segment, Islais Creek provides critical support to two radically different natural environments, both of which are currently undergoing extensive renovations. It also illustrates several approaches to urban planning that are unfamiliar to most New York City waterways.”

Islais Creek – photo by Nathan Kensiger, via Curbed NY


With any discussion of hidden hydrology, the concept of daylighting always emerges as certain projects seem to lend themselves to this approach.  A presentation by Steve Duncan is worth a read as it covers this topic in depth, and the project with the most traction is Tibbets Brook, in the Bronx.  Located in Van Cortland Park, the daylighting push garnered a fair amount of press (here, here) and also a petition, with a detailed coverage in Untapped Cities from 2016 which shows an image from a report “Daylight Tibbetts Brook” (PDF file – from Siteation).  A figure from the report shown below identifies a potential route of the daylighted creek.

Before and After views of daylighted creek

Another final item worth discussing, albeit removed from hidden hydrology explcitly, is the image of climate change on the city.  We cover this in the context of modern New York via Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York: 2140, which imagines a flooded, post-catastrophe New York with, a narrative of New York as a “SuperVenice”, rife with political upheaval, class warfare, and and salvage operations referencing historic maps — setting the stage for a new geography that is equally fantastical and plausible.  As mentioned in the New Yorker:

“Another narrator—a nameless urban historian—tells the story of New York from a bohemian point of view. America’s boring losers all moved to Denver, he says, and so the cool kids took over the coasts. “Squatters. The dispossessed. The water rats. Denizens of the deep, citizens of the shallows.” The abandoned city becomes an experimental zone—a place where social innovation (“submarine technoculture,” “art-not-work,” “amphibiguity”) flourishes alongside “free open universities, free trade schools, and free art schools. Not uncommonly all of these experiences were being pursued in the very same building. Lower Manhattan became a veritable hotbed of theory and practice, like it always used to say it was, but this time for real. . . . Possibly New York had never yet been this interesting.”

The connections between this fictionalization and the changing climate that could lead to more frequent flood events, seems a timely connection between history (past) and what it means now and into our our future.  The story told by Robinson may be a bit lacking in places, but the details and context is compelling.

The vision of a flooded city in “New York 2140,” a science-fiction novel by Kim Stanley Robinson, is surprisingly utopian. via New Yorker

As you can see, there are literally hundreds of links for particular creeks, art, history, explorations, tours, and other discussions around New York City.  My original goal was to also include maps in this post, but as you can see it’s already bursting at the seams, so I will conclude New York with one additional post focused on the cartographic as to not overwhelm.

HEADER:  Bronx River, image by Nathan Kensinger as part of his New York’s Forgotten Rivers series.

River Piracy sounds like an exotic form of stream based pillage and plunder, but rather refers to the reorientation of stream flow from one channel to another.  Also known as stream capture, the causes vary, and include tectonics shifts which changes slope, natural dams (landslide or ice), headward and lateral erosion, karst topography, and glacial retreat.   Notable ice dams have diverted rivers, of note is the River Thames, which was shifted 450,000 years ago cause it to

A recent set of stories about the Slims River in the Yukon territory illustrates the last of these points, where the retreat of the Kaskawulsh glacier and it’s shift from the Slims River to the northwest and into the adjacent Kaskawulsh River to the southeast.  The phenomenon isn’t uncommon, but the pace in which this ‘theft’ occurred is notable: “Such a transformation has occurred numerous times throughout the planet’s geological history – often due to gradual erosion or the movement of a fault – but has never been observed to occur as suddenly, happening over just a few days in May 2016. ‘Geologists have seen [evidence of] river piracy before, but nobody to our knowledge has documented it actually happening [within] our lifetimes,’ explains Shugar, Assistant Professor of Geoscience at the University of Washington, Tacoma.” The image below shows the “aerial view of the ice canyon that now carries meltwater from the Kaskawulsh Glacier, seen here on the right, away from the Slims River and toward the Kaskawulsh River.”  

A map of the area shows the relationship of the river and the shift, which short-circuited a longer path through the Kluane River into the Yukon River and eventually the Bering Sea, now connecting to the Alksek River and flowing into the Pacific Ocean.  From a global perspective the flow doesn’t mean much, but on a local scale the impact is more acute.

From the article in the Globe and Mail, “Climate change stole a Yukon river almost overnight, scientists say. Here’s how“, which mentions the process at work:

“That water now flows into the Kaskawulsh River, a tributary of the Alsek, which runs southward to the Pacific. Following this route, it reaches the ocean some 1,330 kilometres away from where it would otherwise have ended up. Signs of the rerouting have been observed on both sides of the mountainous divide. Gauges on the Alsek River reveal that it experienced a record discharge last year. Because the river mostly flows through parks and protected lands, the increase has had no immediate human impact. On the Slims side, the effect of water loss is more obvious. Last summer, Kluane Lake dropped a full metre below its lowest recorded level for that time of year. The reduced inflow from the Slims spells a huge change for the 65-kilometre-long lake, with implications for nearby communities and visitors who access its waters for fishing and other activities.”

The quality of the Lake ecosystem is one issue also, as mentioned in the Guardian article “The river stolen by climate change”, quoting scientist Jim Best:  “The dramatic switch was caused by the rapid retreat of the Kaskawulsh glacier – thanks to climate change – which caused the flow of the meltwater to be redirected, and prompts questions about the impact it could have on the surrounding Yukon territory. Best points out that while much of the southern part of the territory is ‘sparsely populated’, and therefore potential flooding caused by the extra water is unlikely to cause any ‘real human impacts’, the opposite issue could be a cause for concern further north.  ‘If Kluane Lake levels go down,’ he predicts, ‘the lake could thus have no inflow and no exit flow, which would radically alter lake water nutrients and circulation, and this may impact on the lacustrine ecology. In addition, if the lake outlet were to dry up as a consequence, this river would be dry or far lower and thus the few habitations along it would be affected.’”

The dry valley left over, in this case the Slims River, is referred to as a wind gap, and scientists have discussed the potential issues erosion and dust storms.  As noted in the CBC story, “Retreating Yukon glacier makes river disappear“, the river is: “…prone to dust storms.  “It’s certainly not unusual to see rapid drainage changes in and around these glaciers. It’s a common situation,” Bond said.  “Until vegetation really starts to stabilize that floodplain, it’s going to be a dusty place, I’d imagine … It will be a really interesting study to see how that floodplain evolves in the next ten years or so.”


A great kickoff lecture to the Waterlines class at the Burke Museum featured noted regional geologist and retired UW Professor Dr. Stan Chernicoff and his exploration of The Origins of Seattle’s Landscape.  Having read a bit about the local geology over the years, and having experienced some specifics (particularly the glacial till in Seattle) in my work, I had a rudimentary understanding of the general picture in our region.  Thanks to this lecture, and the philosophy that ‘dynamism is key and change is inevitable’ espoused by Chernicoff, I know a lot more and think about the region in new ways.  From his lecture, I found some interesting links between the larger and longer scales of geologic time and it’s relevance to the Hidden Hydrology project.

His lecture loosely focused around the concept of changing Waterlines around the region, and organized his talk to be roughly chronological and covered a lot of ground – from 1.1 billion years into the past to 250 million years into the future.  Much of the beginning conversation was looking back at the time when Seattle was not coastal but inland as part of the Rodinian Supercontinent (one of the pre-Pangean configurations) and the coastal accretion of lands from the final supercontinent (where to coast was originally at the MT/ID border), and the lands that were added over the past 150 million years (Okanogan Mountains, Cascade Mountains, San Juan Mountains and most recently the Olympia Mountains) through lands being drawn in through subduction.  This means that Washington and Oregon are mere infants in the larger timescale, as Chernicoff mentions, compared with the larger geological history.  The key diagram he showed here is the overlapping sections of the subduction zone in the Juan de Fuca plate and the location of between the Olympics and the Cascade Mountains, with the layers levels and timelines of geological traces over the past 50 million years..

The bit of trivia that Seattle is sitting atop the Olympic Mountains – as you can see by drawing a line through to the Crescent Basalts below us.  The evolution from the last 40 million years in shaping the zone, through Volcanic mudflows (yeah, there was a volcano called Mt. Seattle somewhere near Issaquah) that left lahars 40 million years ago.  This was followed by periods of inundation, and when the land was warm and swampy, which left the deposits of coal near Renton (an interesting Puget Sounds coal history where we ended up shipping to San Francisco).  The marine heritage is also found in the prevalent Blakeley formation, which evolved from a shallow marine estuary from submarine landscape deposits 30 million years ago – and today one can still find fossil shells around many places in the Puget Sound.

There are some interesting facts that illuminate this history and dynamic story of change.  First, while the larger geology set the stage and influences the form, the current lakes, and rivers were a product of the latest glacial period, which Cordilleran Ice Sheet covered the area and the Puget Lobe formed the shape of the current region.  The glacier was around 3000 feet thick, which pushed the sound down almost 1000 feet, and created the depression that allowed water to flow in and formed the modern position of waters.

The rule of thumb is the thickness of depression will be 1/3 the thickness of the glacier.  An interesting section (see right) showing how this cap of ice carved out Puget Sound nestled between the Olympic and Cascade Ranges –  with linear scoured channels forming Hood Canal, Puget Sound, Lake Washington, Lake Sammamish, and created the terrains which Seattle occupied.  These were all relatively north-south oriented which coincides with the intrusion and recession of the Puget Lobe.  It is amazing to think of the larger glaciers in the Midwest, such as Minnesota, which were 3 miles thick and the impacts on that landscape, which for my knowledge, creates the rarity of the north-flowing Red River through where I went to college in Fargo, but also created the over 10,000 lakes that dot the region.

Second, is that because of the glaciation and recession, most of the hills in Seattle are glacial drumlins, (with the exception of West Seattle and Magnolia which are drift uplands).  These hills were deposited upon glacial retreat, which gives them a distinctive steep north side and smoother south side, with alignment north-south as well as the long side corresponds to the direction of ice flow.

You see this in the larger hills in Seattle, as well as the creation of the individual creeks that are woven throughout the north section of the city. The topography carved these smaller drumlin shapes with drainages forming in the spaces at edges adjacent to lakes or between two hills. This formed unique geologic features like like Seward Park in the south section of Lake Washington.

A shapshot of the 1894 USGS Topo map shows the formation on Queen Anne (left) and Capitol Hill (right) with the steeper north edges, along with what is still showing the remnants of Denny Hill south before it and other topographic features were removed from the downtown area.

Third, the two smaller lakes in North Seattle, Bitter Lake and Haller Lake, are true kettle lakes, formed with glacial retreat.  A hybrid of this is Green Lake, which also formed in the glacial retreat along with Lake Union and Lake Washington. Fourth, the glacial movement left a trail of glacial erratics all over the area, and I learned about one of the largest, the Wedgwood Rock, which originally was from miles north and now sits in NE Seattle.  Definitely worth a field trip in the near future.

Fifth, the glacial deposition led to a preponderance of landslides, both with steep slopes, along with the layers of permeable Esperance Sand sitting atop a layer of Lawton Clay, which causes water to flow under the sand and create a slip zone (shown on right side of diagram below).

This is exacerbated by the copious winter rainfalls, which exacerbates the issue via critical liquifaction zones, which  means “…a phenomenon whereby a saturated or partially saturated soil substantially loses strength and stiffness in response to an applied stress, usually earthquake shaking or other sudden change in stress condition, causing it to behave like a liquid.”  Thus the landslides and earthquakes have shaped the hydrology over time, as valley configurations shift with deposition from streams but also are influenced by these disturbance regimes.

The Magnolia Neighborhood is one of those areas where it has overlapped with the danger of building on steep/unstable slopes, as shown here in a wikipedia image of a slide in 1954 on Perkins Lane, a relatively frequent occurrence in Seattle in particular areas over the years.  Chernicoff’s hint:  Don’t by a house there.

The final part of Chernicoff’s talk focused on the ‘Rise and Fall of Seattle’, with a theme that in our dynamic and ever-changing landscape, “we can’t get accustomed to where water is”.   He mentions four factors that will influence the geology of Seattle, including Local Geology, Regional Tectonic Factors, Regional Isostatic Factors (i.e. glacial rebound), and Global Eustatic factors (i.e. sea level rise).  This was interesting, as the local conditions were all creating conditions that led to raising lands and lower levels of water.  For instance, the two local geological factors were river sedimentation and landslides, both of which add land particularly at the deltas of larger rivers, such as the Skagit and Nisqually Rivers.  As Chernicoff put it, through those two factors, the entire Puget Sound is trying to fill itself in.  The regional factors of tectonic activity are at work, with quakes occurring regularly, which can instantly change the shape of our landscape through an earthquake.  A slower mechanism continues to shift land with raising land due to glacial rebound, bouncing slowly back from being compressed by glaciers thousands of years back.

Inevitably, for all the minor modifications of local and regional factors, the larger impact is, wait for it… yep, global change, in particular the shifts associated with climate change.  The melting of remnant ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, warming causing the thermal expansion of water combined to create higher levels, and lead to massive impacts on the waterlines of Seattle and everywhere else.  He showed as an example a slide of the map Islands of Seattle, a great project by Jeffrey Lin (inspired by the original Burrito Justice San Francisco Archipelago map.) which hypothesized on melting of all global ice, including the Antarctic, which would result in a 240′ rise in sea level, creating a very dramatic new waterline and hydrology for the City.

For Chernicoff, it wasn’t a question of whether this would this happen or not.  His geologists time lens is long and he knows there will be large-scale global shifts.  The question is yes, however, does the time scale of this inundation take 30 years, 500 years, 10000?  It’s an interesting juxtaposition of of deep, long geological time coupled with the dangerous (but possibly earth saving) agency of humans in creating changes in rapidly shorter and shorter time scales, via anthropocentric factors.  While we rightly fret over our fate and try to come up with solutions, the idea of dynamism and constant change is a good perspective. In the end, geological time and processes will, it seems, always win, if we’re around in another 250 million years we can experience a new shift to a larger subcontinent, as the Pacific is getting smaller and the Atlantic is getting bigger, so our coastal woes will change when we’re in the middle again.  Full circle.

This has some implications, obviously for connecting history to present and future, as we are constantly chasing moving targets when we deal with landscape and water.  How will these changes impact our understanding of historical conditions with current ones?  At the short time scale we are considering, does it matter?  Will rapid global and local changes impact our opportunities and ideas in which to engage with planning and design interventions?  Something I’ve not ruminated on long enough to have ideas, but more to come.  And more on Waterlines next week.


As a follow up, a remembered this link from the Burke on Seattle’s Ghost Shorelines links there’s an interesting Waterlines video showing this evolution of the most recent 20,000 years of the sound – since the ice age.


Mexico City has been featured a few times recently in the New York Times, with a focus on some of the fascinating hydrological history and its implications to modern urban life.  I was very ignorant of the specific characteristics of the city, and while I love Mexico have only had the chance to spend a long layover in Mexico City proper a few years back.  I learned much in these few articles, with a desire to dig deeper as well.

Climate Impacts

An article by Michael Kimmelman from February 17th, “Mexico City, Parched and Sinking, Faces a Water Crisis” is part of the ongoing ‘Changing Climate, Changing Cities’ series and includes a rich interactive experience, along with a compelling long form read (well worth it).

The history of Mexico City as a city has many facets, but two emerge in this context.  First is the concept that the city is built on a lake.  This map shows the configuration of the area around 500 years ago, about the time the Spanish arrived in Mexico.

Tenochtitlán, the major urban center, was established in 1325, a larger island surrounded by smaller areas islands amidst Lake Texcoco – shown as the City of Mexico below.  This aided in defense and provided agriculture using the chinampas, islands floated for growing crops.

The city was rapidly transformed via defeat and colonization:

Then the conquering Spaniards waged war against water, determined to subdue it. The Aztec system was foreign to them. They replaced the dikes and canals with streets and squares. They drained the lakes and cleared forestland, suffering flood after flood, including one that drowned the city for five straight years.

The article focuses on both this concept of geological transformation.  The second part of the story of Mexico City is the Grand Canal.  This infrastructural intervention was completed in the late 1800s, and ” a major feat of engineering and a symbol of civic pride: 29 miles long, with the ability to move tens of thousands of gallons of wastewater per second. It promised to solve the flooding and sewage problems that had plagued the city for centuries.”

The City being built on a lake has led to subsistence due to geological forces, and the need for drinking water has meant well drilling on a huge scale – both leading to elevations of the city being dramatically lowers.  This makes gravity-based infrastructure like the Grand Canal a bit problematic, as they can no longer freely drain.  The city, which occupied a metropolitan area of 30 square miles in 1950, now occupies closer to 3000 square miles, so and the almost 22 million inhabitants exert massive pressures on the land.

Some great interactive graphics from the NYT show the canal in the context of the ancient lake bed that sprawls through the region (see how this relates to the map above).

This plays out in the map below, which highlights the worst place of subsidence – the darkest red portions sinking around 9 inches per year.

[Click maps for larger views or check them out in the original article for overlay]

The problems, as mentioned, are based on some bad decision-making in urban planning back centuries ago.  This have been exacerbated by climate change – meaning lack of drinking water for many and the potential to lead to health issues, mass migrations to other cities, or conflict, which will be played out around the globe.  This example of non-coastal impacts of climate change is one of the most interesting aspects of the story, as much attention has been placed on sea-level rise but less on inland communities.  “Mexico City — high in the mountains, in the center of the country — is a glaring example. The world has a lot invested in crowded capitals like this one, with vast numbers of people, huge economies and the stability of a hemisphere at risk.”

One way this phenomenon is visible is in the architecture, with subtle rolling building forms as seen below creating waves of differential settlement.   An animation of the process shows the action creating this building form, due to differential layers of volcanic soils and clays, which drain and hold water at dramatically different rates.

What happens when the water is drawn down creates instability reflected in the constant sinking and retrofitting of buildings.  Kimmelman explains the impacts: “Buildings here can resemble Cubist drawings, with slanting windows, wavy cornices and doors that no longer align with their frames. Pedestrians trudge up hills where the once flat lake bed has given way. The cathedral in the city’s central square, known as the Zócalo, famously sunken in spots during the last century, is a kind of fun house, with a leaning chapel and a bell tower into which stone wedges were inserted during construction to act more or less like matchbooks under the leg of a wobbly cafe table.”

Aside from the quirky buildings, there are major issues throughout the region, more pressing as climate change increases.  Kimmelman mentions that “development has wiped out nearly every remaining trace of the original lakes, taxing the underground aquifers and forcing what was once a water-rich valley to import billions of gallons from far away.”  That conveyance of water is so difficult, that many residents are unable to get water easily, especially from taps.  This has led to an economy of ‘pipas’, “large trucks that deliver water from aquifers” to fill tanks.  Approximately 40% of residents get water this way.

The other issue is the difficulty of removing sewage and drainage, again because of geology and topography, along with leaks and inefficiencies of the aged infrastructure.  The Grand Canal is no longer able to gravity flow, described as “wide open, a stinking river of sewage belching methane and sulfuric acid”.  Pump stations are installed to assist this, and the canal, albeit ‘visible’ is marginalized, traveling under roadways and being polluted via impervious surfaces along the way.

While portions of the Grand Canal are still visible, the hidden hydrology and it’s implications, heightened by climate change, are evident in sinking buildings, lack of drinking water, and substandard infrastructure, a trifecta of issues that come back to the origins of a water based city from seven centuries back.  I mention long history, and this is a lesson in how quickly the decisions of the past can turn on us with population growth and a changing climate.

Per Kimmelman: “The whole city occupies what was once a network of lakes. In 1325, the Aztecs established their capital, Tenochtitlán, on an island. Over time, they expanded the city with landfill and planted crops on floating gardens called chinampas, plots of arable soil created from wattle and sediment. The lakes provided the Aztecs with a line of defense, the chinampas with sustenance. The idea: Live with nature.” 

The idea at the time, and even today is valid, but the modern challenge is confirmed by Loreta Castro Reguera, “a young, Harvard-trained architect who has made a specialty of the sinking ground in Mexico City, a phenomenon known as subsidence” who was interviewed in the article.

““The Aztecs managed. But they had 300,000 people. We now have 21 million.”


A follow up from features the further story of the hydrology of Xochimilco, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was covered by Victoria Burnett in a February 22nd story “An Aquatic Paradise in Mexico, Pushed to the Edge of Extinction” This article picks up the thread of the canals and islands from the original settlement.  “With their gray-green waters and blue herons, the canals and island farms of Xochimilco in southern Mexico City are all that remain of the extensive network of shimmering waterways that so awed Spanish invaders when they arrived here 500 years ago.”

The article focuses on the impacts of water usage in the region, with water from Xochimilco being pumped to other areas of the city, creating sink holes and draining canals which threaten the livelihoods of farmers and tourism industries.   The canals have long supported both industries, and also include wetlands and the infamous farming techniques called chinampas, which date back to Aztec era, and include ‘floating gardens’ in the shallow lakes.  A photo of these from 1912 show the this in action:

The article discusses the residual impacts of development on the aquifers, which impacts the regions waterways, but also, similar to the previous article, creates subsidence that impacts buildings and sinkholes.  The visible whirlpool in January lowered the water level quick enough to cause alarm before it could be stopped.

The water tourism in the area, typified by the trajineras, a blinged out local gondola, has been impacted as well.  One of the operators takes heed of the omens of water, stating:

“Nature is making us pay for what we have done”

In additional to development (building on the chinampas), there is pollution of the canals themselves, which has jump-started some efforts to reduce water use of the aquifer through rainwater harvesting, but the immensity of the problem of supplying water for a region with 22 million people is massive.  The balance between providing water and maintaining the cultural heritage means the possible loss of knowledge of chinampa farming, as well as health issues for locals.  This could quickly become irreversible, unless action is taken, as mentioned by Dr. María Guadalupe Figueroa, a biologist at Autonomous Metropolitan University, who ends the article: “…without a serious conservation effort, the canals will be gone in 10 to 15 years. But much of the damage was reversible, she said, adding: “It’s still a little paradise.”

Invisible Rivers

The two articles reminded me of a couple of articles I had filed away for future posts.  With the interest piqued from the above coverage, I dove into a 2016 CityLab post “Mexico City’s Invisible Rivers” which focuses on the work of Taller 13 and their plans to “uncover the 45 rivers that flow under the Aztec capital, hidden underground for decades.”  The first phase involves the Piedad River, and the idea of daylighting 9.3 miles of the corridor. shown in some detail below (with many more images on their site via the link above or via an online document here).

There’s a lot of similarity to the Cheonggyecheon River in Seoul (mentioned here in the Lost Rivers documentary post) in terms of the final look and feel as well as the transformative potential, as mentioned in the article by urban biologist Delfín Montañana”

““This project shatters paradigms. It proposes to tear down a private road, which you cannot use unless you have a car. What we propose is that we remove the cars, open the pipes, and treat the water. We need to transform the model of our city”

The hidden gem in the post is the document “La Ciudad de México 1952 1964” published by the Departamento del Distrito Federal. México,  This document outlines the public services of the city, including chapters on water and sewer that have some great info (with, in my case, some translation).

Sections on potable water and drainage show ‘modernization’ along with maps of these systems (of passable by not great quality).  The following shows the drainage system of the time, which involved a lot of pipes and images of pipes being built, and people in pipes.

A colored map of the historic Mexico from the document takes us full circle, to the hydrological history, a city literally built on a lake, economies as well built on that watery foundation, and now dealing with the consequences.

We live in an age where the impacts of climate change are seen daily. Data on global and local conditions is vital to our further understanding of adaptability and resilience both as protection from storms as well as mitigating longer term impacts. While understanding where we’re at in modern times is essential, comparing that to historical reference conditions connects threads from past to present and enlivens this discussion. Thus in the spirit of hidden hydrology and linkage to climate and rainfall, I was fascinated to learn about the book Climatology of the United States, And of the Temperate Latitudes of the North American Continent, authored by Lorin Blodget in 1857. This is interesting as it coincides with much of the development of Pacific Northwest cities in the mid 1850s so is a good indication of some predevelopment metrics, but more importantly is towards the beginning of the global Industrial Revolution (centered in London and radiating outwards), which led to rapid increase in development of industrial infrastructure and processes that created significant amounts of atmospheric CO2, which is arguably one of the biggest contributors to climate change.

This volume is 569 pages, packed full of info (and a massive PDF also).  Most interesting to me and the original link i found was the amazing maps (abbreviated viewer here of the maps from the publication if you don’t want to download the whole thing) covering the world and specifically covering the temperate landscape of the Northern Hemisphere, with a focus on North America.  In the introduction, some rationale for the project from Blodget.

I’m assumed he was referring to Alexander von Humboldt, but had missed the reference and probably would if he wouldn’t have mentioned it above.  After some digging I noticed a deft reference in  ‘The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism’ (Aaron Sachs, 2007).  Sachs links the two, mentioning on page 25-26, “Almost all American scientists in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, no matter what subfields they waded into, considered themselves disciples of Humboldt. One such author, Lorin Blodget, inserted a quote from the master himself on the title page of his own magnum opus, Climatology of the United States, to make a kind of textual frontispiece.” 

The quote in small print on the front:

Like Humboldt’s work, the illustrations and summary visualizations of the phenomena he was describing, Climatology includes amazing illustrations (do yourself a favor and click the images in this post to enlarge them.  The banner image of global temperatures above in the banner, as well as the world spanning ‘Comparison of Precipitation for the Temperate Latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere’ is Humboldtian indeed:

The smaller diagrammatic maps also evoke Humboldt’s stratification by elevation, captured in Blodget’s ‘Profile of the Altitudes’ for both the Pacific Coast of North America and the West Coast of Europe are some simple info-graphics rich in information and easily accessible.

The main substance of the document is the maps, include temperature (isothermal) and precipitation (hyetal) maps.  There is a world view of both – as you’ve seen examples of above, but the focus is on North America, so each season is represented, along with an average annual.  Summer and Winter are shown below, the difference being hopefully obvious:

The legend describes the map info, including max. and min. ranges for temps.

And a close-up of the Pacific Northwest shows the level of detail – along with a glimpse at the base map, which is similar, mostly in how topography is represented, to the one well know in the region as the 1859 Map of the state of Oregon and Washington Territory.

We take a lot for granted the amount of data, A challenge of the process was to gather and assimilate diverse information from a variety of sources, due to the fact that there was no consensus on the measurement and documentation of either temperature and rainfall data.  Blodget spends a lot of time explaining the process, with a specific focus: “These references are deemed necessary to show that no part of the present work, whether supported by statistics and illustrators or not, was is the result of hasty or superficial discussion, and that all the steps of analytical investigation and detailed criticism required for such a purpose as that of constructing an approximate climatology, have been taken in advance.”

The rainfall maps are interesting as well showing in a variety of data, in shaded portions based on inches of rain.  The image for annual totals shows the wetness of the southeast United States and the Pacific Northwest.

Zooming into the Southeast US – we see the intensity of rain in the southern tip of Florida, along with the Mississippi Delta.  These are beautiful maps, considering they were done over 150 years ago, and the subtlety of shading and texture represented.

These are best represented in sequence (and i do love a good animation) so I did a quick overlay and made them step through seasons starting in Spring and sequencing through Summer, Autumn and Winter.  Note the Pacific Northwest wet winter / dry summer cycle, and the overall difference between the coasts/interior as well as West Coast / East Coast.  Somethings don’t change.  Click to enlarge to make it a bit more legible.

I’ve yet to dive fully into the text, but have some context in the maps, and a curiosity to see the data at this level of analysis overlaid with modern information on isothermals and hyetals to show changes, in average and seasonal temps, changes in rainfall, and related hydrology and changes in things like plant hardiness ranges.  Lots to unpack.  While looking at this, I did find an earlier reference by Blodget, a slim volume published in 1853 which also tackles climate in reference to it’s impact on Sanitary conditions in cities, delving into the connections between climate and public health – well, 164 years ago.

The visual nature of the 1857 publication is not to be dismissed. The publisher J.B. Lippencott & Co., acknowledges the rarity of a book of this era having the size of quality plates, and their goal to make this available to the public at a reasonable cost.  Such an interesting dilemma in our digital age, but one I’m glad for in terms of the production of this imagery as well as it’s preservation and archive.  Just think, all this could have been yours in 1857 for the price of five dollars.

The climate data today… priceless.