If you haven’t had a chance to check out the installation ‘Calling Thunder: Unsung NYC’ it’s a fantastic example of using digital storytelling methods that connect with hidden hydrology.  The project extends the work of the Welikia Project. which provides ecological history of New York along with some great visualizations of pre-development in the form of maps and 3D graphics.   A little background comes from the article in the NY Times from April 25th, ‘The Sounds of ‘Mannahatta’ in Your Ear’:

““Calling Thunder,” is an aural bridge across four centuries. It builds on Dr. Sanderson’s stunning work, with Markley Boyer, in creating visualizations of the rolling landscape of 1609 Manhattan — known by the Lenape people as Mannahatta, “the island of many hills” — that are twinned with photographs of the same points in the modern city. We see hills and streams at places now occupied by skyscrapers and subway tunnels; a red maple swamp where an H&M store stands in Times Square.

Drawing on the work on Mannahatta, the immersive video and 360 video and soon VR animate the lovely maps that populated the original books.  As one moves through the pre-1600s aerial imagery, it transitions to the modern cityscape,  The visuals showcase the heart of the book “…published in 2009, and its classic, bookly virtues — visual beauty, wit and imagination, all underwritten by deep scholarship — persuasively deliver its most astounding revelation: Manhattan in the 17th century had more ecological communities per acre than Yellowstone, more than most rain forests or coral reefs.”

The soundscapes are the best part, a collaboration between “… Bill McQuay, a former sound engineer with NPR who is now an audio producer with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and David Al-Ibrahim, an interactive storyteller and graduate student at the School of Visual Arts.”   Using sounds from the Macaulay Library at Cornell, the soundscapes piece together species, for instance, in recreating the Collect Pond, the species of American Crow, Marsh Meadow Katydid, Bullfrog, American Bittern, Baltimore Oriole, and Black-capped Chickadee are culled from the site specific ecologies of Welikia and the range of possible species present, which is a fascinating way to experience the site.  A snapshot of the area near the Collect Pond Park shows a wide range of species to drawn sounds from,

 

I was a bit disappointed with the visuals that accompanied the soundscapes, simple, abstract, placeless sketches that distracted, more than accentuated the experience.  Looking around, one wished the simple site-specific scenes were rendered in the same graphic style as the larger renderings, only more animated scenes with residual movement, wind, rustling leaves, and environmental cues that evoke the historical places, perhaps transitioning between new and old.

Maybe a fitting next stage for the project, a simple immersive VR experience could be done without a lot of work, but the sketches aren’t going to cut it.  The goal of capturing a vision of what was and what is, with a measure of interactivity that heightened awareness of the habitat sounds would be attainable, as seen through the myriad .  I found that closing your eyes and immersing in the sounds was the best way to experience this.  The dilemma is hinted at in the article: “At first, Mr. Al-Ibrahim said, he considered presenting only the sound from each of the sites. “It turns out people don’t respond well when put in pitch blackness with a headset on,” he said. By offering readers and listeners the choice of technologies, the project sidesteps the trap of endorsing one storytelling technique to the detriment of the actual message.”


The method of disseminating historical ecology, and pair the experience with soundscapes showcases.  As a quote from Sanderson mentions, which is clear from the work on Welikia and Mannahatta, the abundance of species. For a city known as one of the most dense and urban, the previous natural resource is somewhat surprising.  This is the beauty of connecting the past and the present.

As mentioned, “The Unsung website offers various ways to take in the weave of history, research and informed speculation in “Calling Thunder,” each with its own rewards: as a simple audio recording, 360-degree video, or, coming soon, virtual reality.”  I can’t wait to see the next installment and appreciate the inspiration of full-sensory experiences.

p9784174_p_v8_aaI finally had a chance to view the Lost Rivers documentary thanks to a co-worker picking up a copy of the DVD.  The log line sums it up: “Once upon a time, in almost every city, many rivers flowed. Why did they disappear? How? And could we see them again? This documentary tries to find answers by meeting visionary urban thinkers, activists and artists from around the world.”

The films highlight a bit of the multifarious of the hidden hydrology paradigm, that of the explorers, or ‘drainers’ that crawl through pipes in search of photos, and adventure, cities daylighting streams for economic development, urban archeologists with a penchant for maps and popping manhole covers, and designers proposing integrated strategies for flood control and stormwater management.  The common thread of these stories, including Montreal and Toronto in Toronto, European examples in London,  Brescia, Italy, and some daylighting projects in both Seoul, South Korea and Yonkers, New York.

“We built our cities on the shores of rivers.  Over time we pushed rivers away, out of sight and out of reach.  But they’re still there.  Hidden, everywhere. And around the world city dwellers are on a quest to reconnect to this lost nature.”

We first meet the explorers, or “drainers”, as they are referenced by Danielle Plamondon, one of these explorers that regularly appears throughout the documentary. All around the world folks don hip waders and backpacks of gear, then crawl, rappel, and slog through sewers.  The reasons are varied, some with a bent for history, others for the joy of revealing that which is hidden.  The illegality of it is also a draw, moving into these as she mentions in the beginning, of people who know what she does, “They don’t realize how forbidden it is.”

stpierretunnel_montreal

I had the distinct feeling that the adventure/illegal paradigm might be the only draw, and wondered, beyond the thrill, what the point of these explorations would be.  Having traced a few creeks, it’s been many years since the desire to crawl through pipes passed my mind, although I have to admit this piqued my curiosity for sure.  One creative output was photography of the tunnels – which is excellent and perhaps the only view most people will have of these places.  Lost Rivers includes the work of Andrew Emond, exploring Montreal’s Saint Pierre River, which starts as a trickle near a golf course and leads to a subterranean labyrinth.  His photographs are pretty amazing, and the documentary features some bonus tracks with more of his art installations.

stpierre_photograph

Beyond the purely adventuresome, the film does delve into the history to a degree, and what better city to do this than London, birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.  The rapid development of the city meant that London was one of the first.  As described by Tom Bolton, author of London’s Lost Rivers, there are 15-20 buried rivers that used to flow on the surface into the Thames, with around two-thirds of the original tributaries either partially or completely buried.

london_map

The rivers grew cities, providing hydropower for mills, inputs for tanneries and manufacturing, clean drinking water for residents, all were the engine of industrial development.  The same processes which grew cities also  led to the downfall of these waterways, with population growth these creeks and rivers became polluted and often deadly.  The ‘Great Stink‘ in London in 1858 caused the city to virtually shut down due to smells, and rampant cholera, which quickly led to the modernization and sanitation of these creeks underground in sewers.

londonsewerconstruction

This happened in virtually every city in various forms and expresses itself in many ways today, including basement flooding or sewer backups, or even sinking houses, such as those in Toronto that are located atop the former route of Garrison Creek.

toronto_map

Cities that used creeks to drive industrialization were also quick to close them up for progress.  Yonkers, New York took the working Saw Mill River, which is a tributary of the Hudson River, and installed a flume, which was buried under a parking lot.  As seen in the photos below, the river was channelized, and then eventually capped and filled, a fate that tens of thousands of urban creeks fell to in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

sawmill_river

sawmill_river_cap

Driven by a need for economic development to revitalize downtown, the daylighting of the Saw Mill River was seen not just as an ecological plus, but as an economic driver.  Ninety years after it was capped, and at considerable cost, the restoration of the river has restored vitality to a depressed downtown core.

sawmill_river_daylighted

The efforts have also been coupled with habitat plans, and followed by environmental education of school kids, who are helping study the ecological impacts of the restoration, particularly on creating new habitat for the American Eel.

sawmill_river_education

London also has taken an active approach to using the routes of lost rivers to aid in resilience to flood control, which has been estimated to potentially cost billions.  The River Quaggy, which had been culverted for over 100 years, and because a testing ground for a green approach to flood protection.  By removing concrete, daylighting creeks, and using open space, ecologists were able to restore wetland vegetation in Sudcliff Park, creating an urban natural reserve that provides protection from flood waters now and into the future.  An additional 15 kilometers of river restoration is planned in the future.

riverquaggy_london_daylighted

The film also points to some of the misses, such as the strategies brought forth by designers in Toronto, even back in the mid 1990s, to utilize open space of the former Garrison Creek basin for a similar type of flood control.  Unfortunately, what could have been a new nature-based paradigm was not implemented, the city choosing to use more technological engineering approaches such as storage tunnels.

I really appreciated learning about the Brescia Underground, a group of Italian urban drainers that were given the official status as a historical society, where they lead tours of underground rivers and continue to explore the unique history of their place, including Roman-era marble bridges built almost 1000 years ago.

brescia_sewer

The public nature of their tours is impressive, not just walking along the surface but leading the public down into the guts of the city.  As one of the explorers mentions, “in every city we dream of doing this.”

brescia_photo

The final project discussed is one known to many, the amazing and controversial Cheonggyecheon River in Seoul, South Korea.  In addition to finally learning how to pronounce the name, it was interesting to learn more about the additional history of this project, which removed an urban elevated highway and restored six kilometers of river to the urban center.

cheonggyecheon_river_seoulThe newly restored river has had over 123 million visitors, and is focused both as an ecological and cultural system.  This is not however, without some costs to both.  In the process of removing the highway and restoring the river, a large number of merchants were displaced, taking a social and economic toll, as they were relocated from their lucrative high-traffic locations to a new spot where they now struggle to make ends meet.  In addition, the ecology of the site is artificial, due to the nature of the hydrology, the water needs to be continually recirculated through the system, with over 100 million cubic meters of water per day pumped from the Han River, which expends enormous amounts of electricity.  As mentioned in the film, “authenticity and illusion may be blurred, but people are drawn to it.”

cheonggyecheon_river_seoul2
The artificiality of the system and displacement aside, there were some appreciable benefits beyond the human.  The diversity of wildlife has been documented, and over 800 new species have been welcomed back into this urban ecosystem, which is impressive.  The remnants of the highway structures were a nice touch as well, sort of a post-apocalyptic homage to the new, novel ecosystem created from the detritus of the past.

cheonggyecheon_river_seoul_remnants

The conundrum of pure natural systems versus pumping and manipulation of hydrological systems is evident in all of these projects, as we will talk often in hidden hydrology, there is a continuum that spans from the abstract and artistic to weaving through the designed and engineered to the opposite poles of the true ecological and hydrological restoration.  There’s no perfect answer, between painting a blue line on the surface to painstakingly mimicking the natural reference ecology – all are valid approaches.

This sort of topic lends itself to multiple types of media, and a documentary offers a unique way to delve into the experiential qualities of lost rivers, especially urban explorations and the sights and sounds of nature buried and also that restored.  The structure of the film jumped back and forth between multiple narratives, which inevitably .  And while there was an ecological narrative and implications of resilience and climate change, these themes were not always evident, which had the good side of not seeming preachy, but also made the film seem to lack some substance and impact about the potential.  It didn’t try to gloss over some of the critical elements, like the failure of plans in Toronto, and some of the artificiality and social impact in Seoul,

Because the film was released a few years ago so screenings are a bit scarce, but you can purchase the DVD here.  It is also available for academic use so set up a screening at your school… its worth a look.

Now, where’s a big pipe I can crawl into around here… ?

# All images are screen grabs from the documentary, copyright to the makers, unless otherwise noted.

 

 

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