I 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
The 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.”
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.
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.