A brief aside to contemplate the concept of hidden hydrology, both as a subject of study and as an agent for change.  While I’ve been inspired by the concept for some time, I’ve only recently tried to formalize this, collecting information and starting this blog in September 2016.  Call it my doctorate in Urban Studies that I never finished, happening over the web, with little to no outside supervision, mostly in my free time from 10pm to the early hours of the morning.

I get mixed reactions when I mention the project, spanning a sort of incredulous ‘Why?’ to an excited “Wow!” with all variations in between. This concept is indicative of the root of my own journey and sometimes my struggle, being simultaneously inspired while trying to figure out what to do with information.  On one hand, is just endlessly fascinating (others would agree), and my information gathering, generalist nature wants to find every detail there is to find. And while having an extensive collection of notes, images, maps and resources on my computer is satisfying in a way,  it does lack a certain sense of purpose.  On the other hand there’s sort of a perceptual disconnect with why any of this matters amidst the plethora of contemporary issues, and my productive landscape architect, designer, urbanist, cartogaphic, activist & ecological nature wants to connect this historical ecology to the greater issues of regenerative strategies of place.

Thus the tagline I originally came up with is a shorthand for both a duality that hints at both potentials, and I think still inspiring:

Exploring lost rivers, buried creeks & disappeared streams. Connecting historic ecology + the modern metropolis.

Sometimes it just takes a while to figure out what an end game can look like, and you have to dive in and see where it takes you.  I’m calling this, in the spirit of hydrological study, the Meanders, as I’ve titled this post, and it’s been fun to see it played out in presentations, dialogue, and writing with not really a set purpose or goal.  I’ve had in my mind, beyond the blog, a book or series of books, perhaps which could be historical, design or urbanism or something spanning all.  Also I have toyed with the idea of online atlas, an exploratory video game, a series of historical images superimposed on modern scenes, art installations, tours, and much more.  I’m still working on the specifics of where it may lead, but realize it’s not one destination, but many.

At a foundational level the study will focus on Seattle and Portland, as a locus of study and between the two, a venue for comparative analysis and places I live and know well (and have easy regular access to).  While both are Pacific Northwest cities that were founded around the same time (1850s), their evolution and histories diverged much due to geography, topography, and hydrology, with Portland built around rivers and Seattle shaped as a city tied to the oceans and lakes.  Beyond this obvious dichotomy, there are a number of differences which will be part of, and perhaps fundamental to, the study.  One of which is notably politics, which tends to shape place as much or more than those ‘natural’ forces, played.  Maps of the two show the unique differences, and the ‘blank’ slate to be filled with oh, so much potential.



Thus the core will expand around these cities, and include a continual focus on Explorations, walking, recording, and connected with the experiences of what is gone and what still exists.  The goal is to walk/map/explore every hidden stream in each city, and use this along with mapping and history to provide a documentation of hidden hydrology.  While the focus will be on these two cities, there is so much information to bring from the wider base of knowledge that allows the analysis to be well informed.  Seeing the immense depth and breadth of information that exists and all the forms it can take (which hopefully you’ve seen in these posts), there are ample bends and side channels for us to navigate – but the focus on these two places allows for focus energy for generation specific to place.  This hopefully alleviates the danger of just continually searching and compiling information without acting.

In that vein, as precedents, in the past year, I’ve posted summaries of many cities focusing on hidden hydrology, including posts that study the inner workings of cities like Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Philadelphia, San Francisco Bay Area, Rome, Vancouver, Toronto, as well as both Portland and Seattle. to varying degrees. These are the the dozen or so “core cities”, which, along with New York City and London you’ll see in a bit, which have the most fully expansive studies ongoing for hidden hydrology.  Each have activities and viewpoints that are specific to place, but all are tied together with connections between water, then and now.

Image of Rome – via Katherine Rinne, Aquae Urbis Romae

I’ve also touched on other areas around the globe, including Boston, Lexington, Munich, MontrealMexico City and Venice, and will continue to offer smaller snapshots of other communities, as there are literally hundreds of fascinating stories to tell.  These studies show a wide range of activities these projects take on, including art, tours, literature, advocacy, history, ecology and more, as well as the broad geographic reach of the concept of exploration, in its many forms, of hidden hydrology.

There will be many more posts to come come from all of this, but I wanted to add the two cities that have by far the most expansive and inspiring hidden hydrology efforts I’ve discovered to date: New York City and London.

New York City is one of the inspirations I’ve mentioned, with the Mannahatta project a lofty goal of mine to apply to my own home places, and the work done by others to document the hidden hydrology of the New York region is phenomenal.  I’m looking forward to sharing more of this.

Mannahatta Visualization

And London, perhaps more than any other city, has been so well documented in terms of hidden hydrology, with countless books, maps, ruminations, explorations and more, each with a unique viewpoint and much rich history to draw from.   Over the course of the next few weeks, I’m going to take multiple posts to sum this up with New York, as there’s a lot to cover.

A Balloon View of London, as seen from the north – via the British Library

Additionally, beyond continuing to document places as precedents, there are a bunch of fascinating topics which enrich these spatial stories, and also inform my own activities.  I’m constantly inspired by artists using hidden hydrology as a medium, so will continue to include more examples, both site specific, and including techniques around soundscapes.

Light Meander – River based sculpture in Nashville by Laura Haddad & Tom Drugan

The literary connections of historical waterways is worthy of discussion also, as another of the key inspirations come from both David James Duncan and Anne Whiston Spirn.  The connections to language and place names that span cultures, and a thorough acknowledgment of colonization and appropriation is an important aspect of any historical endeavor. Mapping as a subject is vital to this study, including historical ecology and methodologies for mapping that uses new technologies to connect old and new and display these connections in inspiring ways.

Rectangular world map from Fatimid treatise, Book of Curiosities of the Sciences and Marvels for the Eyes, copy of manuscript originally written in the first half of the 11th century

The ecological and the hydrological are at the root of rivers, creeks, streams and watershed, providing a context for understanding the past and the present in terms of something this is ever changing, blending soils, geology, climate, ecology and understanding of aquatic systems to infer the historic and investigate opportunities for historical baselines as a metric for regeneration.  This requires understanding the potential to restore, but also moving beyond ideas of daylighting as the only option we have, with a more nuanced and historically informed continuum which integrates, culture & art, ecology & habitat using design and science– restoring the key functions of urban streams in a form that evokes, mimics, and celebrates, but doesn’t rely on pure restoration for the original creeks.

Stories of place and process, maps and images, people and words, all aggregate, some sifting through and precipitating in eddies, others taken downstream by the force of the flow.  Then again, all this could change.  A meander overtopping its banks and connecting with another flow, carving out a new channel, or disconnecting and spinning idly in a lonely oxbow, driving via gravity in tension against rock, all the while creating life at its margins.  Not a bad metaphor for a creative process.

The flow may have some direction now, but the nature is still, always, to meander.

4 thoughts on “Meanders

  1. Jason as a mapping professional myself I find the topics wonderful to read.
    I have always loved the old maps and plans especially the documents relating to underground infrastructures.
    Thank you

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *