With dozens of neighborhoods and more than 3.9 million inhabitants, one could say that Los Angeles would not be here if it weren't for the L.A. River. The river, like many rivers around the world, offered subsistence to its inhabitants for centuries before it was buried away underneath layers of cement. Throughout the world, urban rivers have been redirected, channelized, built over and in many cases forgotten, often reduced to an arm of the urban drainage system that has left the water polluted and ecosystems destroyed.
But cities are now embracing their rivers, digging them out of the concrete to which they were exiled, in the hopes that they will breathe new life into their urban communities
Like the L.A. River, rivers in many large cities around the world are now making a comeback. As a heightened awareness of climate change has brought environmental protection to the center stage of international talks, it seems a no-brainer for cities to want to embrace river restoration projects. The projects not only clean up waterways, but also offer green space that soaks up carbon dioxide, helps regulate the climate and recharges groundwater supplies while offering flood protection to nearby neighborhoods.
Though river restoration projects vary depending on each city's needs and the nature of each river, it seems that central to all projects is how they will bring communities together around renewed green urban spaces.
Mexico City is huge. Built atop a vast network of lakes and rivers with a rainy season that constantly floods city streets, it is a city of water. But its sprawling beauty is plagued with some of the worst pollution in the world, home to some of the most notorious of traffic jams and an ongoing water crisis. The crisscrossing network of concrete and asphalt highways has been built over the 45 rivers that run through the city to prevent flooding and to make room for the growing number of automobiles. The encased rivers flush out massive amounts of contaminated water, polluting their tributaries.
To address these problems, Taller 13, an architectural firm based out of Mexico City, proposed the plan Regeneración Río la Piedad to revitalize Río la Piedad, one of the largest rivers that run through the city. The project aims to decrease automobile use, increase stormwater capture and improve the quality of life of the city's inhabitants.
The project would span more than 18 miles of river, starting west of the city center at Cuajimalpa and ending near the Mexico City International Airport. The project proposes the removal of concrete from around the river and although the highways would remain, Taller 13 sees potential for a multi-modal transportation corridor that would follow both sides of the river with two lanes for cars, one lane for public transit (zero emission and electric transport), and a bike lane. The river's ecosystem would be restored and native plant and animal species would be reintroduced to the area. The river would link a number of parks that would have spaces for meditation gardens, open-air forums, recreation and education. The proposed project also includes a comprehensive system for the management and treatment of wastewater and rainwater collected from the river's banks and houses surrounding the river.
The project is estimated to cost more than $1 billion. Although the city has taken steps to determine the feasibility of the project, the project remains without much financial support from the city. It has been deemed too expensive to implement, but the recent approval of a project for a linear park in the Condesa and Roma neighborhoods could be a sign that the city is becoming more receptive to urban greening projects.
Regeneración Río la Piedad draws many parallels with the L.A. River in that river projects are often self-generated, independently conceived by architects and environmentalists who attempt to build support for the project. The project also faces pushback from those who say the project would encourage the further gentrification of the area, an inflammatory issue also faced in L.A.
With a growing population that is consuming its water faster than the city can provide it, London needs to find new sources for water by 2025 and is exploring new ways to supply water for its inhabitants. The city has proposed treated sewage water and other reuse programs and is now looking to the River Thames.
There has been a lot of activity along the River Thames and its tributaries over the past couple of years. Work by UK's Environment Agency, with the help of numerous other organizations, has implemented river restoration projects, many of which include water catchment systems along the 215-mile span of river. The London Rivers Action Plan (LRAP), introduced in 2009, has brought all the projects under one master plan and has helped move river restoration projects forward. And similar to the L.A. River Media Platform, the database Frank Gehry Partners will offer for river research, the LRAP is currently using an online database that maps the projects under three categories: case studies, completed projects and proposed projects to help stakeholders recognize where restoration opportunities exist.
Some projects being considered for the River Thames include the the Garden Bridge, a public garden that will stretch across the river along a 366-meter long copper and nickel structure. The Thames Deckway, a 7-mile long floating bike and walk path, would have embankment ramps and stopping points along the way. The Thames Baths project proposes the reintroduction of swimming in the river. Thames Baths would launch a series of natural pools throughout the river that could be replicated across the UK and worldwide.
Berlin is on its way to transforming an arm of the Spree River that flows around its historic city center into a 750-meter swimming pool through the project Flussbad Berlin. The public would have direct access to the open pool through a wide staircase that descends into naturally filtered river water. The other bank of the river would be left as is — a steep drop to the water —to allow for diving, and a changing room with showers would be built into the bank. The project area would extend the length of 1 mile and would include a gravity-fed filtration system that would start at an area where embankment would be removed and a park with trees and reed beds would be installed, leading to a filtration channel where reed beds resting on gravel would filter the water before entering the pool.
Unlike L.A., where a river project can be delayed by years, Flussbad was introduced in 2014 and has been moving along rapidly since. It has secured funding by the German Lottery foundation for $117,000 to conduct a technical feasibility study in the summer of 2014 and in fall of 2014 received $4 million from the Federal Environment Ministry of Germany and the Berlin Senate for Urban Development and Environment. They plan to install a test filter by 2018.
After years of urban development that has destroyed natural habitats and squandered natural resources, cities are finally making efforts to function sustainably, but the transition is proving to have many obstacles. In a city that is already built out, changing the infrastructure to one that is more sustainable is costly and difficult, but despite the costs, many projects are moving forward. Los Angeles has always been a trendsetter, and if history is any indication, these trends in urban planning will be replicated in new developments around the world.