Rivers were the highways in early America, the arteries that led settlers into the rich interior of the continent and the meandering network that funneled a continent’s worth of raw materials to the port cities where they were processed, consumed, and traded. First came furs by canoe and timber via rafts and flumes; later, livestock and grains passed on barges and steamboats, fueling America’s rural economy well into the 20th century. With the flood of natural resources from the hinterlands, river cities became industrial powerhouses, generating immense wealth and establishing the United States as an economic titan.
With industrialization, however, came horrific pollution and loss of habitat. Urban riverways were dammed and channelized, their floodways filled and adjacent wetlands drained. In short, they became engineered systems, designed to fulfill the needs of the urban machine. By the 1960s, urban water pollution reached epic proportions and the industrial heartland, now known as the Rust Belt, was ground zero of the epidemic. Lake Erie was declared dead, and when the Cuyahoga River in downtown Cleveland caught fire in 1969 for the 13th time, the cries of environmentalists were finally heard. A suite of federal regulations was enacted, including the landmark Clean Water Act of 1972.
As the ecological devastation reached its zenith in the latter half of the 20th century, riverfront industrialization simultaneously declined, opening the door to reprogram the American riverfront. In this new era, recreation, tourism, and real estate development are the driving economic forces, and designers are working to integrate these uses in a way that does not degrade habitat and water quality, but actually improves it.
Riverfront redevelopment is one of the most challenging contexts for environmental design, but perhaps the most rewarding, too, because of the need for healing and the potential for regeneration in dynamic hydrologic systems. This is the story of three riverfront cities that are grappling with this challenge—and of the pioneering minds that have come together to meet it.
The Grand River
GRAND RAPIDS, MI
WHAT IT MEANS
GRAND RIVER RENEWAL
• Improved aesthetics of the downtown river corridor
• Increased fish migration, including for sturgeon
• Increased oxygen levels and types of wildlife habitat
• Opportunities for diverse water sports, from wading and fishing to competitive rowing and kayaking
• Habitat opportunities for fish and other aquatic and riparian species
• Installation of an inflatable barrier to prevent the upstream migration of the invasive sea lamprey
• Creation of a connected riverfront park with bike and pedestrian paths
• Restoration of native riparian forests
• Future riverfront development oriented toward the river and ensured connectivity from the street grid to the greenway system
Traffic went up and down the once-quiet rivers of the East, but there were always places where shoals or rapids got in the way, halting the paths of ferries and bargemen and necessitating arduous portage routes. What may have started as trails became wagon roads lined with inns, general stores, and, eventually, homes, churches, post offices, and courthouses. Nearly every town in eastern North America founded before 1850 sprang up within earshot of the rapids blocking an otherwise navigable river.
In the Great Lakes region, there was one particularly mighty set of rapids, said to “make a noise that broke the stillness of the forest and echoed from the neighboring hills,” according to the account of one early explorer. The founding fathers of Grand Rapids, Michigan, began the process of damming the rapids roughly 150 years ago as part of a system of canals and locks that created a passage around them. They were also after the power contained in the falling water. Grand Rapids was later nicknamed Furniture City, an allusion to the mills that lined its shores, which made use of both the lumber that floated down from forests upstream and, to power its lathes, the river’s gradual 18-foot drop. (Grand Rapids still serves as the headquarters to five of the world’s largest furniture manufacturers, but they no longer source their power from the river.)
Today, there is a movement afoot to “put the rapids back in the Grand” and redevelop the downtown riverfront as a playground for the city. It all started in 2009 with a couple of kayakers and has since evolved beyond their wildest dreams.
A Recreational Ecosystem
“There is no longer a reason for the dams,” says Chip Richards of Grand Rapids White Water (GRWW), the organization he and his friend Chris Muller formed to advocate for the return of whitewater to the city’s downtown corridor. Muller and Richards propose removing all five of the low-head dams along a two-mile stretch of the river. GRWW’s plans call for 200,000 tons of boulders, gravel, and sand to replace the material dredged from the river bottom for the sake of navigability to create everything from wildlife habitat to a standing wave for “kayak surfing.”
Their reasoning—and that of the growing constituency of local residents and civic leaders whose interests they represent—is that bringing the rapids back will provide a boost to the city’s identity and fuel for the downtown’s economic engine. “People used to say we were crazy,” Richards says, but with the city commission’s unanimous vote this summer endorsing their vision, the dissenters have all but dried up. A few months earlier, the plan had been selected as one of eleven priority projects in the Urban Waters Federal Partnership program. The program does not award funds directly but greases the wheel of the permitting process, which, as any river engineer will tell you, is the single biggest sticking point to getting anything done in a riverbed.
Last year, the organization released a feasibility report cataloging the economic, ecological, and engineering constraints involved in removing the dams and outlining a conceptual design for a multiuse park with features ranging from wading pools to fishery habitat to Class 4 whitewater courses to a redeveloped greenway system along both shores.
“It’s a very good project from the perspective of the triple bottom line,” says Dr. Haris Alibasic, director of the City of Grand Rapids’ office of sustainability, citing prior studies that have demonstrated that restoring the rapids would provide top-quality spawning habitat for the Great Lakes sturgeon, an endangered species once prized for its caviar.
Grand Rapids is already known for its pro-environment community—it has more LEED buildings per capita than any other city in the country—and this is reflected in the municipality’s focus on improving the health of the urban ecosystem. Yet, “everything we do has to be tied directly to the budget,” says Alibasic, who recently oversaw a 135-kilowatt photovoltaic installation at the city’s water and environmental facility as well as significant energy-efficiency improvements at various city buildings.
The project has the support of elected and appointed government officials, too. Mayor George Heartwell, an avid fisherman and environmentalist who passionately advocates for water quality protection, has recently appointed 22 local leaders to an advisory board charged with coordinating redevelopment of the Grand River waterfront. “We work hand-in-hand with our local partners,” Heartwell says, adding that the key to success will be “a common vision that aligns various projects related to river restoration.”
The plan calls for $28 million to remove the low-head dams, re-engineer the riverbed, and make the necessary shoreline improvements to allow for maximum public access. Richards is confident that the money will be there: “It’s a very philanthropic community,” he says. Private donations funded the initial study, along with money from a local brewing company and the Downtown Development Authority (DDA), which helped to seal the deal. Now the DDA, the City, and 70 stakeholders are collaborating to blend the wet and dry elements of the plan, according to Suzanne Schulz, who serves as the managing director for planning and community engagement for the City. “It is this community’s river,” she says, “and they are helping design its next life.”
Reversing Brain Drain
“Outdoor recreation is a legitimate driver of dam-removal projects,” says Jason Carey, the founder of Colorado-based RiverRestoration, the engineering firm hired by GRWW to help bring its vision to reality. Carey, who also is an avid kayaker, points to the $646 billion spent by consumers each year on outdoor recreation—twice what Americans spend on pharmaceuticals—as a strong indicator of the potential economic return from the removal of dams nationwide.
“It helps that the outdoor lifestyle is closely attuned to an environmental ethic,” Carey adds. The Urban Waters Federal Partnership added the Grand River in Grand Rapids to its project priority list as a way to link the restoration project to goals in economic development, recreation, and environmental improvement. Grand Rapids has long been on the cusp of innovation and advancement when it comes to protecting the Grand River and its tributary streams. “Investments to protect our water resources are critical, particularly investments in infrastructure that will sustain the quality of life not just for current generations but for future ones to come,” says deputy city manager Eric DeLong, touting the city’s combined-sewer-overflow reduction of 99.97 percent as well as its green infrastructure initiatives that protect the Grand River and, subsequently, the Great Lakes.
DeLong also believes that the restoration of the Grand River will attract young people to the city, and Carey agrees. “The Midwest is losing a generation of young people to outdoor meccas like Portland and Seattle,” says Carey, who thinks that increasing opportunities for outdoor recreation in heartland cities will stir the cultural mix, making it more enticing for the 18-to-25-year-old crowd to stay. The argument certainly has weight, especially considering that the so-called “creative class”—the presence of which is widely accepted as a prerequisite for economic competitiveness in the 21st century—is highly engaged in environment-oriented activities. The rush of whitewater, however, will hopefully be an ambiance that anyone can enjoy, and, for a city whose identity literally originated with its raging waters, it is a branding approach that makes sense.
“We realized early on that Grand Rapids is not a kayaking community and that nine out of ten people will never get in the river,” Richards says, “but everyone will appreciate having access to it.” Construction is at least two years out between the required engineering studies, design development, and permitting process still ahead, but the city is already mobilizing to make the riverfront central to its evolving image as a green hub.
“In the past, people viewed the river as dirty and polluted,” Richards says, explaining the historic lack of pedestrian-oriented development along the river. “There are still so many buildings along it without any windows on the river side,” he says. There is also about a mile of underutilized industrial property along the downtown river corridor that he expects to see redeveloped in conjunction with the dam removal. While the $28 million investment may seem like a significant investment, however, the revenues and general economic stimulus that it will likely catalyze would make restoration of the Grand River’s rapids as important to the economy as it is to the river’s ecology.
The Menomonee River
While the redevelopment of Grand Rapids’ riverfront is just gaining steam, another variation on the theme is playing out across Lake Michigan in Milwaukee’s industrial core. Unlike the roaring rapids of the Grand, the Menomonee—the river to which Milwaukee owes its existence—entered Lake Michigan as a half-mile-wide matrix of marshland and slow-moving water. Early efforts at real estate development in the city involved excavating material from the bluffs above to fill in the marshlands below. On top of this unstable foundation, a raging industrial economy developed.
By the early 1900s, Milwaukee was known as the “Machine Shop of the World.” In the Menomonee Valley, a district known simply as “The Shops,” railroad fleets that linked America’s heartland with East Coast ports were built and serviced, employing tens of thousands of low-wage workers in the crowded neighborhoods along its periphery. However, the rise of interstate trucking as the preferred shipping method in the ’50s and ’60s—coupled with the mass exodus of heavy industry in the ’70s and ’80s—caused the manufacturing economy to grind to a halt, as it did in Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, and other Rust Belt cities. Between 1970 and 2003, African American unemployment rose from an already abominable 15 percent to a staggering 50 percent in the working-class neighborhoods of the Menomonee Valley.
WHAT IT MEANS
MENOMENEE RIVER VALLEY REDEVELOPMENT
• Capping of an existing brownfield with a two-foot clay barrier that prevents groundwater from reaching contaminated soils
• Use of the clay barrier to form a series of stormwater basins that absorb and treat runoff from impervious surfaces
• Creation of a natural floodway for the river that can accommodate up to the 100-year storm event threshold
A Valley-Wide Plan
• Green infrastructure that doubles as a pedestrian network, providing connectivity between developed areas and riverfront green space
• Support for the green building policies and practices actively promoted by Menomonee Valley Partners
• Use of the park by area youth as a lab for environmental education and as a training ground for green-collar jobs
The Shops shut down for good in 1985, and the 1,200-acre industrial district devolved into arguably the most blighted area in the country. This was the geographic heart of the city, yet for 20 years it remained a ghost town; road access was closed, sewer and water lines were disconnected, and the adjacent neighborhoods fell into extreme poverty. And the Menomonee River, which snaked its way through the toxic mess, was completely cut off from the city.
A Confluence of Goals
In 2002, a coalition of local business leaders, public health advocates, developers, and designers organized a national competition to come up with a plan to redevelop 140 acres in the heart of the infamously polluted valley. “The goal was to build a job-rich light industrial complex and city park,” says Bill Wenk, the founder of Denver-based landscape architecture firm Wenk Associates and the head of the consortium selected for the project.
Rather than treating the industrial park and riverfront park as separate entities, the design integrates the two. “The conventional approach would have been to put one massive detention basin at the far end of the complex,” Wenk says of the stormwater plan. Every landscape architect is familiar with the heavily engineered, fenced-in abysses encouraged by modern land development codes, but Wenk was against the idea for this development. “They take up so much space,” he says. “I think they’re very anti-urban.”
Instead, the 70-acre park was designed as a sponge for the 70 acres of impervious industrial land wrapped around it. When it rains, a network of broad, shallow basins throughout the recreational landscape fill with water. They’re planted with native species from the fens, wet meadows, and marshes that would have thrived there when the area still functioned as an estuary of Lake Michigan. And they provide the same function: to filter overland flow as it makes its way to the lake.
It sounds easy enough, but on a highly contaminated site well within the 100-year floodplain, the project is an engineering marvel. There wasn’t much elevation change to work with, but the construction of a new interchange nearby at the intersection of I-94 and I-43 made for a source of inexpensive fill. “We were able to use the rubble to elevate the industrial sites out of the floodplain,” Wenk says. This netted a ten-foot elevation gain, allowing the development to qualify for flood insurance.
An additional two feet of clay also was imported and spread over much of the site. The mounds and berms that formed the biological treatment system for stormwater runoff were sculpted from that clay, but the naturally impenetrable substance also serves another purpose. Rather than hauling off the soil- and asbestos-contaminated debris at a cost of $10 million—and risking public exposure to the toxic dust—the clay layer forms a cap, preventing surface water from leaching through to the contaminated soil below.
The raised areas form the backbone of the bike and pedestrian routes through the park, while the basins are filled with a free-draining growing medium and planted densely to suck up the moisture. Stormwater trickles through the vegetated sponge, eventually seeping into the river channel just above the high water line. The absorptive tissue of the park is vast enough to not only accommodate the runoff from the adjacent development but also to serve as a floodway for the river during major storm events.
“This was one of those rare projects that was built almost exactly as designed for the competition,” says Wenk, who also contributed to the master plan for the larger 1,200-acre district. Canal Street, the main arterial running parallel to the river that links the valley neighborhoods to the central business district along Lake Michigan, is on the same low-lying ground as the park. Now that the jobs are back and the neighborhood is coming up again, the corridor is ripe for redevelopment. Here, too, Wenk has worked out a scheme to treat stormwater runoff without dumping it into storm drains.
“The engineers wanted a pump system to drain it [Canal Street], but we figured out a way to cricket it with a series of dips and rises leading to green fingers that connect to the river,” Wenk says. The vegetated basins are intended to double as part of the streetscape and would run perpendicular from Canal Street to the river as pedestrian gateways to the waterfront. “It’s a civic network that treats and conveys stormwater,” Wenk says.
This larger plan has yet to be fully implemented, but the finishing touches were put on the park last fall, eleven years after the close of the design competition. Its presence has been rippling out into the community for a number of years already. Business is booming in the industrial park, which is nearly full. Menomonee Valley Partners (MVP), a nonprofit group overseeing development in the area, has landed a total of 40 new companies in the valley in recent years, many of which are housed in the one million square feet of office space it has designated to be built to meet green building standards. The green infrastructure approach has been used as a selling point for private investment, attracting a number of companies that employ an industrial ecology approach to their own operations.
As the jobs have returned, so have the families. In recruiting companies to set up shop, MVP targets those that offer a “family-supporting wage” of at least $25 an hour. This year, a local environmental education center, Urban Ecology, opened a branch adjacent to the park and is using the 70 acres of green space as an outdoor laboratory and training ground for disadvantaged youth.
“They’re training the kids in ecological restoration, and they’re even learning how to build stormwater filtration systems,” Wenk says. “They’re actually changing the program of the park—there are community gardens there now, rather than soccer fields.”
The engineering and permitting process for redeveloping brownfields and riverfronts like Menomonee Valley may seem to move forward at a snail’s pace, but the concept proves itself again and again as a catalyst for rapid change in the country’s most blighted cities.
The Mississippi River
The Menomonee and Grand rivers both eventually reach the sea south of Newfoundland where the St. Lawrence River rips open the northeast corner of the continent, delivering the massive effluent of the Great Lakes basin to the churning Atlantic. On an unassuming rise just 30 miles from Milwaukee is an invisible line where a drop of rainwater has a 50/50 chance of entering the Menomonee-Great Lakes-St. Lawrence watershed, or trickling into a very different environment, headed south to the city of New Orleans.
The Great Lakes Basin may hold the largest freshwater reserve on the continent, but the Mississippi basin has by far the widest reach, extending its net into 31 states and two Canadian provinces. By the time it reaches New Orleans, the Mississippi looks nothing more than a living thing all its own, a leviathan snaking its way to the Gulf. Its main channel is nearly a mile wide, and the delta stretches out across the entirety of southern Louisiana. As a funnel for the commerce, culture, history, and sediment of the United States, it is the perfect natural allegory for the endearing chaos of the Crescent City’s well-simmered melting pot.
The French originally laid out the city along a crescent-shaped natural levee in 1718. “The way rivers work is that they build up sediment on the outside of a horseshoe bend where the water slows down,” says George Hargreaves, a landscape architect, “so this part of New Orleans is actually out of the flood plain.” His firm, Hargreaves Associates, is helping stitch the city back to its namesake landform after a long and awkward divorce.
The intent to reclaim the derelict industrial land along the river for a greater civic purpose began well before Hurricane Katrina brought the city and its vulnerable relationship to the Mississippi into the spotlight. Over the last 10 years, a plan to create an uninterrupted linear park along six miles of the waterfront has slowly gained momentum—Crescent Park, which encompasses the first 1.4 miles of the plan, opened to the public this past spring.
WHAT IT MEANS
REINVENTING THE CRESCENT
• Addition of world-class green space to neighborhoods without access
• Cultivation of New Orleans as a progressive, environmentally conscious, and technologically innovative city
• Assistance in attracting residents back to the city and appealing to newcomers, especially entrepreneurial and creative professionals
• Creation of 24,000 permanent jobs over the course of the implementation
• Generation of more than 60 million dollars in state and local tax revenue on an annual basis
• Conversion of the Mandeville Wharf shed into a 65,000-square-foot outdoor event venue for concerts and festivals
• Adaptive reuse of Piety Wharf into a public sun deck and preservation of one of the firewalls as a backdrop for performances and film screenings
• Preservation of numerous pylons and other relics of the industrial era as part of the architectural language
Though the idea was seeded before the disaster, it has come to represent a conscious choice on the part of civic leaders about what New Orleans can become as it rises from the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States. A plan known as “Reinventing the Crescent” calls for much more than a riverfront park—it outlines a vision for urban development based on an entrepreneurial and artisan-based economy, rather than oil, gas, and other resource-driven industries. New Orleans remains an active shipping port, but there is little in the way of processing and manufacturing for the products moved on and off the big ocean liners. That occurs overseas or upstream in the heartland, where real estate is less valuable.
“It happened at a time when the city was thinking about its ability to be resilient, not only in the face of a systemic environmental shock, but a large economic one as well,” says Cristina Ungureanu, a planner and urban designer at Eskew+Dumez+Ripple (EDR), the firm that led the planning process for the city. A report commissioned by the city in 2008 estimated that the $294 million plan would generate 24,000 permanent jobs and more than $60 million in annual state and local tax revenue once complete, giving an internal rate of return of 18 percent over 30 years.
Life on the River
“The park has become an extension of neighbor’s backyards, and it’s giving people a nudge to return to the city, whether they’re actually people returning to the area or new people who saw what New Orleans was doing and wanted to come and be a part of it,” says Amanda Rivera, the project manager at EDR who oversaw the design of the park. Hurricane Katrina displaced 800,000 people in New Orleans and the surrounding region, and the hardest hit areas remain substantially depopulated.
Previously, there was only one small park on the water and a handful of other places to access the riverfront, like the cruise ship terminal. The new vision for the waterfront, however, is as a front porch for the city.
“Of course, in New Orleans, music is number one on the list of things to do,” Hargreaves says. Anchoring both ends of the park are event spaces built from the bones of the historic wharf structures. Piety Wharf is now a giant sun deck, and one of the old masonry firewalls of the port’s voluminous shed structures was preserved as a backdrop for performances and can even be used as a movie screen. At the other end of the park, a new roof was put on top of the Mandeville Wharf shed, transforming it into an open-air pavilion. The all-weather performance venue is expected to become a public gathering space for festivals, concerts, and traveling exhibits, providing much needed space and protection from the constant parade of thunderstorms in the sultry subtropical city.
Rather than a memorial to the losses of Hurricane Katrina, Crescent Park is a celebration of how New Orleans has always seen itself: jubilant. When construction delays pushed back the opening date, “people were screaming,” Hargreaves says. So, the city went ahead and opened the 90 percent of the park that was complete, which included a dog park, a playground, vast lawn areas, and the promenade, all of which were immediately inundated with users.
Sustainability plays a big part in NOLA’s reimagining and is a strong thread in the park’s design. Tulane University plans to build a research facility and museum along the waterfront dedicated to bioenvironmental technology with a focus on hydrokinetic energy production. The facility will include a demonstration of underwater turbine technology with the potential to generate enough energy to power more than a million homes using the Mississippi’s slow muddy waters—without building a dam.
These ideas are big and bold, but the current stage of riverfront redevelopment has a more fundamental purpose. Simply providing access and celebrating the river’s presence represents a cultural shift that may lay the foundation for the future realizations of such ambitious plans.
The issue of access is actually much more complicated than it seems. Those who haven’t spent much time in New Orleans may not realize why there are so few places in the city to see the Mississippi, let alone dangle your toes in it: in addition to the levees, a 10-foot, concrete flood wall was built in the 1970s between the city and its river. “People lost the notion that there is even a river on the opposite side of that wall,” Rivera says. “We can’t take that wall down because we acknowledge that we need it from time to time, but to allow access to the other side of it is extremely important for our city.”
Crescent Park is entirely within the 40- to 100-foot-wide corridor that lies between the banks of the Mississippi and the flood wall, a space it shares with an active rail line. Massive steel gates permeate the wall here and there for trains to move through, but opening and closing them is a major logistical event. Since most of the city is several feet below sea level, the combined height of the levees and flood walls blocks all ground-level vantage points to the river.
“Our office is located at the base of Canal Street on the 31st floor,” Ungureanu says, “so we see the river a lot, and our studio has a strong visual connection to it. But not everybody in the city has that connection, so it’s a pretty big opportunity to be able to build these public spaces that allow anybody to go on the other side of the wall.”
Pedestrian bridges that go up and over the flood wall and rail corridor were added at either end of the park to compliment the less glamorous entrances through the flood gates in between. Built with a simple palette of cor-ten steel and concrete to blend with the industrial language of the environs, they are part of the unique architecture emerging to suture the city’s past and present back together. In the spirit of the late Allen Eskew, EDR’s founder and a long-time resident of New Orleans who championed the notion of adaptive reuse in the city, every effort has been made to preserve and integrate the port’s industrial relics in the park design as a reminder of the river’s historic role for future generations.
A Winding Journey
The water that convenes in the Mississippi watershed’s uppermost reaches has traveled for more than ninety days by the time they reach New Orleans. Starting from places like Big Beaver, Saskatchewan, and Salamanca, New York, it passes through scores of lochs, levees, dams, canals, and flood-control structures, which have created a very different path than the historic meandering flow. Efforts to straighten out navigable rivers like the Mississippi have been very good for commerce and represent a valiant effort to protect adjacent communities from the wrath of flood waters. But as the world saw in the late summer of 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit, our best engineering efforts are not always sufficient to withstand the changes that occur in a river system—or in a climate—over time.
At the end of Crescent Park by Piety Wharf, the space between the water and the flood wall was wide enough to allow for an extensive public garden. It is a showpiece of New Orleans horticulture at its finest, a place for romantic Sunday afternoon strolls amid oak trees, bougainvillea, and exotic bird-of-paradise flowers as well as several native species. The meandering paths follow the lines of the tracks that crisscrossed the ground when this was a railroad switchyard, leading out to the freshly resurfaced wharf. The designer’s invitation is broad and inclusive, offering the city an ecumenical sanctuary, a cloister for remembrance, and a place for visioning.