River Talk

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Of the 14 American Heritage Rivers, the Hanalei, in Hawaii, is undoubtedly the shortest (16 miles) with the least population (478 in the 2000 census).  But the Hanalei Watershed Hui, formed in response to the 1998 designation as an American Heritage River, has something to tell all of us about community vision, integrated thinking, and perseverance.


Ahu pua'a is a traditional Hawaiian term for the concept of integrated watershed management.  It is sometimes expressed as "ridges to reefs," "white water to blue water," or "summit to sea," all of which clearly and vividly express the connections between rivers and oceans, and the intersections among the diverse smaller streams that come together to form a river. 


Like all American Heritage Rivers, the Hanalei Watershed Hui was matched with a federal agency partner for the first five years of the program.  For the Hanalei, the U.S. Forest Service was the official Federal partner, but the Environmental Protection Agency also provided support for scientific research.  This research, conducted by community members, staff from the University of Hawaii, and the agencies, was driven by community-based concepts that a healthy ecosystem provides necessary resilience in the face of storms and other threats.  One of the community members refers to Hanalei, on the north shore of the island of Kaua'i, as "a very small rock in a very big ocean." 


Community partnership is a hallmark of all American Heritage Rivers, and of all successful river stewardship in general.  But this concept is particularly strong on the Hanalei, where the Hanalei Watershed Hui's home page lists that its work is "guided by Hawaiian and other principles of sustainability and stewardship, integrity and balance, cooperation and aloha, cultural equity and mutual respect."  These core values, especially the inclusion of cultural equity and mutual respect, are essential if communities are to move as a whole toward sustainability on their rivers.


On the Necessity of Art

Well, I'm back, after 6 weeks or so off the blog task. One of the items that had my attention during this time was a proposal that was jointly developed with the Christine Baeumler at the University of Minnesota's Department of Art and collaborators at the University of the West of England. To quote the proposal's abstract: 
It has become a truism that the major conflicts of the 21st century are likely to be over water. What is much less certain is how to best facilitate exchanges between scientists, policy makers, expressive artists and the public, to shape future debates over water. These debates will be vital to finding the ways to "re-imagine" water in our cities (and the regions from which their water comes) to making wise decisions about our water future. This project, will explore, through a series of focused workshops, collaborations, and installations, ways in which we might learn to restore a broad understanding of water to our urban public and sense of place and to understand acts of artistic representation as bridging between differing public discourses, realms of practice, issues, concerns, and groups of people.
Project teams from the University of Minnesota, led by co-PIs Christine Baeumler and Patrick Nunnally, and the University of the West of England, led by co-PI Iain Biggs, will convene local collaborations of artists, scientists, and community leaders to explore the key issues facing the water environments of their respective cities (Twin Cities, Minnesota, and Bristol, UK). Anticipated results include both digital and physical artistic representations of water and water environments in the city, new programs, classes, and ongoing collaborations.

I guess I shouldn't assume that the abstract speaks for itself, so here are some of the links and related projects that we referenced: 

Lorna Jordan. Jordan's Waterworks Gardens is located at a water reclamation plant in Renton, Washington. 

Betsy Damon. Damon's Living Water Garden is along the edge of the Fu and Nan River in Chengdu, China. Both Jordan's and Damon's public art projects are an aesthetic, educational, and natural approach to treating storm water. 

Herbert Dreiseitl's Atelier Dreiseitl brings together art, urban hydrology and open space planning to create projects that are both beautiful and sustainable. 

These combinations--art, science, and community--are at the heart of our program, so look for more on these issues and projects in the future.

Urban Rivers as "system of systems"

All of us, I think, believe that urban rivers are pretty special places. All of us who have spent any time at all working or thinking about the preservation of urban rivers also know that the work of establishing sustainability on urban rivers is really challenging. "Challenging" here is the modern euphemism for "maybe too hard to do, and certainly involving more struggle and effort than I bargained for, but I have to try anyway."

Anyway, I want to suggest here a framework for thinking about the challenge of sustainability on urban rivers. We won't have the "answer' today, and may not have it for a while yet, but I think the terms and framework offered here can structure our thoughts moving forward.

I have found it helpful to think of the urban river as a system of systems. In brief, and with apologies for necessary distortion through brevity, these systems are:

  • ·   hydrologic systems, what's in and on the water, both chemically and biologically. This category also refers, in my mind at least, to the actual ways the water meets other surfaces, scouring the bed of the river, carrying sediments, and so forth.
  • ·   terrestrial ecosystems, the plant and animal communities that live along the river and depend upon it for their health and survival. In many respects, these systems function in ways best understood by specialists; what the public sees as a lush green forest is full of invasive plant species that don't support a diverse community as well as they should.
  • ·   human systems, the roads and streets, settlements, public spaces and all of the other physical space that we shape in order to live along the river. Too often, we see these systems only as intrusions upon the others, a point of view that may ultimately be self-defeating. Nevertheless, poorly designed and planned human systems can and do cause great harm to hydrologic and terrestrial systems.

It's pretty easy to say that all three of these need to be in balance. But what is that "balance," and who decides? Is it even possible to design a community of humans that doesn't damage the communities of plants, animals, and the river that supports us all? 

I believe that it is, and will be posting further ideas, research, projects and so forth over the weeks and months ahead. In doing so, I will be reporting as well as I can, as specifically as I can, about a whole range of topics in which the expertise is led by others. No single person can know all of the science, policy, design, and programming/engagement efforts that make up this subject. As always, I invite comments that contribute to the effort and look forward to hearing from you.
Readers of this blog know that it just started a month ago, even though the program and issues we work with are of much longer standing. As I've learned more about digital communications and blogging, I've been trying to read some more blogs by other people. As I've been learning more about riverfronts, I've been discovering places where broader waterfront planning and design are and are not comparable.

A convergence of these threads had led me to Cristina Bump's AIA Scholarship Blog  I met Cristina last fall at the Waterfront Center's annual conference in Seattle. She told me about her AIA scholarship trip to Australia, examining the Sydney waterfront as well as waterfronts in Brisbane and Melbourne. Her blog contains detailed and vivid information about the state of the art in these various places.

There are of course important differences between riverfronts per se and the more general topic of waterfronts. That said, there's a lot to learn for riverfront sustainability from what people like Cristina Bump and her interview subjects are discovering, whether in the Pacific Northwest in the United States or across Australia. Digital communications, such as Cristina's work, and, as it builds, this forum, provide ways to stay current on emerging discoveries, research, and practices for riverfront sustainability. It may be comfortable to wait for publication of key case studies, analyses, and research reports, but 21st century problems and solutions are requiring 21st century communication technologies to spread the word.

Telling River Stories

The Story Boats in the RiverThere's an affinity between rivers and stories. The best stories flow like rivers; some of our best stories are about rivers; something about being on a river elicits stories. One of the best known stories in American literature is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and since Twain's time hundreds of people have tried their hand at telling their river story. 

Our web site Telling River Stories may not be as ambitious as Twain's account, but it does "aim high," if you will. Our stories show actual people, doing river-shaping work in actual places. The "actual" is important to us: this is not a "grand march of time" history site where users aren't really sure who did all that stuff. A good rule of thumb to think about what are "river stories" would be "the things you should know to understand the river in that spot." 

For example, "Navigating Our River Communities" tells of the work done by art student Anna Metcalfe in her work with the Minneapolis Green Team. The Green team is a group of disadvantaged Minneapolis youth who have been brought together in the summer to conduct habitat restoration work along the Mississippi. The young people, all high school students, undertake projects under the guidance of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, the National Park Service, and the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization. The collaboration is modeled on work pioneered by the Community Design Center of Minnesota. All in all, this is amazing work that is a prime example of what's happening on our riverfronts today that will lead us into a more sustainable future.

So what do we hope for from the Telling River Stories (TRS) web site? The primary audience for the site is the hundreds, if not thousands, of people who are working every day to make a more sustainable future for our riverfronts. We hope that you will come to the site, explore stories that interest you, and then continue to pursue information about the partners and projects that are described there. The TRS site is companion to the home site of the River Life program, which contains descriptions and links for the most innovative, far-reaching, and substantial projects, programs, and people engaged in all facets of river restoration. The map-based TRS site tells "where" the great work is happening; the River Life database shows who and what is involved in doing this great work. 

We hope to get your work included in our databases, so we can tell the world all about your successes. Get in touch with me at pdn@umn.edu and let's see what we can do!

  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.