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Hidden Gems

Hidden Gems: How Daylighting Rivers are Revitalizing Cities

By: Michaela Kramer | Evergreen Cityworks

The saying “you don’t know what you’ve got until its gone” has come to resonate with cities around the world that are reclaiming their once abandoned natural features. While pressures of industrialization and urbanization at one time led planners to cover up natural sites in cities, many are now coming to realize the social, environmental, and economic benefits of rediscovering these hidden gems. Cities have embarked on what’s known as ‘daylighting’ wherein buried streams and rivers are exposed from beneath pavement or underground tunnels to become vibrant public spaces. The success of such projects, with cases from Yonkers, New York to Seoul, South Korea are inspiring more people to rediscover the hidden waterways in their city too.

The history of covered-up urban rivers and streams is a common one, with examples including Sunswick Creek in Queens, River Westbourne in London, the Neglinnava River in Moscow and most other places. They were usually the result of city officials reacting to flood problems, heavy pollution in streams-turned-sewers, or the demand for more space to accommodate urban sprawl. Once covered with pavement or channeled into tunnels, rivers and streams were soon forgotten, with new generations having no idea about their existence right under their feet.

Yet there has been a renewed interest in the streams secretly flowing beneath freeways and parking lots. Urban explorer and photographer Steve Duncan has found his way into many of these sites and in Toronto, local environmental organization host tours of what they call The Lost Rivers. But it’s not just adventurous urbanites that have become fascinated, city governments and planners are coming to rethink the city’s initial position on these environmental treasures.

This was the case in Seoul where the Cheonggyecheon River was paved over and replaced with the 1970s Cheonggyecheon Freeway, then considered a symbol of modernism and engineering achievement. As the highway infrastructure began to crumble 40 years later, the city decided against reinvesting in outdated infrastructure that prioritizes cars, and instead worked to reintroduce the river to the city as a public space. Two years, and $348 million dollars later, the five-kilometer daylighted river acts as a centerpiece of the city, attracting 500,000 visitors each week.

Other more modest examples belong to Arcadia Creek in Kalamazoo, Michigan and Broad Branch Stream in D.C. In 2010, Yonkers in New York State restored the Saw Mill River, which had been paved over in the 1920s due to sanitation and flood problems.  Today, the exposed river acts as a successful new space for people and wildlife, a highlight of the city’s ongoing revitalization project.

Beyond the role these serve in introducing natural spaces to the public, daylighting projects boasts impressive environmental and economic benefits as well. Exposed streams and rivers absorb storm water runoff much better than underground pipes, not to mention the money this saves cities from having to repair old pipes that are being overused during storms. This is especially important considering the heavier-than-ever downpours being experienced in many places due to the onset of climate change.

Moreover, rivers and streams are important places of biodiversity: they help to improve water quality and mitigate heat island effect. The Cheeonggyecheon River in Seoul has seen the rise of fish species from 4 to 25, bird species from 6 to 36, insect species from 15 to 192, and plant species from 62 to 308. Also, the average summer temperature in the area has dropped by 5 degrees. Daylightng serves to boost local economies, attracting tourists and investment in nearby areas. For instance, Cheeonggyecheon increased property prices within 50 meters by 30-50% and earns millions in tourist spending.

Overall, these cases bring to light (pun intended) an ideological shift in cities where people are coming to value environmental assets over unchecked sprawl. This is the same line of thinking that has lead many places to reconnect with their waterfronts or remediate polluted wetlands. Nature is no longer seen as an obstacle but instead as something to celebrate, benefitting the city in various ways.