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  • Rivertown: Rethinking Urban Rivers
  • Amahia Mallea (bio)
Rivertown: Rethinking Urban Rivers. Edited by Paul Stanton Kibel. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007. Pp. 216. $55/$22.

This collection of essays edited by Paul Stanton Kibel makes the case that the demands of grassroots activists have had a primary influence in altering the perception and landscape of urban waterways. By the twentieth century most urban streams and rivers had become nothing more than sewers and storm drains, flanked by polluting industries, encased in concrete, and (if they remained visible at all), considered to be undesirable places. Since the 1980s, however, activists have applied the principles and tools of the environmental movement, social justice, and “smart growth” in order to transform urban waterways into places suitable for redevelopment and recreation, and into public “ribbons of green” that may symbolize the cultural reunification of nature and city (p. 192).

In his introduction, Kibel identifies questions of power and resource distribution as central for rethinking urban rivers. The urban landscape has its cultural origins with landscape architects like Frederick Law Olmsted and Jens Jensen and its concrete origins in postwar urban renewal. Though the introductory essay is chronologically disjointed, its argument is clear: there are two critical questions—who makes decisions and who benefits. Most of Kibel’s authors address these questions directly.

Five chapters provide case studies of geographically diverse cities. Salt Lake City is working to “unentomb” and “daylight” its downtown creek, whileWashington, D.C., works to realize long-neglected plans for the Anacostia River. The Guadalupe River in San Jose has become a model for adaptive management as local, state, and federal entities work together toward multipurpose objectives. Chicago has long struggled with water quality and has sought a number of engineering fixes: a tunnel to bring clean water from farther out in Lake Michigan in the 1860s, diverting the fetid Chicago River via a canal to the Mississippi watershed in 1900, completing a deep tunnel sanitary system in 2006, and measures to keep invasive Asian carp from using the canal to enter the Great Lakes watershed. The banks of the infamous Bubbly Creek, once the cesspool of Chicago’s impoverished “Packingtown,” are now the site of upscale housing. Finally, [End Page 217] in “Bankside Los Angeles,” Robert Gottlieb and Andrea Misako Azuma reflect the humor and energy of river activists.After it was paved with cement in the 1930s, the Los Angeles River’s failure to resemble a river became a local joke. Now, the citizen group Friends of the L.A. River—good at attracting media attention—has changed the discourse with the promise of a reborn river. In one telling exchange, a FoLAR leader corrected a city official each time he referred to the “flood-control channel” by vocally inserting “river!” (pp. 30–31). FoLAR has succeeded in altering cultural attitudes and enabling changes in policy, and since 2000 plans for the “re-envisioning” process, along with funding, have begun to fall into place.

All of this book’s authors have “dirt beneath their nails.”Whether they work for universities, or for municipalities or nonprofit organizations, they speak from “real-world experiences and not just library research,” as the editor puts it (p. 15). It is the informed experiences of the authors that make these essays so useful, and this is perhaps best illustrated in the chapters dealing with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In “Bankside Federal,” Michelle Samet castigates the Corps for its outdated methods of planning and approving river engineering projects: “They still think they can defeat Mother Nature with brilliant engineering. They talk about the environment, but they don’t really believe in it” (p. 147). Then she suggests ways for the Corps of Engineers to become more environmentally, economically, and community conscious, as well as ways that citizens can work with the Corps to empower themselves in their own backyards.

In “Bankside Citizens,” Michael Houck recounts the formation of a nationwide grassroots movement for the restoration of urban waterways. It was not city planners, or national environmental organizations, or federal agencies, but rather the “bottom feeder” activists in places like Marietta, Berkeley, and Portland, Oregon, who spawned the multitude of watershed...


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