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Reviewed by:
  • River Cities: Historical and Contemporary
  • Brenda J. Brown (bio)
2015 Dumbarton Oaks Symposium in Garden and Landscape Studies
May 8–9, 2015

“All cities are river cities.”

That assertion, made—and dismissed—at this symposium, is certainly false. It is true nonetheless that many cities are river cities, especially if a river city is defined as one that evolved beside and because of a river—or two or more rivers’ juncture. Rivers have long been vital to trade, travel, and agricultural and industrial production, their floods beneficent and destructive, their waters sacred and profane, their visages picturesque and blighted. River temporalities link to weather, climate, geology and physics and to ecosystem fluctuations and proximate cultures’ manipulations. Rivers build land and take it away; they connect and divide; they create boundaries but do not respect them.

The 2015 Dumbarton Oaks symposium, River Cities: Historical and Contemporary, organized by Thaisa Way, resulted partly from a 2012 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation award to create an interdisciplinary urban landscape studies program supporting scholarship and higher education at the intersection of architecture and the humanities. Not coincidentally, this year’s event speaker roster included nine design professionals (seven landscape architects) and (only) seven historians and seemed somewhat younger and less clubby than customary. As Director John Beardsley observed in opening, all but two speakers chosen from the 180 proposals were new to Dumbarton Oaks. Although history figured significantly in all presentations, nine of the thirteen also contextualized twenty-first century developments.

The call for papers cast the symposium in terms of resilience and adaptability, highlighting cities’ and rivers’ dynamic relationships. However, other themes emerged: changing and competing river narratives and images; power—the power of rivers and the power of political bodies seeking to control them; and the interplay of rivers’ natural systems and humans’ changing technologies and economies. Most presentations focused on one city—Los Angeles, Lyon, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Rome, San Antonio, São Paulo, Vienna; some on two—Agra and Allahabad, Kampen and Nijmegen, Zigong and the nascent Guangzhou megacity. Several talks acknowledged larger water-sheds; a few really did concern larger regions. Rivers’ capriciousness and resistance were typically acknowledged and often highlighted; so were deliberate and thoughtless human alterations.

Michael Miller broached the question of what is meant by river city head-on, tracing Lyon’s early development as shaped by its location between and on the outer banks of the Saône and Rhône rivers in France in terms of spatial form, economy, life, and rituals. Citing travel guides, memoirs, literature, and continuing traditions, he maintained that the river’s centrality persisted even after the railroad usurped its traffic. In contrast, Kimberly Thornton reconceptualised Vienna’s Lainzabach, a tertiary waterway (creek) variously manipulated for nearly 200 years, in its contemporary, increasingly urban, context.

Some talks focused on flood control infrastructure. Lei Zhang analyzed traditional systems—including levees, walls and (sometimes seasonal) ponds—of China’s Lower Yellow River Floodplain. These landscapes supported diverse ecological functions and multiple human uses including fortification, fishing, washing, and recreation. With the introduction in the 1950s of more centralized systems, characterized [End Page 195] by fast conveyance, underground piping, channelization and invisibility, older structures weakened and often disappeared. Today’s remnant ponds are only ornamental. Water no longer shapes the land. Rain-water is no longer harvested for drier times. However Zhang also showed student designs for new landscapes that incorporated aspects of such traditional systems. Landscape architect Pieter Schengenga emphasized his firm’s work with the Netherlands’ “Room for Rivers Program” in which rivers’ morphological changes inspire floodplain expansions. The idea is to widen the river bed rather than build higher dikes. Brian Davis and Amelia Jensen’s talk was most memorable for their discussion of Sao Paulo’s piscinões, large contemporary government-constructed basins for temporarily holding rain water that are sometimes adapted for unofficial community or private use. Focusing on Rome’s Tibur, Rabun Taylor recounted his historical sleuthing stimulated by a bridge misaligned with the river’s modern course.

Two presentations paired landscape architect and historian, integrating rich history and reports from the trenches. Elizabeth Mossop and Carol...


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pp. 195-197
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