River: You arrived uninvited. At first, you were small and unimposing. Each year, your grew in strange and unexpected ways. On rare occasions, I have appreciated your presence. Perhaps I have even come to love you.
City: I came here because of you. It was your flowing current that allowed my currency to flow. That is what was most important. . .and still is. I, too, admit to feelings of love, but I think it would be better described as a love-hate relationship. You have been exceedingly kind and generous over these many years, but I have never gotten accustomed to that temper of yours.
River: At first, your floodplain contained the worst of my emotional outbursts. Then, you clogged them up with walls, railroad tracks, factories, and concrete. My emotions did not go away – they just got channeled in different directions, and I believe I took part of you. . .even a part of your soul. . .with me. I cannot apologize for these outbursts. They are a part of my nature.
City: Well, I have marveled at your lack of emotional control. But, who am I to talk.
River: Point well taken. For many years, I thought you hated me. You poured chemicals into my water and concrete on my banks. You chased away my friends; those with fins and wings. You turned your back on me, and all I saw was the ugly backside of what you call your “currency.” The most painful was when you plugged up my flow and stole my water.
City: How can I ever make amends for these things except by giving something back to you that was taken. It is hard to believe with all that has happened that I still love you.
River: And I love you. . .you Scoundrel!
If you can excuse my anthropomorphisms of giving voice to rivers and cities, how would you describe the relationship between rivers and cities. . .Vital, Complicated, Changeable and Changing, Tortured?
I thought about this relationship on a hot summer day riding my bike with a friend near downtown Richmond, VA. We rode over an aqueduct and onto Belle Isle. On that day, this island in the James River was a retreat for many Richmonders. People of all ages were walking, riding bikes, and hanging out on blankets. The storied history of this “retreat” included an ironworks, a Civil War prisoner camp, a hydroelectric plant, and a plant that manufactured copper kettles for what was reputed to be some pretty good moonshine (https://www.belleislecraftspirits.com/story/history-belle-isle). Changeable and Changing. Vital.
I also thought about the river/city relationship watching the recent news reels of the Cape Fear River isolating Wilmington, NC, flooding the heart of the City in the wake of Hurricane Florence. Tortured.
I am strolling on my local greenway trail as it traverses a commercial section of the City. Dumpster pads, the backsides of shopping centers, and storm pipe outfalls lurk just beyond the narrow strip of riverside trees known as the riparian zone. The urban infrastructure reminds passersby that this trail and the refuge it offers is only a small part of a multi-faceted relationship. Complicated.
One thing is certain. The river/city relationship is changing in many places. Co-existence is a long-understood fact, but deeper understanding is ever-evolving.
The City of Richmond has been working on a Riverfront Plan. An excerpt from the Plan reveals the evolving relationship:
Above all else, the Plan redefines the City-River relationship, dramatically expanding both visual and direct physical access to the James River. The Plan maps out a transformation comprised of incremental interventions, some bold and sweeping, and some subtle and strategic; together they describe an enhanced urban landscape. The long-term vision for the Richmond Riverfront is a sustainable public landscape corridor seamlessly connected with the River’s significant resources upriver and downriver, and a reaffirmed focus on the James River as the heart of the Richmond region. (City of Richmond, VA, Richmond Riverfront Plan, November 26, 2012, Introduction, p. 6). http://www.richmondgov.com/planninganddevelopmentreview/riverfrontplan.aspx
Here we can add another adjective: Transformational.
City: At first, I did see your beauty, but to me it was skin-deep. . .just the rippling water on the surface in the sunshine.
River: Just like you, my soul has many layers, and I am not quick to reveal the deeper ones until trust can be built and affirmed.
City: Yes, I understand. My own character shifts between day and night, sun and rain, the seasons, the light and the wind. In this we are similar. I think I am beginning to understand more about you.
River: That is the root of transformation.
Please let me know your own thoughts on the relationship between rivers and cities and perhaps some good case studies.