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Urban Rivers as “system of systems”

January 19, 2010Patrick NunnallyRiversComments Off on 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.


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