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Knowing a River’s Past as a Way to See its Futures: The Schuylkill River Corps

Here at River Life, we think a lot about what a university like ours should do to be a good citizen of our place.  The campus at the University of Minnesota is on Dakota land; that is a responsibility we must take seriously. We are in a national park, on one of the world’s great rivers, and should take that fact of location seriously also.

In Philadelphia the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities, in collaboration with the Drexel Air Resources Research Laboratory and a host of nonacademic partners, has developed an exemplary set of projects that demonstrate responsibility to a sense of place on an urban river.  The Schuylkill River and Urban Waters Research Corps is a digital collection that examines the past, present, and some imagined futures of the urban river that passes Penn’s campus. A “public, cooperative research collective,” the program breaks down many of the siloes between campus and community, and between academic and professional disciplines on a large campus.


The Schuylkill River is a rich subject for study. Bethany Wiggin, an associate professor of German Languages and Literature and Founding Director of the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities, described the complex and layered nature of this place in a 2017 article for the digital journal Open Rivers.  Here Philadelphia’s long industrial history remained present, juxtaposed with nascent efforts to imagine and realize a more sustainable future for this long-suffering urban waterway.

The Schuylkill River Corps site has four substantive sections: Collections, Exhibits, Tours, and Map. The sections overlap to an extent--some materials in the Collections are geolocated on the Map, for instance--but they are not simply four ways of repackaging the same materials. In fact, some of the richest connections are accessible through the site’s home page; the wonderfully stimulating Ecotopian Toolkit is an example. Much of what is contained in the site itself is drawn from interdisciplinary archival and oral history research, featuring collections such as the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, or the Eastwick Oral History Project.


So what can be made of a project/web site that contains oral histories of disadvantaged neighborhoods, archival documents pertaining to 18th century industry and shipping, a field guide to plants of the Lower Schuylkill, and notes for a “Wastewater Walk”?  For one thing, there is an implied sense that present relations to the river, and its possible futures, are heavily circumscribed by past land use choices and decisions over many decades that did not have the river’s health foremost in mind. Another theme that is deeply embedded in this work is that understanding the complex landscape of an urban river requires broadly different ways of knowing. We need scientific insights and artistic views, oral histories of people who have lived adjacent sites of industrial pollution and sites of job creation for high school students.

Perhaps the central, and most difficult, insight from this work is that the categories of “nature” and “culture” that are so deeply embedded in our everyday thinking may themselves need to be reexamined.  There are places on the Lower Schuylkill where biological or physical processes, traditionally thought of as “nature” predominate. There are places where human impacts have nearly erased what might be thought of as “nature.”  Scholars in a host of academic disciplines and practitioners in an array of professions have called into question the “nature/culture” distinction. What’s salutary here is to see how particular materials, describing and illuminating a specific set of places, can open up a host of inquiries without resorting to jargon or strident argument about what needs to be done to “save” a place.


If you’re as interested in this work as I am, and got your doctorate recently (as I did not) then you may want to look into applying for the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship.  This kind of support for public-facing work is what public universities like Penn or the University of Minnesota can offer our communities and our rivers.

On a related note: it’s getting to be time for exams and final projects around here, with some materials perhaps suitable for a Mississippi River version of the Schuylkill River Corps site.  We’ll take a short break from new entries in River Talk for a bit, and be back in the new year.

Downloadable in PDF format here.

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