Thesis Snippets: Rivers and making better

Restoration isn’t about taking a riverscape back to a set point when all was well, as is the popular view of restoration. It isn’t fixing up. It isn’t undoing what was done.

Rather, it is about changing the direction in which a river’s becoming moves, by intervening in both the geomorphic and socio-cultural landscapes of that place. It is an ethical expression, as much as it is anything else.

Because a place is always both cultural and biophysical, it always ‘contains and reflects the types of behavior determined to be ethically appropriate by the local community’.[1] This means, of course, that there will be disagreement about the ethics of restoration.

When I interviewed Melanie Winter she told me she had given up on the soft bottom stretch of river that is the prime beneficiary of the Army Corps’ restoration efforts. The place that others celebrate as the river’s centre of redemption is to Melanie an expression of entirely unpalatable ethics: development winning out over sustainability, concrete remaining king, impermeable surfaces continuing to prevent groundwater recharge which is so needed in a water-starved Los Angeles

it drives me nuts that we’ve turned this into some sort of shiny civic art project, and it’s not[2]

When Ed Reyes wrote ‘I have been actively working to focus the resources of the City on transforming our river from a neglected backyard to a beautiful welcoming front yard’ he too was describing an ethic of restoration.[3]

Restoration is an act of making better. So is channelisation. The only trait that sets them apart is that restoration seeks to make nature more visible and lingering, where channelisation seeks to vanish it. In both, engineers, designers, architects, decision makers all have improvement – a word drenched in implications of control, dominance, and change – in mind. It is just the character of that improvement which changes.

[1]  Urban, “Conceptualizing Anthropogenic Change in Fluvial Systems: Drainage Development on the Upper Embarras River, Illinois,” 209-10.

[2] Oral history interview with Winter, 2016.

[3] Friends of the Los Angeles River Records, 1987-2013, Ed Reyes letter 2003.

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