Thursday, June 4, 2015

Back to the river, the small, pretty, little river

Glen Pearson, former member of parliament for London North Centre and co-director of the London Food Bank, is also on the board of the London Community Foundation, the group behind the Back to the River initiative.

Monday night I briefly sat beside Mr. Pearson at a Back to the River consultation session. At one point, Mr. Pearson informed us how 500 or more cities are actively engaged in river renewal projects. He made the point that people everywhere are rediscovering the rivers which flow through their cities. In the past, he has called this "a global movement."

I thought this was interesting, especially the number — 500. But, I wondered, what were the goals of these other cities? And were these goals similar to the goals being expressed at this consultation meeting? Was the thinking in London in sync with the thinking in those other cities or are we out-of-step with the rest of the world? I wanted to ask Mr. Pearson these questions and more but the opportunity never arose.

Mr. Pearson delved deeper into the actions of one specific city from his list of 500: Pittsburgh.  He said of all the cities on the long list, Londoners would be most familiar with Pittsburgh and what the former steel town has accomplished when it comes to rediscovering their river — actually, three rivers: Allegheny, Monogahela and Ohio.

I knew a little about what the American city had accomplished but I was no expert. Now, I was curious. I began reading about Pittsburgh. It had been a great American city in the early part of the last century. But, unlike many other cities from that period, it entered the present century changed but with some of its great city attributes intact.

At this point I direct you to Downtown Pittsburgh, Renaissance and Renewal by Edward K. Muller. This is an interesting read that details the historic battle to save downtown Pittsburgh and the fight to keep the downtown relevant in a changing world. I noted a surprising number of similarities between London and Pittsburgh. Clearly there are lessons to be learned but in some ways London has already closed doors that Pittsburgh opened and rushed through.

Benedum Center         Photo courtesy of Christian Carrasco.
For instance, in Pittsburgh the former Stanley Theatre was converted into the Benedum Center for Performing Arts. In London, the former Capitol Theatre auditorium was demolished for a parking lot. The city turned its back on not one but two fine, heritage movie houses. Today, the city is still longing for a new performing arts centre but does not seem to be even close to seeing this dream realized.

But let's cut to the chase: the river. Pittsburgh sits at the confluence of three mighty rivers, each of which dwarfs the London river. The Allegheny and Monogahela Rivers together drain an area eight and a half times that of the Thames River watershed. The Ohio River watershed is more than 80 times that of the Thames. Comparing the confluence of rivers where Pittsburgh sits to the Forks of the Thames is quite the stretch.

The Thames is not a mighty river. It is a small river. As one person at the consultation session pointed out, in the summer, during hot dry spells, the Thames River almost runs dry in certain spots. But the dearth of water at these times can be deceiving. I once lived quite close to The Forks of the Thames in a small, brick and stucco home built in the 1920s. Labatt Park was directly behind my home and behind the park was the river.

Ivey Family London Room, London (Ontario) Public Library
When I bought that home I looked at the river and thought "looks good for canoeing but probably best after a heavy rain." At the time, I didn't know about the recreational Springbank dam. I bought a canoe.

The following spring there were sandbags holding down the sewer maintenance covers in my neighbourhood. I linked some new words to the river, at least new for me: flood, fear and respect.

A neighbour brought me up to speed concerning the likelihood of being caught in a flood while living on the west side of the Thames River at the forks. A flood not only could happen, it would happen. The question was simply when.

I learned, floods had happened quite a number of times in the past. One of the worst, the flood of '37, left more than a thousand buildings sitting seven or eight feet deep in river water. Included among those flooded buildings was my home. I now understood why my main floor hardwood floors and downstairs plaster walls all showed signs of serious water damage.

There were five deaths in the watershed associated with the flood in '37 — an amazingly low death toll considering that a river surge, after a severe rain storm in 1883, took the lives of 17 Londoners.

Glen Pearson writes, "The allure of rivers — aesthetics, economic development, environmental sustainability, and recreation — is easy for us to grasp . . . " All true. What can be harder to grasp are the dangers urban rivers, even small ones, represent. Rivers are beautiful but unpredictable. Developing the land beside a river is always a temptation and often a mistake.

After the flood of '37, it was suggested that all homes built on the flood plain should be purchased and razed. It was argued this would cost less than building the multiple flood control dams demanded for flood protection. The idea failed to gain traction and the homes were not demolished.

Instead, some years later, Fanshawe Dam was built north of the city, plus dams were built at Wildwood near Stratford and Pittock at Woodstock. Another dam, the Glengowan Dam, was planned but never constructed. This is no big deal, as far as London is concerned, as it promised the city little in the way of additional flood protection.

Now, almost eight decades after the Great Flood, London city planners have rediscovered the river and are promoting the forks as a centrepiece of their newest designs for downtown. At one point, the city planners were showing a picture of South Bank beach in Brisbane, Australia. The planners were making noises about having a similar man-made beach created at The Forks of the Thames.

How has the man-made beach worked out for the Aussies? Well, in 2011 the Brisbane River overflowed its banks, lifted concrete slabs, washed away tons of beach sand and left the liner of the giant pool badly damaged. The tally was some $7 million Australian. The lesson here is if you are going to build on a flood plain, you had better have deep pockets and a short memory.

Point State Park fountain being repaired. Photo courtesy of Zack Weinberg.

And, I might add, Pittsburgh appears to have deep pockets, too. The incredible Point Park State fountain and surrounding plaza were extensively repaired, upgraded and finally reopened in 2013. Why? Repeated flood damage for one thing. Total cost of the restoration and rejuvenation project: $35 million U.S. It was the largest park project in Pennsylvania history.

But there is more to know about Pennsylvania and rivers than just the Pittsburgh Riverlife project. Early this year (2015) it was announced that for the 12th year in a row, more dams were removed in Pennsylvania than in any other state. Now, there is a fact that has real relevance to London which is under pressure to decommission and remove the city's damaged Springbank recreational dam.

Bob Irvin, president of American Rivers, said in a press release about dam removals:

The river restoration movement in our country is stronger than ever. Communities nationwide are removing dams because they recognize that a healthy, free-flowing river is a tremendous asset.

Over the past 20 years the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has assisted in the removal of some 350 dams throughout the state and Pennsylvania is not alone in deciding rivers are best when  not dammed. As Mr. Pearson said quite accurately, it is "a global movement."


  1. I'd be curious to know the names of the 500 other cities that are doing the same.

    1. That's a good question. If I see Glen Pearson at another meeting I'll raise your question. My guess is that if there are 500 cities looking to rejuvenate their rivers and downtowns, most are letting their river run free as this seems to be the more popular approach today. Dams, like Springbank are out of favour. An interesting site dealing with river restoration is the following: http://www.ecrr.org/ (European Centre for River Restoration)

    2. Found this interesting number: 1000s. It seems several thousand river restoration projects are under way across Australia each year. Annual expenditure is more than $100 million, funded through a range of government programs, non-government organisations, industry groups, and individual public and private landholders. http://archive.nwc.gov.au/library/waterlines/23