Urban Rivers: Remaking Rivers, Cities, and Space in Europe and North America

By Vogel, Kristen | Material Culture, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

Urban Rivers: Remaking Rivers, Cities, and Space in Europe and North America


Vogel, Kristen, Material Culture


Urban Rivers: Remaking Rivers, Cities, and Space in Europe and North America Edited by Stephane Castonguay and Matthew Evenden Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012. ix + 302 pp. Illustrations, maps, notes, and index. (Paper) $25.95, 978-0-8229-6185-7.

The twelve essays in Urban Rivers focus on the impact of urbanization and industrialization on rivers in and around major urban centers in Western Europe and North America between the seventeenth and mid-twentieth centuries. The essays in this collection consider rivers in relation to the cities of Brussels, London, Oslo, Montreal, Paris, Vienna, Edinburgh, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and cities in the Ohio River Valley, with intriguing insight for scholars of cultural landscapes.

The editors divided the essays into three sections. The first section, entitled "Industrialization and Riverine Transformations," includes case studies that highlight how industrial and urban administrations struggled for control of local watercourses considering technological advances in water management. In the second section, "Urbanization and the Functions of Rivers," attention shifts to larger territories over extended time periods and examines how the demands of urbanization influenced river uses. The final section, "Territorialities of Water Management," studies urban endeavors to manage and manipulate rivers, which lead to environmental, legal, and political complications and the rise of the 'expert' in managing water resources. The editors acknowledge the overlap in many of the themes throughout the collection, which the reader no doubt will easily identify: pollution to river ways, changes in water courses and usage, social conflict over water resources, expanding urban spaces, and the roles of municipal authorities. These essays, supplemented by a concise introduction and a synthesizing conclusion by the editors, provide a vivid picture of the riverscapes in developing urban settings of major cities of North America and Western Europe. The illustrations include useful maps, many of which mark substantial changes in the river and surrounding areas over time.

Rivers, even in pristine condition, are changing entities. River courses and levels are subject to the forces of nature. Nonetheless, it is not surprising that urban centers developed along rivers. Waterways provide essentials: the necessity of the water itself, sources of power and food, and transportation routes. Yet, as the cities grew, there was often a detrimental effect on surrounding rivers. Increasing populations and industrialization threatened what nature provided. The results were polluted rivers filled with raw sewage and industrial waste, making the water non-potable and endangering riverine wildlife and the health of surrounding communities. Repetitively, the theme of environmental deterioration is addressed in this collection. The worsening conditions of the rivers were often an afterthought once the pollution to the rivers became untenable. The authors vividly give the reader a sense of the gravity of the situation, from the film of sawdust and industrial waste choking the fish population in the Akerselva River near Oslo in the nineteenth century (Bagel 2012) to sewage in the Potomac spreading disease through human populations in Washington, D.C. (Cohen 2012).

Not all urban influences on rivers were solely in response to environmental concerns, but many of the large-scale efforts to control urban rivers were due to the need to provide purified water to residents. City authorities and industrial leaders attempted to meld rivers to meet both urban and industrial demands by digging canals and building dams, bridges, and dikes. In one well-known example of a large scale effort to shape an urban river, the "covering" of the Senne, the city of Brussels in the late nineteenth century literally buried the river, which was teeming with waste, and created distribution networks for providing purified water to residents and eliminating wastewater (Deligne 2012). …

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