Wild Water: How Cities Are Shaping the Water Movement

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I was never a pool kid. I learned how to search for desert hot springs by following the smell of sulfur, swam in potholes in rapidly flowing streams, frolicked in the shallow reaches of the Pacific. My childhood was haunted not by monsters under the bed, but by imagined creatures lurking in the opaque depths of a seemingly bottomless lake. Once in Montana I jumped in a stream that ran straight out of the mountains, so cold you couldn’t step in gradually — it was all or nothing. The electric shock went straight to my core, and I jumped out immediately. The late spring sun wrapped me in a blanket of rays and soothed the little pinpricks all over my skin. I still remember that shock as if it were yesterday.

At the age of fifteen I started living in coastal cities and still do. Except for Austin’s Barton Springs and some California beaches, I’ve rarely had the opportunity to frolic in wild waters within city limits.

The Los Angeles River, which was channelized and paved in 1938, is the focus of numerous city and county-level revitalization efforts–as well as the Los Angeles Urban Waters Federal Partnership–focused on improving water quality, access, and public green space along its banks. Despite its concrete condition, many people use the river for various forms of recreation and subsistence, including fishing.
Each watershed encompasses numerous habitats and human communities, as seen here in this map of Washington State’s Green-Duwamish River Watershed. The Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition/TAG leads community engagement efforts in Seattle as part of the Green-Duwamish Federal Partnership.

In cities, people grow up with a very different relationship with water. We meet it in pipes, concrete basins, navigational waterways, agricultural and drainage canals, street flooding after storms, fountains and pools. Cities are often built near or are surrounded by water, because it’s a source of commerce, boat recreation, fishing, beauty, and so much more. But with the exception of the occasional beach in coastal cities, rarely do we consider it safe or advisable to swim in urban waters.

It’s not because people don’t like to swim or that waterways are always inherently dangerous. Rather, in urban settings, industrial and navigational interests have long taken precedence over city dwellers’ quality of life. These priorities have often resulted in massive pollution—especially in urban or “downstream” areas—so toxicity, heavy metals, and dangerous bacteria are very real concerns. Other results include infrastructure that isolates residents from waterways, and different levels of access that closely follow each city’s patterns of racial and economic disadvantage. The idea that nature should be contained, and recreation relegated to confined spaces where people must pay to use it is itself a relic of colonialism and related stereotypes about who deserves access to water or to recreation. The idea extends well beyond city waterways, contributing to the separation of “urban” and “rural” ways of life.

“I’ve seen a much more intentional focus to include humans in the habitat… [the idea] that we are a part of nature, that nature is not the other… I think that, while that’s not new and it’s not novel, it’s been an interesting conversation to watch bubble up and kind of gain more momentum and traction… So much of the world is living in urban geographies that we have to make sure that [they] include some context of The Human Condition. You know, it’s not just the built environment. It’s not just the infrastructure, but it’s got to be about people.” – Darryl Haddock, West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, 2018.

Even within the environmental movement, these deep divisions are often taken for granted, assumed to be an inevitable side effect of progress, and urban populations are frequently dismissed as “not interested” in green and blue spaces. Historically, many river organizations and the so-called “big greens” have inadvertently contributed to the erasure of urban waterways–and the needs of people, including urban and indigenous populations—by ignoring them, focusing instead on promoting expensive, remote recreation in pristine wild spaces as the best means to preserve them. In contrast, people who have daily relationships with water through small-scale fishing, farming, or simply playing in the riverbed as kids continue to be discounted by those who connect preservation only with the “right” kinds of recreation—namely, the billable ones.

As a child, due to my own limited exposure, I thought cities were little more than concrete dystopias full of people too dependent on creature comforts and sanitized, restricted spaces. Now that I’ve lived in and traveled to cities throughout America and a few abroad, I’ve discovered a world of wonder and potential where city residents are actively advocating for subsistence fishing and urban gardens, usable local parks and public spaces, more trees and native plants, smart energy solutions, and clean water for drinking and recreation. Urban communities are working hard to improve health and quality of life for their own neighborhoods by fighting the deep historical structures that continue to marginalize them. However, while these improvements are necessary, residents must then face the subsequent rise in property values, accompanied by the threat of displacement of small local businesses and low- and middle-income residents through eviction or “getting priced out.” This fact, more than anything, is why some residents reject physical improvements. Lacking the resources to fight “the powers that be,” they’d rather keep their homes. Urban waters practitioners recognize this and are taking responsibility for the fact that “greening cities” requires sustained investment and collaboration on issues like housing availability, affordability, and local employment. Environmental approaches should take into account the people who live in the target habitat, who stand to benefit—or not–from environmental improvements. In short, revitalization efforts must be in lockstep with anti-displacement strategies from the beginning.

The co-founders of the Urban Waters Learning Network, Ann-Marie Mitroff of Groundwork USA (left) and Diana Toledo of River Network (right), at the Urban Waters Learning Forum, River Rally 2019. The team has expanded to include Aditya Nochur, Maria Brodine, and Renée Mazurek. Ann-Marie retired in 2019.

As urban practitioners and leaders gain seats at more tables, they are helping to change the conversation within the larger environmental movement, elevating the role of city spaces and urban communities and teaching others how to better involve people in environmental problems. In 2013, as the Environmental Program Coordinator for Groundwork New Orleans, I travelled to St. Louis to attend my first River Rally, an annual gathering of NGOs, university partners, businesses, and others working to improve the nation’s waterways. As a recipient of an EPA Urban Waters Small Grant, my organization was concerned with the impacts of stormwater in New Orleans neighborhoods and trying to find ways to connect people with water in more positive ways through modifications to the built environment, such as “pocket parks” where people could learn about rain gardens and native plants. This was my first exposure to the Urban Waters Learning Network–a partnership between Groundwork USA and River Network—which documents the impacts of urban waters programs and provides in-person and virtual opportunities for urban waters practitioners to exchange ideas and best practices. At that time, the urban waters conversation was mostly an isolated one. We city dwellers had the Urban Waters Learning Forum—a day of conversation and networking before River Rally officially started—as well as a specific track on the three-day Rally program, so people interested in cities knew which workshops to attend. An innovation at the time, carving out space for urban waters practitioners to connect and share ideas made it clear to the event organizers that Urban Waters was enough of a force to have a substantial presence.

During Open Space sessions at the UWLN Learning Forum, River Rally 2019, attendees from all over the country met to discuss topics of interest to them and to exchange ideas and resources.

Now, as a co-coordinator of the Urban Waters Learning Network (with Diana Toledo and Adi Nochur), I’ve attended several River Rallies, two One Water Summits, and numerous other conferences and meetings where environmental and conservation organizations, businesses, and universities come together with community organizers, frontline activists, and other stakeholders to trade methods and ideas. I’ve watched the Urban Waters conversation at these gatherings become more prominent and more integrated. At River Rally 2019, for example, conversations around equity, displacement, and structural racism in the environmental movement were front and center, both at the Urban Waters Learning Forum and during several discussions on resiliency, climate change, and other topics facilitated by River Network. Throughout the event, Urban Waters practitioners led workshops and conversations on a broad range of topics, engaging practitioners from a wide variety of backgrounds. In fact, as I talked informally with a handful of people to gauge their impressions of Rally, one question kept popping up: how can we bring together the scientist, the farmer, the community organizer, the policymaker, etc., to the same table and work toward achieving common goals?

“[The Learning Forum] gives [us] a chance to have some conversations that I don’t see happening in other environmental spaces about what rivers mean to people of color, what rivers mean to people in urban areas… It’s having a chance to engage and ask questions of each other and have dialogue.” – Corita Waters, National Park Service, 2018.

As more people from very different backgrounds and sectors talk to each other, the idea of addressing systems beyond the urban and rural frameworks is gaining traction. It is now clear to more people that environmental justice issues don’t exist only in cities, and that the same structural inequities govern the way in which water is managed, preserved, treated, and contained across the country. As any biologist knows, you can’t have a healthy ecosystem if it’s isolated, so if we are to address systemic injustices, we must look at the entire system.

High school aged youth from the Groundwork New Orleans Green Team investigate and document drainage problems and polluted standing water in a neighborhood in New Orleans, Summer 2017. The Lake Pontchartrain/ New Orleans Urban Waters Federal Partnership continues to support community-based efforts like this one.

That said, it is still important to focus on urban areas, where particular histories and concentrations of underserved populations have resulted in unique public health and access issues. It’s also important to look to urban communities for future leadership within the environmental movement. Where traditional conservation ideals meet with innovations around equitable development, broader access, and prevention of displacement—conversations that continue to develop among Urban Waters practitioners—there is opportunity to re-envision people everywhere as environmental stewards, as members of complex ecosystems. This kind of collaboration and focus is an opportunity to address some big global problems, such as how to recognize and elevate indigenous sovereignty over native lands, how to preserve crucial ecosystems while also allowing human residents to thrive within them, and how to allow cities to blossom into thriving green and blue, energy-producing and self-sustaining environments, rather than concrete-only jungles.

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