Rethinking Our Relationship with Rivers


In 2011, the Mississippi River reached record levels. Massive floodgates had to be opened to divert water away from Baton Rouge and New Orleans, where the river rose to within feet of the tops of flood protection levees. Just one year later, droughts in the Midwest have dropped the river to a dangerously low level, threatening both the feasibility of freight transport and, due to rising salinity levels, the viability of New Orleans’s water supply. For the residents of Baton Rouge and New Orleans, however, the record flood of 2011 and low water of 2012 were barely perceptible events. After all, each city is largely divorced from the river, separated by the levee wall. The river has been engineered out of the daily lives of the people that live along it. Even more imperceptible is the massive environmental damage to the surrounding region that has resulted from human modifications to the river.

The Mississippi River is an extreme case of a condition facing many urban rivers, where engineering for the benefit of one use (typically commerce/industry) has come at the expense of other human and natural systems. A new book, River.Space.Design. by a team of European landscape architecture professors, says we must rethink our single-use, massively engineered rivers, offering multi-dimensional strategies for riverside design that benefit river ecology, improve flood protection, and expand human amenities. These strategies are laid out in the form of an extensive catalog that documents numerous design ideas abstracted from successful projects across Europe. These strategies for multi-functional river design are presented in a language that is intended to be comprehensible across a range of relevant disciplines: landscape architecture, ecological science, engineering, and planning. Indeed, the book states that it “can serve as a handbook for interdisciplinary teams and a basis for reaching mutual understanding.”

This design catalog forms the bulk of the first volume River.Space.Design. The book’s second volume consists of case studies documenting the sites from which the design catalog draws. The two-volume format is a unique and critical aspect of the book. Connected only by the book’s outer cover, these volumes are intended to be opened and used simultaneously: each design concept references relevant case studies and each case study references relevant design concepts.

’s meticulous organization and graphic design makes this cross referencing easy and natural. For instance, in the design catalog I read about the utility of floating islands in overcoming hard river edges. This entry references a case study in the second volume, which describes a project on the river Leine in Hanover, Germany. In this example, a private businessman has established a café floating on pontoons, accessed by a walkway bypassing the fortified bank of the river.

river3Being able to view this case study — documented through relevant maps, photographs, and narrative — while simultaneously viewing its abstracted design elements in the design catalog is incredibly useful. This format allows for a seamless transition between the conceptual and the concrete. Because we can clearly see the source of the design principles, they do not come across as prescriptive or limiting, but instead function as they should: a catalog of good ideas, derived from successful projects, that may have application in other projects.

With its clear language and impeccable organization and design, River.Space.Design. serves not only as a great resource for design ideas and examples, but also as a challenge to how we consider rivers in an urban context. The book does not view river design in terms of an idealized notion of what a river should be, but instead bases its strategies on dynamic river processes.

Dynamic river processes are not seen as something to repress or obscure, but instead as opportunities to enhance ecology, flood protection, and aesthetics. In the book’s introduction, the author writes, “What has been lacking up to date is an overview that presents the wide diversity of design possibilities for urban river spaces in a systematic and transferable way. This book aims to fill this gap and serve as a primer and reference for designers of urban spaces.” River.Space.Design. is absolutely successful in this regard and will hopefully inspire designers to find ways new ways to engage their community’s rivers.

Read the book.

This guest post is by Ben Wellington, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture Candidate, Louisiana State University.

Image credits: (1) Birkhauser, (2-4) River.Space.Design

5 thoughts on “Rethinking Our Relationship with Rivers

  1. Urban Choreography 01/21/2013 / 7:15 am

    Reblogged this on Urban Choreography and commented:
    Rivers everywhere are under throat – how to rethink their use in the face of engineering and environmental fantasists who both only see in one-dimensional terms is the challenge – I don’t know if this is addressed here – as I have yet to read this .

  2. Innate Ecology 02/04/2013 / 9:39 pm

    Reblogged this on Innate Ecology and commented:
    Our rivers run fast with extreme weather and climate events experienced globally. With so many of our cities built on rivers, are we finally seeing the fallout from turning our creeks, and smaller waterways into drains, with limited ability to absorb groundwater before hitting our larger rivers?

  3. Mystery Method 02/06/2013 / 10:15 pm

    Have you guys ever seen the episodes on Nat Geo about the Mississippi river? It’s pretty cool. There is quite the abundance of wildlife that is 100% dependent upon that river, and it supplies a huge diversity of ecosystems. I learned that the flooding and freezing are just a big part of the natural cycle of the river, but any people living near it may suffer some consequences during major flooding seasons.

  4. Suzanne Krizenecky 02/08/2013 / 9:31 am

    Thank you for this book review and addressing this subject of particular importance!
    If you are interested in dynamic river processes strategies and multi-functional river design, I would like to draw your attention to the DesignLab’s work at the ILA/ Chair of Christophe Girot, ETH Zurich, and, in particular, to our Pamphlet “Rising Waters, Shifting Lands”.

    For more information, visit:

  5. Hmmmmm 05/02/2013 / 8:17 am

    The book looks like a great resource.

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