Ghost Rivers, courtesy of Bruce Willen

Reaching the Light of Day

Can efforts to surface underground rivers restore an ancient kinship with water?

Because eventually the river rises here. It overflows to claim it all and to show us what we lost, like it always had.

—Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

A FRIEND ONCE told me about the experience, both hilarious and heartbreaking, of watching her son realize that, where there are buildings now, there once were plants. “Were there plants where our house is?” he asked, wide-eyed, a little horrified. “Were there plants everywhere?”

Years ago, growing up on a perpetually soggy plot of land, in a town named for a brook I had never seen, I asked my parents a version of the same question. Had there been water where our house was? Their straightforward, adult answer—yes, it was wetlands—was still enchanting, hinting at the hidden paths of water in my own backyard.

Now, whenever the rain holds steady for more than a few hours, I recognize rivers and streams, with direction and purpose, running through the streets of New York. Over time, I’ve spotted more and more of them: gushing down the cement steps of a nearby park hill, snaking through the crooked streets of the West Village, filling the Prospect Expressway, and pouring into restaurant cellars and basement apartments. In a city that, like others, is currently raising shorelines and planning floodwalls to defend itself from rising waters, it is alarming to see these glimpses of an underwater New York—a vision of the city’s future, and also its past.

Yes, there were plants everywhere, and there were rivers and streams too, running through urban areas that have now erased most evidence of them. Many are now buried below city construction or hidden in sewer systems, where urban planners diverted them to clear the way for construction. After centuries of stewardship by Indigenous nations, these urban waterways—which once formed the basis of life in cities around the world—have largely disappeared. But they remain alive in collective memory, safeguarded both by Indigenous ancestral knowledge and subcultures of eagle-eyed city dwellers who track evidence of them. And many of them still course along the same pathways, only now underground.

In recent decades, these rivers have also rallied a growing chorus of advocates in the fields of restoration, architecture, and city planning who champion an idea once seen as extreme or even dangerous: to bring them aboveground again. This idea is known as daylighting, the exhumation of streams from underground and reintroduction of them to the surface. There is ample research-based evidence for what seems intuitively true: natural waterways—meaning, those that flow through the topography of a landscape and not through a sewer—support healthier ecosystems than those encased in concrete darkness. Daylighting brings benefits to water quality that include nutrient retention, prevention of algal blooms, and overall more supportive environments for a diversity of species. It also keeps clean water out of the sewer system, where, currently, huge volumes of it unnecessarily go through the sewage treatment process, a waste of resources that can also cause sewers to overflow.

For those who care, several daylighted waterways have brought new business and development to their cities by becoming centerpieces of new recreational areas (this approach, of course, often overlooks all that is harmful about gentrification). But the more compelling argument, beyond economics, comes from Eric Sanderson, historical ecologist and author of Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City, who told me, simply, “The water’s going to flow where the water wants to go.” There is a “fundamental logic” to managing water: at a certain point, it will not be managed. “There’s been this idea—particularly this American idea—[that] you can kind of refashion nature however you like and it’ll all be fine,” he said. “I think we’re sort of at the end of that.”

Billions of people live directly in the path of rising water,
and uprooting from it carries high costs.

In 1982, a group of activists, sensing this fundamental logic, proposed to Berkeley city officials that they remove the concrete culverts from a portion of a local creek and let it flow above-ground. The city was strongly opposed to it, says Ann Riley, author of Restoring Neighborhood Streams. In particular, there were concerns that the waterway could endanger children. Daylighting was a “lunatic fringe idea” at the time and for years afterward.

Conversations about daylighting follow a dynamic that’s familiar around the world: billions of people live directly in the path of rising water, and uprooting from it carries high costs, one of the greatest perceived barriers to daylighting—about $1,000 per foot of daylighted river, according to one estimate. Securing the necessary property rights can also be a nightmare; after all, water tends to ignore the boundaries of land ownership. And in some areas, surfacing water at all is almost impossible to imagine. To daylight one underground creek in New York City could mean demolishing New York University’s Law Library—which seems unlikely, however much some students might get a kick out of it.

Beneath these considerations is an undercurrent that touches something deeper about our relationship to water. Subterranean water, in all its mystery, has inspired awe for as long as we’ve wondered about it. Sumerian tradition held that Abzu, a vast underground body of water, was the origin of all fresh water on Earth; the Maya regarded underground rivers that pierced through caverns in the Yucatán Peninsula as portals to the underworld (Xibalba, or the “place of fright”). And in ancient Greek mythology, all souls eventually reach the rivers of the underworld, from “the sheer-falling waters of Styx,” as Athena describes them in the Iliad, to where they may “drink forgetfulness / From the soothing waters of the river Lethe.”

In Underland, Robert Macfarlane points to one explanation for ancient Greek literature’s preoccupation with underground water. “So much of the landscape in which that literature was lived and written is karstic in nature,” he writes. Karst, a dissolvable rock composite, is “a terrain where water refuses to obey its usual courses of action,” opening caverns, sinkholes, and other mysterious passageways in the landscape it crosses.

Just as mysterious as this landscape is our grasp on the language surrounding it. Is a river “lost” if we still know where it flows? Is it “buried” if it runs through pipes we can see? Is the occasionally used term ghost river appropriate? What is the name of a river that appears nowhere on any current map, and whose memories determine that?

“Even while in constant motion, water is also a planetary archive of meaning and matter,” writes cultural theorist Astrida Neimanis. Water holds memory, and memory is bittersweet; often, it is simply bitter, a reflection on all that’s been lost. While uncovering the suppressed history of a landscape, some advocates of daylighting have found that they become memory workers, collecting traces of an unknowable past.

“I don’t think that any living person today has a real understanding of what this original ecosystem was, and how incredibly complex and ancient it was,” Hadrien Coumans, an adopted member of the WhiteTurkey-Fugate family and deputy director of the Lenape Center in New York, tells me. For many Lenape, he says, “each of these streams and rivers have a spirit, and that spirit must be recognized, acknowledged, given thanks to, and offered that kind of consideration, in its place, for life to thrive.” Daylighting efforts are “one element in a whole of what would be the restoration of an original ecosystem.”

Despite the opposition they faced, the Berkeley lunatics persisted, and as a result of their tenacious public advocacy campaign, the community rallied behind the idea. Strawberry Creek Park, built around a two-hundred-foot-long section of daylighted creek, was completed in 1984. A handful of similar efforts in the Bay Area followed, and others have proliferated since—sometimes as one-offs, and in other cases as part of a holistic approach to urban development, as in Zurich, which began a citywide daylighting initiative in 1988. Various U.S. cities have ongoing projects of their own, including Brookline, Massachusetts, and Springfield, Missouri. Landmark projects to daylight the Cheonggyecheon Stream in Seoul and the Saw Mill River in Yonkers, New York, have also drawn worldwide attention to daylighting as a restoration method.

What follows is a look at a few of the people working to bring back the rivers of the past, in form and in spirit. The shape of their projects are all different; what they share are respect for the agency of water and a deep desire to work in partnership with it. Together, their stories form a vision of what a daylighted world could look like.

Tibbets Brook, courtesy of Corinne Segal

NEW YORK:
“THERE’S A CREEK UNDER HERE.”

Say the name “Robert Moses” in any tone of voice around a group of New Yorkers and you’re already taking your life in your hands. Say it on this boat of water-obsessed researchers and activists, and you risk starting a bit of a riot.

Chauncy Young of the Harlem River Working Group seems ready for that. On the Ocean Stewardship tour, an event organized as part of New York Water Week in March 2023, he was joined by a slate of speakers from the world of water advocacy who spoke to more than a hundred people as our ferry sailed down the East River.

Young pointed out that before Robert Moses’s city planning reshaped New York City in the interest of wealthy car commuters—bulldozing poorer neighborhoods to create highways that carried rich New Yorkers to their destinations of choice—the Harlem River, the eight-mile waterway connecting the Hudson River and the East River, was the city’s center for water recreation. Moses-planned roadways replaced portions of the recreational shoreline, severing city residents from their waterways.

Years later, the shoreline was thoroughly degraded, and the Harlem River—as well as other city waterways—were polluted by combined sewer overflow, as waste rose from sewers into city streets and nearby waterways. In 2012, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and New York City Department of Environmental Protection reached an agreement to reduce sewer overflow using green infrastructure projects, and a series of Long Term Control Plans over the following years outlined those projects across the city. The Long Term Control Plan released in 2019 proposed what would become New York City’s first daylighting project.

It was a huge win for a dedicated group of environmentalists—including the Van Cortlandt Park Alliance, Bronx Climate Justice North, and the Bronx Council for Environmental Quality—who, for decades, had championed the daylighting of Tibbetts Brook, which once ran from Van Cortlandt Lake in the Bronx into the Harlem River. Now ensconced in sewers, the brook was dumping millions of gallons of clean water into the wastewater treatment system every day, said Christina Taylor, deputy director of the Van Cortlandt Park Alliance. When the city started paying attention to how much this excess water was contributing to sewer overflow, “That’s when they finally realized, ‘Okay, if we want to make the impact that we need to make, we have to daylight,’” Taylor said.

This was the highest-profile example yet of a major U.S. city implementing a daylighting project. (A few years prior, the adjacent city of Yonkers had opened a daylighted portion of the Saw Mill River, a $48 million project that had also attracted widespread attention in the field.) Having spent years in developmental stages, including a long holdup over land owned by CSX Transportation and the city’s public transit authority, the Tibbetts Brook project, which will daylight about 1.8 miles of the brook and cost $133 million, is scheduled to start construction in 2025.

Taylor noted that, though flooding is a concern in New York City, the Tibbetts Brook project is not specifically meant to address it; the city has technically classified it as a project to help sewer overflow. Still, its momentum indicates a shift in New York from thinking of water as a threat to thinking of it as an inevitable, familiar reality—which could, in the long run, affect flood prevention strategies, said Robert Fanuzzi, president of the Bronx Council for Environmental Quality.

“I think we’re very aware that water is coming down in record numbers from the sky—and the city will give us solutions for it. . . . There’ll be all kinds of engineered solutions to this,” Fanuzzi said. “But it can’t really outrun the problem caused by our buried waterways that come to the surface—the groundwater [and] the base water flows that are always with us.

“Daylighting should really start a conversation about this: the water that’s always here,” he said.

A few miles south of Tibbetts Brook, in the middle of Lower Manhattan—not an area known for its healthy river ecosystem—another creek is on the rise. Unlike other daylighting projects, this one began with Shake Shack. In 2001, the fast-food giant opened a small outpost at the southeast corner of Madison Square park, a popular stop for tourists and nearby office workers. In recent years, its basement has faced severe flooding issues, prompting Madison Square Park Conservancy executive director Holly Leicht to order an engineering assessment. It was not promising. “They were like, ‘Yeah, I don’t know how you’re going to actually solve this,’” she said.

It was water versus Shake Shack, and the water was winning. Leicht was not surprised. In 2022, the artist Cristina Iglesias had created Landscape and Memory, a public art project highlighting Cedar Creek, which had flowed through present-day Madison Square Park before its burial. Now, Leicht thought, perhaps Cedar Creek could be daylighted. “I thought, ‘This doesn’t make sense. There’s a creek under here that we are fighting with. We’re never going to win that battle,’” she said. What had initially looked like a flooding problem came to seem like “a huge opportunity for us,” she said. Now she is exploring the possibility of daylighting a section of the creek, a project in very early stages of addressing engineer- ing questions and learning about the area’s historic Indigenous stewardship.

“We see so many people that we have this opportunity to create a message, just to make people pause for five minutes of their life and think,” she said. “What was this land in the past and what is our future?”

 

Ghost Rivers, courtesy of Bruce Willen

BALTIMORE:
BACKYARD DAYLIGHTING

Plenty of Americans are familiar with ghost tours, those guided pathways into an area’s dark past. A number of walking tours have now taken similar approaches to water; guided tours in Toronto and Brooklyn have brought residents the history of lost waters, and in Baltimore, thanks to artist Bruce Willen, they can walk the path of a “ghost river.”

For Willen, who developed the project Ghost Rivers, it started with a thin line on an old map—the path of water. The line piqued his interest; though it ran just a few blocks from his house, he had never seen a stream there before. Years later, as the pandemic shut down Baltimore, he started taking more afternoon walks around his neighborhood and, one day, heard a trickling sound from a nearby storm drain.

Hooked, he started his search for any historical maps that might show him the path of the now hidden stream. The Johns Hopkins University library and state archives were helpful, but the real break- through came when he found the original sewer plans for the Baltimore City sewer system. The stream was Sumwalt Run, a creek that had been buried in the early twentieth century.

In the Chesapeake Bay area, buried rivers and streams have drawn greater attention in re- cent years, especially with the launch of projects like the day- lighting of Broad Branch in Washington, D.C., and Ray’s Meadow Local Park in 2019 in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Daylighting advocates also have their eyes on portions of the eighteen-mile Jones Falls River, which runs from its headwaters in Garrison, Maryland, through Baltimore, before meeting the ocean. In Baltimore, where 66 percent of streams have been buried, a few individuals are spotlighting the hidden waters in their own backyards.

For Ghost Rivers, Willen painted the path of Sumwalt Run over 1.5 miles of the city; he now shares his research about the stream during walking tours and online. In the course of his research, Willen interviewed his neighbors about their memories of local waters, and from their conversations a community history of the buried stream emerged. Some of them recalled the way they would use the storm drains to skateboard or hide from authority figures as kids. Many of these recollections of childhood antics are funny—but Willen said in his conversations with community members and on walking tours along the path of the stream, he also feels a “horrifying” undercurrent, a sort of disbelief that Sumwalt Run was buried at all. “Why would you take a creek and put it into concrete tubes and fill them over with dirt?” he asked.

 

Ghost Rivers, courtesy of Bruce Willen

 

Atiya Wells’s discovery of hidden waterways also began with a map. Wells, a pediatric nurse by trade, was taking a course for naturalists in training years ago when she received the assign- ment to sit and pay attention to nature for twenty minutes a day. She wasn’t hopeful she could actually find a place to do that. “I was like, ‘I live on the busiest street in Baltimore City,’” she said.

On Google Maps, to her surprise, she spotted a nearby patch of woods. Walking around that property, she could make out the shape of a riverbank in the land, and soon found a corrugated pipe emerging from the ground: the container for a muted stream.

Wells eventually acquired the land, which is now home to Backyard Basecamp, her nonprofit that hosts summer camps, events, and educational initiatives to connect BIPOC residents to nature. She is working on a project to daylight the section of the stream that runs through that property; now in the design phase, Wells said she hopes to begin implementing it next year. She is especially excited by the idea of incorporating water into Backyard Basecamp’s educational programs. “From working with kids, I know they gravitate to water like moths to a flame,” she said.

 

Eke Panuku Development Auckland

AUCKLAND:
IMPROVING THE LIFE FORCE OF A RIVER

Kia whakatōmuri te haere whakamua—I walk backward into the future with my eyes fixed on the past. This Māori whakataukī (proverb) reflects a reverence for ancestral knowledge that has rung powerfully through Māori iwi (tribal) efforts to safeguard the life force of rivers and streams. (Among them is a groundbreaking 2017 law to recognize the personhood rights of the Whanganui River, the ancestral waters of the Whanganui Māori.

About a decade ago, local community members and iwi and city officials in Auckland were interested in creating a greenway—a corridor for a pedestrian thoroughfare—in the suburb of Northcote, where the Awataha Stream ran uncovered for about a hundred meters before disappearing underground. As they consulted with mana whenua—Māori community members with ancestral ties to the area—about the project, daylighting came into the conversation.

“It was when we started talking to mana whenua that they brought to the front of our awareness this Awa- taha Stream and the fact that within this project there was the ability to look at daylighting,” Sara Zwart, principal regenerative design lead at Eke Panuku Development Auckland, said.

At that time, “daylighting was quite a new concept,” she said, and the idea—though warmly embraced by some—also prompted concern about safety from nearby schools. Bringing community members on board meant working with them at every stage of development, from ideation to design and implementation. “We have very, very consciously, from the outset, taken commu- nity, taken stakeholders, taken others, on the journey with us,” Zwart said.

Central to that process has been a close collaboration between the mana whenua, Eke Panuku Development Auckland, and the housing agency Kāinga Ora, in partnership with Healthy Waters and the Kaipātiki Local Board. Nineteen iwi are recog- nized as Indigenous authorities in Auckland by the council, and about seven tribes consistently worked on the Awataha Stream daylighting project, called Te Ara Awataha; they established the foundational values of the project, which informed its design, bringing to the forefront the ideas of Aho Tangata (sharing space in community), Aho Taiao (living with nature), and Aho Toi (creatively working together).

As the project continued, the mana whenua decided to establish a measurement tool to determine whether the project was lifting the mauri, or life essence, of the region, a central aspect of its success. The tool they created, Take Mauri Take Hono, allowed them “to evaluate what the condition of the river was initially and then to implement our knowledge on how we could do it better, how it can be brought back to life, how we improve the life force of this river,” Tracy Davis of the Ngāti Whātua said in a video about the project. That document—a unique framework for restoration—has since been used in other environmental ef- forts around Auckland, Zwart said.

These efforts speak to the power of daylighting to engage the philosophical traditions that have historically sustained the land—and to question the value systems that buried rivers in the first place.

Meg Parsons, Karen Fisher, and Roa Petra Crease point out in Decolonising Blue Spaces in the Anthropocene that restoration work in the West developed around a Euro-western vision of “wilderness,” devoid of Indigenous presence and in a state of imagined “balance” that justified the genocide of Indigenous populations and the environment itself. Though those myths are rejected in the restoration field today, various projects, as they seek to recover natural states of the past, can still end up enacting the same colonial mindset that degraded the environment in the first place.

Remaining questions for those in the restoration field, they write, include “Whose cultural landscapes and waterscapes are valued when decisions are being made?” (Speaking directly to this concern: a 2009 New York Times article about daylighting that glibly states, “By building green corridors around the exposed waters, cities hope to attract affluent and educated workers and residents who appreciate the feel of a natural environment in an urban setting.”)

Even, or especially, when a project centers on traditional ecological knowledge, it must safeguard the intellectual property of those contributing that knowledge. The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs notes that Indigenous knowledge in general is often mislabeled as “public domain.” Zwart said that project managers for Te Ara Awataha worked to ensure the security of Indigenous knowledge that they incorporated, and that the Take Mauri Take Hono tool for measuring mauri is not made public.

Currently, no international framework protects Indigenous knowledge as intellectual property. The World Intellectual Property Organization is working on a legal way to address this gap; its Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore (IGC) will meet in May to finalize its language.

 

Ayios Demetrios, courtesy of Corinne Segal


ISTANBUL:
THE CITY OF HOLY WATERS 

“Istanbul is a city of easy forgettings,” Elif Shafak wrote in The Architect’s Apprentice, whose narrator is apprenticed to the sixteenth-century Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan. “Things are written in water over there, except the works of my master, which are written in stone.”

Between water and stone, over the course of centuries, a city rose. Through it ran nearly four hundred streams lined by beaches, summer homes, and various social gatherings throughout the seasons. Their riverine system had at its heart the Bosporus, that cerulean pulse between two seas and two continents that fueled the rise of empires.

Meanwhile, thriving underground water systems nourished the city’s physical and spiritual health. Hundreds of underground cisterns, some dating back to the Byzantine era, brought water to the city from sources hundreds of miles away. Since ancient times, holy springs had attracted a ceaseless flow of reverent devotees, mainly Orthodox Christians, who formed a lattice of spiritual connection across the city. Today, several dozen of them remain, often safeguarded by Orthodox Christian churches.

Artist Ali Taptik refers to Istanbul as the “city of holy waters,” those that safeguard the city’s spiritual heritage. After a visit to Hagios Demetrios and Church of St. Mary of the Spring, both Greek Orthodox churches dating to the Byzantine era, he began a project to document the paths of lost streams throughout the city, looking for clues both to Istanbul’s past and the ways that industrial construction disrupted the community’s relationship to that past. For his series Topographic Nostalgia, he photographed the industrial development of the now covered Galata, Keçi, and Cendere Streams in a region of central Istanbul; the photos, stark and sober, give off the same unsettled sense as a field overtaken by invasive growth.

I encountered his work in Istanbul at the Pera Museum, a boutique gem of a gallery on a windy hilltop overlooking the Bosporus. Later that week, in the posh Nişantaşı neighborhood, Taptik and I drove over some of the steep hills that define the city’s topography, many of which are named for the stream paths they followed. Eventually, we reached a low-lying thoroughfare—the riverbed, Taptik said.

These former riverbed areas are particularly vulnerable to flooding and earthquakes, said Meltem Delibaş, an architect who previously worked at the Turkish Water Institute. However, local municipalities have relatively little impetus to start daylighting projects unless they are responding to disaster; “If the river didn’t cause problems . . . maybe the decisionmakers would not even try to rehabilitate these systems,” she said.

Recently, major flooding has brought attention to Istanbul’s Ayamama Stream, a waterway of about thirteen miles whose watershed covers twenty-eight neighborhoods with a population of more than 1.5 million. Delibaş coauthored a paper with Azime Tezer in 2017 that called for daylighting the stream and outlined its steps to implementation.

In general, rivers “are mostly seen as disaster-prone spaces in Istanbul,” said Eda Acara, an assistant professor of geography at Bakircay University in Izmir, Turkey. Acara researches dead and dying rivers as well as the public narratives around them. For her master’s thesis, she examined the degradation of Turkey’s Ergene River and the scapegoating of ethnic minorities who officials blamed for pollution. At the Ergene River and elsewhere, rivers have become sites of “ideological competition,” she said—an arena for political projections.

Acara echoes Delibaş regarding the susceptibility of the riverbeds—now filled with industrial development and housing—to flooding and destruction by earthquakes. (The latter is especially top of mind in the region after Turkey’s devastating 2023 earthquake; the geologist Naci Görür has warned that Istanbul is both overdue and underprepared for one just as severe.) Though daylighting could address flooding in these areas, Acara said, with many of them now home to low-income communities, the projects must also consider the people they could displace.

In 2021, Istanbul joined the Green Cities program under the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which has €5 billion in funding for urban sustainability projects. Acara is working as a consultant on the city’s action plan for that program and said she’d like to recommend daylighting for certain areas of the city (but emphasized that the plan is in the early stages).

 

“IT COULD BE LIKE THIS.”

Last spring, the artist Aisha Shillingford led me and a few dozen others in an imaginative exercise that followed a reading from Afterglow, an anthology of climate fiction. We were to picture a hopeful vision of the future, write it down, and share it.

Most people spoke to a longing for the past—for whatever moments of it felt closest. One woman wanted to reclaim and become the steward of the land where her family had once had a farm. I wrote about living where people know and respect the water. They do not try to conquer it. I wrote that I wanted us to be brave. I wrote that it felt painful to imagine these things, because to imagine them is to hope for them, a pain that feels so necessary and so impossible to bear. Not one of us spoke about building anything new.

It felt like an oral history of the future.

In the foreword to Afterglow, adrienne maree brown writes about experiencing the “collective dreaming” of movement work and writing fiction, particularly stories about “communities who are experiencing at a small scale what is changing at the grandest scale in the world.”

“I write both to uplift these stories and strategies, and to cast the spell into the world’s imagination,” she writes. “It could be like this.”


This story was made possible by the support of American Rivers.