Public Works: Bringing New Life to a City's Lost Waterways

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Public Works: Bringing New Life to a City’s Lost Waterways

San Francisco's Market Street pays tribute to its forgotten waterways with a special art installation.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Photo of Taylor Massey Creek by M M from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

Photo of Taylor Massey Creek by M M from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

A pair of San Franciscans have concocted a plan to bring new life to the city’s long-dead waterways through a public art installation. Designer Emily Schlickman and radio producer Kristina Loring will paint the paths of dried-up creeks and streams (which, in that part of the world, are referred to as “arroyos”) onto the asphalt and concrete of the San Franciscan core that now covers them.

The project, called Ghost Arroyos, is one of 50 installations selected for inclusion in the Market Street Prototyping Festival—three days in April 2015 during which experimental “placemaking” projects for improving the major San Francisco street will be put on display.

The exhibit will include only a small section of Market Street, but there are enough ghostly waterways in San Francisco’s past to keep Schlickman and Loring painting streets for years.

The Oakland Museum of California has put together a bountiful online collection of interactive maps and historical paintings to show the city’s natural landscape as it once looked. It turns out the bustling Bay Area was once home to marshland, streams, creeks, and sand dunes, long since dried up or filled in and built over. Not unlike Toronto, except for the sand dunes.

Like San Francisco, we identify as a waterfront city but are also a city of inland tributaries—rivers, streams, creeks, ponds, marshes. Some, such as the Don and Humber, are unavoidable. Others have been long forgotten. But all of them have been manipulated, straightened, buried, narrowed, expanded, walled in, or controlled to make way for roads and ports and buildings.

Groups of private citizens have been working to remember the waterways as they once were. The Don Valley Historical Mapping Project has used maps dating back to the early 19th century to compile data points and create digital maps of the valley’s historical shorelines, forgotten waterways, long-gone industries, and more.

This summer, as part of the 2014 Eco-Art-Fest, a group of artists launched the Don Was Here project, painting the lines of the Don River’s original banks onto the paths of the Lower Don Valley Trail, and running tours of the trail with a Don River historian. There’s still a website for the project, documenting the river’s evolving course, and the art installation itself.

Apart from art installations and “Hey, who knew?” history, forgotten waterways can have a tangible impact on modern life.

There was once a tributary in Toronto called Garrison Creek, which opened into the lake right around Fort York (hence the name Garrison) and ran down roughly between what are now Bathurst and Dufferin streets. By the late 1800s, the creek was literally a dump, used to wash away people’s waste. It was enough of a sanitation problem that, starting in 1884, the city converted it into an actual sewer. Sections of the valleys through which the creek had run were filled in, later to become Christie Pits and Trinity-Bellwoods, and we all went merrily about our lives for another hundred or so years.

When Toronto was hit by heavy rains in the summer of 2013, Spacing magazine pointed out that some of the areas that faced the worst flooding were those above the Garrison Creek storm sewer. It’s encased in 1880s brickwork, but the Garrison is still flowing underground, and the stormwater runoff brought it, and its history, to the surface.

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