In Paris, a stream named the Bièvre used to flow through the Left Bank, joining the Seine near the Gare Austerlitz. In the 1800s, Victor Hugo described it as an idyllic urban oasis and its water was rumoured to have magical properties.
But over time water-mills, tanners and shoemakers gathered around the Bièvre, and by the mid-nineteenth century it had become a health hazard. Baron Haussmann’s transformation of the city saw it gradually buried underground, until it completely disappeared from the Parisian landscape in 1912.
However, in 2020 the Paris city council announced its intention to recover the forgotten waterway as part of its ambition to bring nature back into the city - and plans for a $300 million green renaissance around the Champs-Élysées are well advanced. But bodies of water present a different opportunity as they can mitigate the heat island effect by absorbing heat, and can also help prevent flooding by carrying excess rainwater.
‘The renaissance of the Bièvre is no longer an unrealistic hypothesis,’ Dan Lert, the deputy mayor in charge of climate, water and energy, says. ‘There is a real need for more cool, green areas in Paris!’
The Bièvre is not the only urban river to experience a new lease of life. Around the world, ‘daylighting’ (the process of uncovering lost rivers, also known as ‘deculverting’) has been developing slowly but surely. In 2014, Auckland ‘daylighted’ the Fairburn and Parahiku reserve streams. Sheffield inaugurated its Porter Brook pocket park in 2016, and for the past decade the city of Yonkers, New York has been uncovering the Saw Mill River, buried since the 1920s. Madrid, Manchester and New York City are also considering similar restoration projects.
Most of these urban rivers were covered up during the urbanisation of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and as water quality deteriorated they were gradually put into culverts underground and sometimes turned into sewers, which also helped prevent floods. But with today’s technology and engineering, keeping them underground often doesn’t make sense any more. In fact, cities are realising that opening up old rivers could help them adapt to climate change.