Sunday, March 4, 2012

Changing Public Perception of Burning Rivers by Moderator John Hartig

Discussion Topic: Burning Rivers: Revival of Four Urban-Industrial Rivers That Caught Fire

There is no doubt that there has been a change in the perception of and attitude toward these four historically burning rivers. The perception of and attitude toward these four rivers have changed from ones of merely being working rivers that support of commerce and industry, and being polluted rivers in the Rust Belt, to ones of ecological and community assets that provide many beneficial uses that enhance quality of life.

With the environmental improvements seen to date in these four rivers and the evidence of ecological revival, watershed stakeholders gradually began to envision more natural, restored rivers with recreational use.  Simply put, watershed stakeholders began to envision these rivers as quality of life assets and recognized that they personally were part of these ecosystems and what they did to these ecosystems they did to themselves.  In the case of the Chicago River, citizens and organizations created an innovative initiative called Chicago Wilderness that brought people together to celebrate and protect their unique natural capital and make it a source of community pride.


Chicago Wilderness is an alliance of over 230 public and private organizations that promotes the integration of nature and wildlife into the places where people live, and makes natural experiences part of everyday life.  In the case of the Cuyahoga River, citizens and organizations lobbied to become one of 14 American Heritage Rivers that provided national recognition and enhanced community pride.  American Heritage Rivers promote environmental stewardship, encourage environmentally-sustainable economic development, and celebrate history.  In the case of the Rouge River, the lower river was designated part of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge – North America’s only International Wildlife Refuge.  This helped raise public awareness of the environmental improvements and subsequent ecological recovery, and helped enhance community pride throughout the region.  It also helped support additional restoration work needed to meet long-term goals.

Oil pollution on the Buffalo River in 1967 (photo credit: Buffalo State College Courier-Express Collection)
Again, knowledge and attitude about these four urban rivers have changed.  Just think that at one time river fires and gross oil pollution were viewed merely as the cost of doing business.  Today, urban riverfronts are seen as magical places where the water meets the land and people can reconnect with their watershed ecosystem.  Clearly, during the second industrial revolution most communities made rivers their backdoor.  Simply put, we need to look at rivers, not away from them.  We need public access to reconnect people to rivers.  Experience has shown that creating waterfront vistas, reintroducing watershed residents to river history and geography, establishing unique conservation places linked by greenways and blueways (i.e. canoe and kayak trails), promoting ecotourism, and championing green developments founded on a “sense of place” build the political base for watershed preservation and restoration.

Current public use along the Buffalo River (photo credit: Bill Jedlicka)
We also need to continue to: develop river champions to sustain these locally-driven, watershed processes; invest in watershed management as a priority; and increase broad-based education on how to become a conserver society and live sustainably.  As a society, our next great challenge will be to learn to live sustainably. 

What do you think it will take for us as a society to learn to live sustainably in urban areas? 

What can we do as a society to better take advantage of this changing perception of urban rivers to meet the sustainability challenge in urban areas?

58 comments:

Joe Starinchak said...

For us a society to live sustainably in urban areas, I believe it is important for us to value the environment. Currently that is not the case. Our society is dominated by a "more is not enough - don't want it throw it away" mentality. This need to change and I believe part of how this can change is by monetizing these resources and enabling people to invest. The bottom line, we need to things differently, because what we are doing now is not working.

Rick Johnstone said...

John, great article on the river restorations and it was a privilege to have worked with you in restoring native habitat to Humbug Marsh of DRIWR. The more we can join new technology from industry (such as new herbicides that target non-native invasive plants) with ecosystem restoration projects, the faster we can realize the successes you champion.

John Bradburn said...

John, Most people would agree an educators success is measured by how they impact the future. As a former student, your mentorship in sustainable activites was an important aspect in my development as an environmental professional. I continue to be impressed with your work and appreciate those efforts to protect and enhance our ecosystems.

John Hartig said...

Joe, I agree. Most people see themselves as separate from the environment. We need to get them to understand that they are part of an ecosystem and what they do to the ecosystem they do to themselves. We need a strong push for education and for valuation of resources.

Daryl M. Pierson said...

John:

Burning Rivers is an outstanding contribution that stimulates important dialogue on how areas surrounding the four documented rivers move forward from their current status to realize a sustainable future. It’s important to note the stakeholder collectives that have been engaged in the well-being of these water bodies. The Chicago Wilderness alliance shows a good example of the benefits realized by an engaged community. The local lobbying for the Cuyahoga River to be designated as an American Heritage River exemplifies the type of important effort it takes for a community to become true stewards of their local environs. In addition, the designation of the lower Rouge River as part of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge speaks volumes of how much this river has recovered. These types of actions are vital to the sustainability of these rivers as well as rivers in other urban areas by bringing stakeholders, community residents and local governments together to act in the best interests of the long-term preservation of these urban rivers and watersheds. This engaged approach provides an important model for urban communities to meet the sustainability challenges of today and tomorrow. But, it doesn’t stop there.

A sustainable future can only be attained through the development of future leaders, scientists, and, importantly, an environmentally conscious citizenry. The environment has to be a part of our daily considerations. This happens through education. Education on these important issues must begin at a young age and continue through higher education. The understanding that our planet has finite resources should be a basic foundation. We also have to underscore the necessity of environmental stewardship and that individual efforts matter. By educating our communities on environmental issues, we will develop the next generation to continue the efforts of protecting our rivers and watersheds. Not to mention, we will better prepare those generations to be environmentally-friendly innovators of opportunities that will help achieve a sustainable future.

John Hartig said...

Daryl, I agree that education is the key, beginning at a young age and continuing through adults. The goal is an environmentally conscious citizenry. How do we weave sustainable development through educational curricula and life-long learning? What will it take to make this a priority?

tembokangatours said...

Having lived in Kenya now for six months, I have been able to experience two lifestyles: rural life; and, urban life in Nairobi. The contrast, as you might imagine, is stark. At the country homestead, there is no garbage collection with trucks coming around to houses to pick up trash. Additionally, since you are far from large stores, rural dwellers develop frugality and do not readily discard items, like broken mirror shards, plastic bags, boxes, bottles, etc...and I use the term, "discard," not "throw away," because there really is no such thing as throwing something away since it only lands on your soil and is still there should you toss it to the ground. Things would get pretty unsightly and potentially hazardous should garbage pile up on one's property. However, there is still the inevitable waste that comes from purchasing items from stores on occasion; so, the garbage that cannot be recycled or reused is either burned or tossed into a deep pit dug for the purpose of garbage disposal. If I had to guess, I would say about one Hefty garbage bag of waste is burned or buried every two months here in the farmlands of Kenya. Many who are living more impoverished lives produce considerably less waste. All organic materials go to livestock or pets, or back into the soil for decomposition.
Contrast this now with Nairobi, where we have our company's office/apartment. There are no livestock or pets to which organic wastes can be fed, and there is no "soil" that one owns upon which this "waste" can be deposited for decomposition. Much more food is store bought, and therefore packaged, so this packaging ends up in the garbage. There is not much space in the typically small Nairobi apartment, so there is not much room for storing "stuff," which subsequently gets pitched into the trash. And, as of now, there is no separation of recyclable/compostable items from those that are not, because there is no service or recycling centers to haul the material to. And, of course, the trucks come around twice a week to collect the trash, so it is made easy to waste since all you have to do is pack up your trash and place it out for the truck to haul away, and then repeat the cycle each week. So, which lifestyle is teaching conservation and sustainability, even if out of necessity? Which is fostering wastefulness? I'm sure that this example is not unique to Kenya.
I see the movement in Detroit to create urban farms, and green design, as a start toward reconnecting urban dwellers with the sustainable cycles of Earth. Schools across America (and the world) should become models of sustainable living, teaching youth about the technologies and techniques for living sustainably. With solar, wind and geothermal technologies now available, biofuels for running buses, school gardens, as well as recycling programs, use of "green" building materials and implementation of energy efficient designs, and all manner of information available at one's fingertips relating to sustainable living, schools can be the leaders, along with government financial backing, of course, in developing the type of citizens who not only want "green" lifestyles, but demand this way of life.
When taught the health benefits of going green, and realizing the economic savings from this kind of lifestyle, not to mention the psychological satisfaction that comes from knowing one is not trashing the environment or contributing to planetary collapse, I believe most will readily engage themselves in this type of curriculum and life-long learning process of how to be exemplary stewards of the planet and their own living spaces. In fact, I know, as an educator, that most of these students will, at the end of their eco-schooling, be thankful for being taught how to live sustainably...These are the students who will redesign communities, because they have lived it in school and taught their parents to care and change; so, they will accept nothing less for themselves and their children as adults.

John Hartig said...

Tembokangatours, Well said. Sustainable development education that includes a conservation ethic is essential. We need an informed citizenry and this has to start with our youth. Major urban areas like Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, and Buffalo should be viewed as opportunities to teach, demonstrate, and practice sustainable living and conservation.

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