Two main ideas contend for how rivers should be treated as they flow through cities. One says they should be left as natural as possible, bordered by grass and trees and unobtrusive pathways. The other says they should be urbanized with paved walks, viewpoints and other urban amenities. Personally, I believe it depends on the area. Throughout most of their length, natural may be preferable, or at least as "natural" as a river flowing through a city can be, but there are always areas which almost demand to be more urbanized.
Some such areas are famous. For example, the River Walk in San Antonio, Texas, one of the most successful urban renewal projects in the United States. Or the banks of the Seine in Paris, declared a World Heritage Site.
In my own neighbourhood—the Mission District in Calgary—we recently worked with the City of Calgary to create a Promenade along a stretch of the Elbow River along 26th Avenue. Across the street from the river is a row of handsome, high-rise apartment buildings. The river side cried out for an urban treatment to create a balanced and harmonious streetscape. The Promenade now ties it all together with the Elbow River as theme. The riverbank itself was left natural and balances the landscaping in front of the highrises to nicely include a green aspect in the overall urban ensemble.
Calgary's other river, the Bow, is receiving a new urban treatment as well, through the East Village, a downtown area east of City Hall which is being completely revitalized. A kilometre of river bank through the Village has been designated the RiverWalk and splendidly laid out with broad walkways, rest areas, basalt steps down to the river, a plaza and viewpoints. According to Michael Brown, president of the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation, the City-created company in charge of revitalization, “RiverWalk was designed to be both a journey and a destination; creating
a gathering place for Calgarians unlike anywhere else in the city.”
The RiverWalk has now been nominated for an Urban Open Space Award by the Urban Land Institute (ULI). The ULI is a nonprofit research and education organization with members in 95 countries worldwide,
"representing the entire spectrum of land use and real estate development
disciplines working in private enterprise and public service." Calgary's RiverWalk is one of five finalists for the prize along with Highline Park and Pier 25 in New York City, Railroad Park in Birmingham, Alabama and Tanner Springs Park in
Portland, Oregon. Calgary has been honoured indeed.
The RiverWalk is a work in progress. Eventually it will extend four kilometres along the Bow and Elbow Rivers, linking up with other pathways and special areas. As an inveterate walker and a lover of my city's rivers, I hope to enjoy the RiverWalk for many strolls to come—as I do the Mission Promenade.