50 for the Future – Re-expose and restore buried rivers

Our recent publication, 50 for the Future, lists 50 things that we believe should happen in Scotland over the next 50 years to benefit both people and wildlife. In this week's 50 for the Future article, Jonny Hughes, the Scottish Wildlife Trust's Chief Executive, calls for the hidden waterways that run under Scotland's towns and cities to be re-exposed and restored.


Number 21: Re-expose and restore artificially-buried rivers and burns that run under Scotland's towns and cities.


The capital city of South Korea grew up like so many towns and cities around a reliable source of water. During the Joseon Dynasty the water flowing through what became modern day Seoul was known as Gaecheon which translates as ‘open stream’. In later years, during the Japanese colonial period, the name was changed to Cheonggyecheon which means ‘clean water stream’. By the late 1960s, new technologies for abstracting and treating water meant that the stream was no longer considered an asset to the city. In 1968, an elevated motorway was built over the, by now dry, riverbed (click here for image).

From the 1970s to the 1990s, the motorway brought tens of thousands of commuters into central Seoul daily. Air and noise pollution increased hugely and in the summer months, the temperature in the districts around the roads could be several degrees higher than other districts thanks to the so called ‘heat-island effect’ generated by acres of hot concrete. Businesses and people along the elevated motorway suffered and what was once considered a solution to a booming population was beginning to be viewed a serious liability.

The subsequent restoration of the Cheonggyecheon back to health is one of the most inspiring urban restoration projects in human history. By 2005, the elevated motorway had been removed and the ‘clean water stream’ was flowing once again. This had taken just 29 months.

Cheonggyecheon – the clean water stream once again.
© Jonny Hughes

I visited the Cheonggyecheon in 2012 while on holiday in South Korea. I knew about the project and probably had overly high expectations of the results of the restoration. On walking the stream for eight kilometres my expectations were actually surpassed. I found myself moved not just by the scale of the achievement, but also by a sense of profound hope that this project could be the forerunner of many more in the 21st century.

The cost of the transformation was a mere $281 million, quite a bargain for the benefits gained. Habitats and species long lost under tarmac and concrete have reappeared making it an urban wildlife haven. The number of cars entering downtown dropped by 2.3% as people switched to rail, bus and bike. The choking pollution has abated and there was an almost immediate 2-5°C reduction in summer temperatures. The people of Seoul love the place too. In 2005, even before it became the popular destination for picnics and cultural events it is now, a public survey showed respondents overwhelmingly noticed improvements in air and water quality, noise and smells. Businesses are booming once again along the stream sides and to cap it all, it has actually improved traffic congestion in the neighbouring streets.

Since the motorway's removal, the Cheonggyecheon has turned into an urban wildlife haven.
© Jonny Hughes

Why then. while Seoul was removing their failed motorway. were we in Scotland busy building the M74 extension through Glasgow? I think the answer lies in part in a lack of understanding that green infrastructure plays an equal or more important role in the social and economic regeneration of urban areas as grey infrastructure. Too often we design places by starting with the road layout rather than thinking about creating a great place to live and work. It is tragic that so many new communities in Scotland over the past 50 years have been designed for cars, not people. This often involves routing urban burns through pipes and culverts and then building roads and other infrastructure on top of them. Many of our urban watercourses have been lost in this way, exacerbating flooding, eroding our sense of place and connectedness to the natural world and destroying both histories and geographies in the process.

What if we respected the natural topography of cities and built with the grain of nature instead? Neighbourhoods would surely be more fascinating places to explore and live in if they retained wild remnants such as streams, patches of natural habitat and landscape features such as exposed rocks and steep slopes. They would also be less prone to flooding as the water within them would flow along natural lines, rather than being artificially piped, pumped and propelled underground. A neighbourhood so designed may not even need hard engineering solutions like some Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems – nature would do the job for the water engineers.

The Water of Leith through Edinburgh has escaped being buried underground and is a huge asset to the city as a result. 
© Brian MacLennan, Creative Commons Licence

The Scottish Wildlife Trust wants to go further than just introducing ‘nature-based solutions’ into new developments. This would of course be a great start, but most of Scotland’s infrastructure is already built so we also need to look towards recovering our lost, buried and abused urban burns. The first step should be an inventory to map and assess the feasibility of restoration. Paul Talling in his book London’s Lost Rivers has made exactly such an inventory for London. It could easily be done for Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen and beyond. The second step should be to re-expose several miles of burns to improve the quality of the environment and sense of place in our towns and cities.   

We might not be removing the M74 extension anytime soon, but Scotland certainly has its own versions of the Cheonggyecheon stream crying out to be rescued from being buried alive under concrete. The social and economic regeneration benefits of doing this are proven, what’s needed now is some ambition from our politicians and innovation from our engineers, planners, urban designers and ecologists. 

Let us know your thoughts by emailing thefuture@scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk or Tweet @ScotWildlife using #50fortheFuture.

Jonny Hughes is the Chief Executive of the Scottish Wildlife Trust


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In this week's 50 for the Future article, Jonny Hughes calls for the hidden waterways that run under Scotland's towns and cities to be re-exposed and restored.

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