Migratory Lands Demonstration Project


Emily Chen, Student ASLA | Graduate | Faculty Advisor: Kees Lokman | Washington University in St. Louis | St. Louis, MO


We live in a world where most of our greatest waterways are highly engineered for human use, but problems of flooding and environmental degradation have prompted cities to start to rethink the ways we build and live along our rivers. Alton is a small post-industrial city that sits at the edge of one of these great rivers, right above the confluence where three continental rivers (Mississippi, Missouri, Illinois) come together. Its strategic location next to a dam, dramatic topography of bluff and river, and distinctive urban, agricultural, and wildlife refuge land uses make the Alton region an ideal place to test different methods of land and water interaction. As Alton transitions from a post-industrial town to a strong historic and tourist attraction, these landscapes can strengthen these networks, provide new experiences for people, and provide insight on how to build more resiliently along our rivers.
There is a seasonality to the networks in Alton - bird migration, tourism, fall colors, and even the agricultural industry follow distinctive cycles throughout the year. This proposal builds upon the existing system of levees, adding canals, basins, and islands, to link the seasonal cycles of these programs to the river pulse. The land is allowed to be flooded, and as the river ebbs and flows, new landscapes are revealed that can be colonized for use.


This project was inspired by the Audoban Riverlands bird sanctuary, located directly across the Mississippi from Alton, and a main contributor to tourism in the area. It was originally an Army Corp demonstration project that sought to take agricultural land and convert it to wetlands and bird nesting habitat. Because the Mississippi River is a working river and there were flooding concerns, the flow of water in and out of the sanctuary is actually a gravity fed system carefully regulated by a series of gates and levees. The combination of careful control to build a “natural” environment was an interesting thought, and it seems there is potential to explore these combinations of natural and controlled systems to build natural and controlled environments, not just for birds, but people.

The city of Alton exists mostly on the bluffs of the river, but the Alton riverfront in the floodplain is largely undeveloped land that was historically used for heavy industry. A levee protects the land, but issues of flooding are not rare. With more extreme levels of flood and drought in recent years, research is needed on other ways to build with the rivers.

Research was done in the region, analyzing topography, water flow, land use, and infrastructure to determine prototypical landscapes in the region that would suit a demonstration project. We had a meeting with stakeholders to see what kind of issues were important to the city in their future development. We looked at demographic shifts in the area, what networks were working well (greenways, bird migration, and historical and eco-tourism) and how water infrastructure could link all these networks and create new experiences for people. Once the concept was developed, research was done into different types of systems of water management, and the ecology of materials and sediment.

"Love these ideas and they are beautifully rendered. Liked how they structured presentation: heaviness of diagrams coupled with lightness of little vignettes. The plans are graphically beautiful. This could be huge for that community because it floods frequently."

- 2014 Awards Jury



Karl Kullman coined the terms, "thin parks" and "thick edges," in his autumn 2011 article in Journal of Landscape Architecture
Lee Cain, Anacostia Watershed Society
Gail Lowe and Katrina Lashley, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution
John Nichols, Anacostia resident and historian
Lisa Pelstring, Advisor to the Urban Environmental Issues and the Anacosita Watershed, Office of the Deputy Secretary and America's Great Outdoors