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American Society of Landscape Architects


February 2004 Issue

A River Runs Through It…Again
Over the grave of St. Louis's buried river, an artificial waterway is born.
By George Hazelrigg

A River Runs Through It…Again Photograph by Scott R. Avetta

The world flocked to Forest Park in St. Louis when it hosted the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904. But by the 1980s, inadequate maintenance, uncoordinated development, and neglect of the natural systems had left this 1,370-acre urban park a raggedy target for vandals. For many people in St. Louis, an experience in Forest Park had become a drive to a recreational or cultural destination within the vast interior and then a quick retreat home; casual visitors avoided some areas entirely.

In 1993, newly elected Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. obtained voter support for a half-cent sales-tax increase to benefit city parks, with half of the proceeds going to Forest Park, by far the largest of the city's 105 municipal parks. Hundreds turned out for Bosley's year-end, three-day summit to chart Forest Park's future. Two years later, after extended consultation with community groups, park users, and technical experts, a committee of 67 members submitted a master plan for Forest Park, and the city approved it..

The planners recognized that the River des Peres and its surrounding bottomlands, bluffs, and upland areas historically defined the park's spatial character. "It was all about water and how people go to the river," says John Hoal, who, as urban design director for the St. Louis Development Corporation, headed the team that shepherded the two-year master-planning process. The only problem was that the River des Peres was an underground phantom, having been channeled into large underground sewer pipes.

The solution was to create a replacement. The major design element in the master plan became an open space spine that generally follows the river's original watercourse. This linear, interconnected (and largely artificial) water system is the armature for integrating the park's major cultural institutions, park facilities, areas for organized recreation, and natural systems. The plan—the River Returns project—calls for re-creating the riverine environment and reestablishing corridors for people and for wildlife to move through.

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