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American Society of Landscape Architects


October 2007 Issue

Let the River Run
The New York City Parks Department and community activists take their Bronx River work beyond cleanup.

By Linda McIntyre

Let the River Run

There’s more to the Bronx than the zoo, the Yankees, and hip-hop music. A river runs through the borough, and years of cleanup efforts by community groups working with the New York City Parks Department and other agencies have made enormous progress toward realizing the river’s potential. After a recent project to restore more than eight acres of the floodplain in the Bronx River Forest, a remnant of old-growth hardwood forest tucked between a cluster of ball fields and the Bronx River Parkway, New Yorkers and visitors can find a bracing bit of native wilderness without leaving the five boroughs.

The Bronx River, the only freshwater river in New York City, flows south for about 23 miles through suburban Westchester County and the parkland and urban neighborhoods of the Bronx into the East River. In the 19th and 20th centuries it weathered the same challenges as other urban rivers in the northeast. Industrial activity in the river valley accelerated with the construction of the New York Central Railroad. The river was dammed and some of its water diverted to supplement the city water supply.

Construction of the Bronx River Parkway and other infrastructure projects straightened part of the river channel and altered the natural streambanks and floodplain.

By the early 1970s the Bronx River’s watershed was essentially fully developed, and the river was paying the price for the development. Waste and runoff from the growing urban and suburban population degraded water quality. “Open sewer” was a common description in news reports; a 1971 New York Times story bore the headline “Bronx River Channel: An Urban Junkyard.”

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