GOOD Ideas for Cities: Promoting Activity on an Urban River

Richmond, Virginia is planning a revitalization of its riverfront. How can the city ensure that economic and cultural development also happens there?


In Richmond, Virginia, a massive revitalization plan has been announced for its James River, which will bring new parks, walking trails, and public spaces to the downtown riverfront. But how can the city ensure that economic and community activity—people, in other words—also come to the river? At GOOD Ideas for Cities RVA, the James RVA team revealed their plan to encourage, share, and promote activities along the river, making it a social and cultural destination for the city. By giving the river an online personality, James RVA, the team hoped to create a social media presence for the river, one that you could friend on Facebook or tag on Instagram. A website and app would collect and map references to the river, creating a vibrant picture of what was happening there. A program with local businesses would also encourage development with incentives to create river-themed tours, retail, or pop-up eateries that could bring economic growth to the area.

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The Next Generation of Renewable Energy May Be Created Under Water

When reporters, politicians, and environmental advocates talk about renewable energy, they talk about wind and solar. This makes sense: Of the...

When reporters, politicians, and environmental advocates talk about renewable energy, they talk about wind and solar. This makes sense: Of the newer generation of renewables, wind is contributing the lion's share of electricity generation. California’s wind energy association just announced that 5 percent of California’s power now comes from wind farms. Solar plants still provide only a tiny slice of energy, but last year, with prices dropping, the industry was booming.

But renewable energy includes another force of nature: water. Hydropower projects—in other words, dams—account for the majority of the country’s renewable energy generation, but because they're old and unexciting, they’re squeezed out of accounts of renewable energy’s triumphant climb. Tidal power, though, fits right in with wind and solar: A new Department of Energy report calls it "one of the fastest-growing emerging technologies in the renewable sector,” which means that, like solar, it’s small, but appears to have nearly boundless potential. Together, conventional hydropower, tidal and wave power, and other water-powered resources could provide 15 percent of America’s electricity by 2030, the Department of Energy projects.

Tidal power is just beginning to emerge as a commercially viable source of power. Last week, a federal energy regulation agency granted the first-ever commercial license for a tidal power project, which will have a maximum of 30 turbines working under the surface of New York City’s East River. The agency has also issued 100 preliminary permits to projects in earlier stages.

Theoretically, tidal wave power could generate enough electricity to cover one-third of the country’s electricity needs, according to the Department of Energy report. In reality, turbines and other tidal and wave technologies can harness only about two-fifths of that power, but still, water projects could contribute a significant share of America’s power. Their potential is concentrated on coasts, of course. Alaska could generate the most power, followed by the west coast, the east coast, and Hawaii, with the Gulf Coast and Puerto Rico far behind. The list of favorable sites includes some of the country’s most iconic bodies of water: In addition to the East River, they include Seattle’s Puget Sound, the San Francisco Bay, the Florida Keys, and the Nantucket Sound.

Tidal and wave power do carry some environmental concerns: Early projects are studying how turbines affect fish, for instance. But because these projects live under the water, they could avoid complaints like those that dogged the offshore Cape Wind project about ruining scenic vistas. The East River project has been running turbines on and off as part of a pilot project for years, and New Yorkers, a grumbly bunch, have yet to kick up a major fuss. Most people driving over the Queensboro bridge and gazing down at the river probably never guessed that a power station lies quietly beneath the water.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Thomas Claveirole

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Restoring Rivers Could Help Cool Cities

A new study shows that rivers help cool cities when they need it most, during the hottest hours of the warmest months.

Since losing their prominence as shipping corridors, the rivers runing through cities have not been a boon. They smell. They serve as sewage dumps. They overflow. They catch on fire. But rivers are staging a comeback. Cities are working to clean them up and build riverfront developments. At least one city is even planning on uncovering rivers that have been paved over.

Besides the recreational possibilities, urban rivers could provide another benefit to cities: cooling. But while city dwellers flock to the riverbank on a hot summer day, there’s been little research on how rivers' cooling effect works and what could be done to maximize its impact. But a new, multi-year study from the University of Sheffield in England shows that rivers help cool cities when they need it most, during the hottest hours of the warmer months.

The study is part of a larger project looking at urban river corridors and sustainability and a broader trend of considering how water and water management can help create low-energy cities. Because cities are full of hard surfaces that absorb heat and slough off water into drainage systems, they retain heat and are significantly warmer than the rural areas that surround them. More heat means more energy is needed to cool them down.

Water, of course, is very effective at cooling, and buildings and streets can be designed to take advantage of that feature. Parks are cooler than their surroundings in part because their ground absorbs more water. Collected rainwater can not only provide irrigation, it can cool buildings as it evaporates from rooftop storage ponds.

The study from the University of Sheffield shows that the cooling effects of rivers can spread well beyond their banks, particularly if the surrounding urban areas are well-designed. One type of development modeled in the study contained more open, green spaces, which allowed the cool temperatures of the river to bring down the temperature of the entire area. The river could have the biggest impact at the peak of afternoon heat, which could bring down air conditioning costs significantly.

Accepting that nature has a place in the city can help make cities thriving, dense communities. Turning vacant lots into green space can improve the health of the people who live around it and reduce violent crime in the neighborhood. Urban planners have always thought of rivers as resources. Now, instead of corridors for moving goods, they may become corridors for transporting light and air—the type of resources that too many cities have in short supply.

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