26 Feb Beargrass Creek: An urban acupuncture opportunity
“It is truly a matter of how one looks at things – either as a problem or as an opportunity to do something creative.” (Jaime Lerner, 2014, p. 78)
On a brisk fall afternoon, cyclists glide by on a dedicated bike path while the sound of a shallow creek flowing over rocks mingles with the low hum of the city streets in the distance. Wandering along the waterway, a couple of joggers pass children on the bank, mesmerized by a tiny school of fish darting around the shadowed pools. The path continues in both directions out of sight around bends and lush tree canopies. Small bridges cross overhead connecting streets and pedestrian paths. The waterway is lined with balconied new residential developments taking advantage of the scenic amenity of the creek.
This is a vision that we, and many others over the years, have expressed about Beargrass Creek in Louisville, but the above narrative is based on an actual place in the heart of Denver along Cherry Creek (above), a tributary of the South Platte River. In fact, the dedicated bikeways and jogging paths continue on westward and join an amazing network of pedestrian and cycling amenities, parks and other facilities (see below) along the South Platte River that are transforming the waterways into a major catalyst for development. It is these types of sparks that Jaime Lerner describes as urban acupuncture, interventions that are creative and transformative beyond the scope of the initial project, freeing pressure points and healing an injured city.
This doesn’t have to be a story about another place, a Denver, San Antonio, or Indianapolis. Beargrass Creek can be an amazing amenity for Louisville. It can be a greenway connecting the river to neighborhoods and parks from Germantown and Cherokee Park to points possibly as far away as Hurstbourne Lane. We have the ability and creativity in our own community to turn a channelized, afterthought of an open sewer into an amazing economic development asset, thriving environmental habitat, and recreational thoroughfare.
Groups like Kentucky Waterways Alliance have been promoting these efforts and working on cleaning up our streams for a long time. Neighborhood organizations, urban advocates like Broken Sidewalk, and other groups have been offering up transformational ideas for Beargrass Creek for years, some as far back as the Cornerstone 2020 Parks and Open Space Master Plan of 1995 and certainly earlier. There are conversations going on right now to study the potential of utilizing the creek as a connector. Revitalizing and capitalizing on the underutilized asset that is Beargrass Creek could be the urban acupuncture intervention or “aqua-puncture” that creates the spark that transforms our city. As the quote that we started with states, the creek can be a problem, or an opportunity to do something amazing.
There are serious issues that need to be addressed regarding combined sewer overflows (CSOs) and there are land acquisition hurdles, an undertaking like this won’t be easy, but we aren’t putting enough effort into tackling this issue. Other cities are figuring these problems out and we can too. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, other communities are finding ways to tackle floodplain issues and CSOs that take cues from nature and are restoring wetlands and designing retention basins that not only serve as protection from flooding, but provide the connective tissue through urban parks and greenways.
A good example of this type of waterway reclamation can be found in Champaign, Illinois (see above) where they took a channelized creek that ran through the city, re-engineered it and created natural retention basins and other green features that ended up becoming a new amenity for the city. By doing this they not only are providing stormwater mitigation facilities, but developing greenspace and parks that are creating an attractive amenity that future development can build around. This particular project is called the Bone Creek Master Plan by HNTB. Here is a pdf for the plan.
We are not saying that the Bone Creek intervention can happen or is appropriate everywhere, but there have to be strategic locations along Beargrass Creek and even other waterways in our community, including ones that could be daylighted, that this type of intervention would not only be beneficial, but be a far better solution than simply diverting excessive water flow through channels and structured pumping tanks.
If you have ever had the chance to experience an urban waterway like Cherry Creek in Denver, you would never again be able to view Beargrass Creek without seeing its latent potential. Stop at any point along the channelized creek that flows under a street like Breckenridge (featured image), Broadway, or Baxter (above) and imagine the experience of riding a bike or walking along the creek on a dedicated cycling and jogging path, where the concrete walls have been minimized and replaced with a more natural bank with places to sit and take in the ecological wonder that pervades our built environment. The opportunities become even more apparent if you have ever had the opportunity to paddle into the creek from the Ohio River where the natural setting feels like you are miles from the hustle of the city (below).
We recognize that though Cherry Creek has a number of similarities to Beargrass Creek related to the dimensions of the creek and urban context, it does have at least one major difference that cannot be ignored. Cherry Creek is fed by the Cherry Creek Reservoir about 12 miles upstream. Having a control point and large source of water offers the opportunity to “flush” the creek, mitigating many of the water quality issues that face Beargrass Creek. Developing a way to improve the water quality is an essential component to re-establishing the wildlife corridor as well as the appeal of the creek as an amenity. But we need to work now towards protecting and developing a greenway along the creek as solutions to the water quality are figured out. The potential benefits of this form of urban acupuncture as an economic development catalyst, recreational amenity, vital connectivity asset, and environmentally sound initiative will ultimately outweigh the certain struggle and significant investment needed to reach Beargrass Creek’s potential and ultimately to improve the overall quality of place for Louisville.
Lerner, Jaime. (2014). Urban Acupuncture: Celebrating Pinpricks of Change that Enrich City Life. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2014.