The Passaic River: A postindustrial river reimagined
By Jeff Byles
July 7, 2015
On its 80-plus-mile meander through northern New Jersey, the Passaic River flows past the Great Swamp, alive with screech owls and blue-winged warblers; pours over Paterson’s glorious Great Falls, amid ruins of renowned textile mills; and empties into Newark Bay, near one of the largest environmental cleanups of a river ever attempted. By turns serene and so polluted that poet William Carlos Williams deemed it “the vilest swillhole in Christendom,” the Passaic River is a riddle: How can this waterway, with its unique industrial history, become a catalyst for natural, cultural, and economic renewal?
Between the placid upper river and the fouled banks below stand the Great Falls, a fulcrum around which the region’s future revolves. They embody America’s advent as an industrial nation. And now they are the heart of the new Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park, a lifeline for a city long bedeviled by industrial collapse. The Passaic’s path through Paterson thus offers a poignant case study in new ways of thinking about nature’s power in urban places. Like other rivers being reclaimed from Los Angeles to Moscow, the Passaic shows how urban design strategies, innovative infrastructure, and a region-scaled vision can drive a distressed city’s social and ecological resurgence.
Paterson’s outdoor living room
Past barbed-wire and chain-link barricades — seemingly the Passaic River’s default edge condition — you’ll find a world apart from Paterson’s all-too-often bleak streets. Cardinals chatter amid stands of white oak, sycamore, and bigtooth aspen, while the river burbles by below. For a city sorely in need of meaningful community connections, this underappreciated river is an obvious spot to start weaving new networks of life into the urban fabric.
The Passaic River’s path through Paterson offers a poignant case study in new ways of thinking about nature’s power in urban places.
In 2008, a two-year-long masterplan process led by James Corner Field Operations offered a blueprint for the Passaic River’s rebirth as a community asset. A 42-acre sequence of landscapes and “outdoor living rooms” would consolidate the city’s core historic zone, threading visitors through a series of looping paths embarking from celebratory gateways in place of what are today desultory approaches to the Falls and their environs. Tree bosques, gardens, and performance spaces are interspersed among industrial ruins; cantilevered balconies provide overlooks above the river; a suspended staircase allows close-up access to the onrushing falls; and a pedestrian footbridge swoops over the Passaic. Along the way, open-air learning stations would explore geology, ecology, and the river’s hydrologic engineering, while cycling, kayaking, fishing, rock climbing, and ecology trails would offer recreational opportunities. Particularly among the cliff-lined Valley of the Rocks, the plan aimed to preserve the site’s “melancholic” and “found” qualities, offering visitors a thrill of discovery in the heart of the city.
How to extend this vision of riverfront rebirth into the urban landscape? That can be achieved via what is arguably Paterson’s most distinctive historic asset: its raceway system, a national civil and mechanical engineering landmark. First envisioned by Pierre L’Enfant (the celebrated urban designer of Washington DC) and later developed by Peter Colt, the sandstone-lined network is said to be the first in America to pool investors’ wealth in the quest to harness water power for canalside factories. With its earliest sections dating to 1792, the tiered network of canals, weirs, sluices, and spillways delivered water to an intricate sequence of mill sites before flowing back into the Passaic. Gradually abandoned as mills converted to more reliable steam and electric power, the raceway system remains a remnant of the visionary idea that Paterson’s industrial growth represented. Though portions of the system have been rehabilitated, the raceways have been dry for years due to concerns about leakage and flooding into nearby properties. Their story remains sadly — and tantalizingly — untold.
Any visitor to the well-preserved waterways of Lowell, Massachusetts, can testify to the animating energy of a revived water network. Like Paterson, Lowell was once a thriving hub of early American textile technology; today, it’s an oft-cited success story in heritage-driven economic renewal. Its nearly 6-mile-long system of power canals has evolved as a central educational and recreational resource of Lowell National Historical Park, established in 1978. Following decades of rejuvenation, the canals are the basis of an urban trail system with themed walking tours exploring Lowell’s mill complexes, industrial and ethnic history, and mixed-use redevelopment. Notably, by upgrading streetscapes and providing better links to adjoining residential districts, Lowell has turned its canals and their waterfront walkways into pivotal tools in the city’s block-by-block revitalization.
Greening the neighborhood
Such examples show how the Passaic River and its adjoining landscapes can fuel positive social and ecological change. Another set of strategies draws this idea still further into neighborhoods across the city, with the ultimate goal of solving a longstanding environmental problem. Paterson is one of 21 municipalities in New Jersey with combined stormwater and sanitary sewer systems, together dumping seven billion gallons of untreated sewage into state waterways in a phenomenon known as combined sewer overflow. Communities like Paterson now find themselves under a state mandate to reduce stormwater pollution — and in desperate need of innovative solutions.
Many cities have turned to green infrastructure as a powerful set of tools to meet pollution targets. Simply put, green infrastructure replaces hard, impervious pavement with features such as trees, permeable pavement, rain gardens, constructed wetlands, and bioswales that keep stormwater out of the combined sewer system. Passaic County planners have encouraged the use of “complete streets” with such enhancements, which have been shown to have measurable environmental benefits. In New York City, itself under a consent order to reduce pollution discharges into local waterways, the Department of Environmental Protection recently analyzed three neighborhood-scale green infrastructure projects in Bushwick, East New York, and Edenwald, where 70 bioswales and other green elements were found to reduce stormwater runoff by more than 20%. The data have fueled the city’s aggressive expansion of such projects, with 1,300 bioswales under construction and thousands more envisioned as part of a 15-year, $2.4b green infrastructure plan.
Green infrastructure has been shown to reduce stormwater runoff by more than 20%.
According to Vincent Lee, associate principal at Arup and an infrastructure specialist, compared to traditional water-supply approaches, green infrastructure can offer significantly more benefits to lower-income communities that might not otherwise see major public-space investments. Especially in a city like Paterson, which has begun reclaiming derelict waterfront property for a variety of new uses, linking green infrastructure with bike-friendly greenway corridors in low-lying riverfront areas could kick-start public-spirited redevelopment while providing flood protection and cleaning up the river. “Green infrastructure has multiple benefits,” Lee said in an interview. “If they just went in and built a tunnel, aside from reducing combined sewer overflows, it is a one-solution-one-benefit strategy rather than a one-solution-multiple-benefits strategy. It benefits really nobody compared to green infrastructure.”
Indeed, as Arup researchers note in the 2014 report Cities Alive, using nature as an urban design driver can make a range of social, economic, and environmental impacts. The most courageous interventions can boost social cohesion, improve mental and physical health, increase property values, and lower crime, along with bringing wide-ranging ecological benefits such as healthier urban microclimates, reduced pollution, and increased biodiversity. The public health impacts can be far-reaching. In Copenhagen, public space investments have been directly linked to a 65% rise in the number of cyclists and a drop in automotive traffic, while a Texas study found that planting street trees along urban highways helped calm traffic and cut crash rates. Green stormwater strategies, Lee noted, can also be far less expensive than retrofitting gray stormwater infrastructure to comply with water-quality mandates. “From a water authority’s perspective, they may not be able to achieve all of their targets by going green, but they will realize a cost savings,” he said. “Cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Portland are finding it is more cost-effective.”
Environmental transformation can often have a paradoxical effect: Creating new green spaces in park-starved urban neighborhoods can spark waves of “eco-gentrification,” leading to rising housing costs and displacing residents to park-poor districts elsewhere. In a 2014 research paper on urban green space and environmental justice, scholars suggest that one antidote to such displacement is developing new public spaces that are “just green enough,” reclaiming green space and cleaning up toxic sites while protecting industrial uses and working-class jobs.
Citing the Brooklyn community of Greenpoint as a case study, the researchers note that toxic land around Newtown Creek was remediated and access to the creek restored, with public spaces sensitively interwoven among a still heavily industrialized district. Such approaches require bottom-up community activism to focus planning efforts on human health and job creation, rather than on sweeping urban design schemes. Indeed, the report concludes, a series of scattered, small-scale interventions at underutilized sites can weave ecological functions back into the city — equitably distributing access to nature — while avoiding the concentration of green investment that can kick-start gentrification. (Alas, parts of Greenpoint have gentrified rapidly in recent years despite successful efforts to tame park-driven displacement.)
One fruitful approach for Paterson can be found in landscape architect Alison Duncan’s vision for a series of public gardens that reflect the rich heritage of postindustrial textile cities. Originally prototyped as a cotton garden in Lowell, Duncan’s “Textile Gardens” are envisioned as a network of community-tended gardens based on textile cultivation and production processes of both traditional and experimental natures. Through the development of partnerships with state and city agencies, private institutions, and local community groups, urban sites such as vacant lands, schoolyards, canalways, and other underutilized spaces can be captured for new open space. Plants like indigo, lavender, milkweed, Hopi dye sunflower, and others whose fibers and dyes contribute to textile production could be cultivated, on either a temporary or a permanent basis, in themed installations such as a “Dye Garden,” a “Field of Flax,” and a “Rug and Rope Garden.”
Through the development of partnerships… underutilized spaces can be captured for new open space.
Such productive green spaces would beautify the city while educating residents and tourists about its illustrious and industrial past. Job training and other economic opportunities could be sparked through the production and sale of goods based on natural fibers and dyes, turning Paterson into a test bed for 21st-century textile innovation. Resonant with broader themes of urban sustainability and ecology, “Textile Gardens” offer a modestly scaled, community-minded model that balances environmental equity and social justice.
In Paterson, a key opportunity for such a multipronged strategy can be found in a small island downstream from the Great Falls known as SUM Island, a reference to Paterson’s early development by the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures. Currently occupied by a furniture firm, the island is a hugely underutilized social and ecological resource. Among many useful recommendations, a 2009 community vision plan for the Great Falls district called for reinventing SUM Island as a model for sustainable urban agriculture. Envisioned as a “continuous productive landscape” of community gardens, food-production facilities, and an environmental and horticultural learning center, the island thus serves as a linchpin between the “outdoor living rooms” of the Great Falls and future civic-minded development downstream. Activated by nearby footbridges, promenades, and kayak launches, this new community focal point would be an exemplary integration of ecological, economic, and cultural assets.
From concrete canyon to regional catalyst
As powerful as they can be, locally calibrated initiatives clearly benefit from a broad-minded vision. Take the Los Angeles River, the “trench entombed in cement” that has become an unlikely case study in urban river reinvention. Through the persistent efforts of community visionaries and kayak-toting activists, the LA River has been reenvisioned as the heart of the city’s cultural and ecological renewal. Under a 2007 revitalization masterplan, the city has embraced a 25-year blueprint that tackles multiple urban challenges: it preserves the river’s flood-control function while greening the city through new parks, paseos, and cycling paths; sparks brownfield reinvestment and “eco-industrial” development; and knits long-cleaved communities back together. Last year, the Army Corps of Engineers signed off on an ambitious, $1b plan to restore an initial 11-mile stretch. Civic momentum for the long-running effort has been kept alive through inventive urban games, performances, and other actions that inspire citizens to think afresh about the river’s power and potential. Key to the plan’s success is its embrace of the 32 river miles that flow through Los Angeles as a watershed-scale chance to think boldly about a region’s aspirations.
In northern New Jersey, that same ambition has been brewing in the form of a state-spanning trail system that could bring new life to dozens of communities whose industrial growth echoed Paterson’s in the 19th century. Heritage advocates, community groups, and county planners have focused on the potential of the defunct Morris Canal, an engineering marvel of lift locks and inclined planes that stretched 102 miles between the Delaware and Hudson Rivers. Built to carry Pennsylvania coal to the eastern seaboard, the famed “mountain climbing canal” opened in 1831 and injected industrial life into towns across the state. A stakeholder coalition has begun creating a public greenway along the canal’s former route — including a portion that passes through Paterson — which could recharge communities through integrated social, environmental, and economic activity. This worthy initiative dovetails with a proposal by Paterson advocates to create a “land bridge” to Garret Mountain Reservation, a trail-traversed oasis above the city, connecting in turn to a regional park system and the natural treasures of the New Jersey Highlands — another link in the region’s growing open-space network.
Paterson was pioneered in 1791 due to a convergence of geographic and environmental forces — the mill-powering Great Falls and their advantageous location in a regional economic network. Today, a new convergence of environmental opportunities offers a pathway to remake Paterson as a 21st-century city. Whether a “green revolution” takes root here will likely hinge on whether citizens feel they have a stake in the city’s reinvention. According to the Cities Alive report, the most lasting community impacts can be made when citizens are empowered as agents of change. Education, literacy in the built environment, and user-driven design, the researchers found, are crucial factors determining whether a project will make a long-term difference in community well-being.
From its earliest years, Paterson has not often distinguished itself as a place where citizens felt a strong sense of connection to their natural resources, their economy, their government, and their neighbors. It would only be fitting if, in reclaiming the Passaic River as their own, the people of Paterson found a future.