On Down to the Platte

The taming of an urban waterway.

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For the longest time, I have been seeing wire cages around the trees that line many of the waterways here in Denver. From the ground up to about four feet, there’s a steel grid wrapped around most of the trees that are less than about two feet in diameter. Newly planted saplings come standard with this jewelry. I never knew what the grids were for until I happened upon one particular tree that evidently didn’t have a cage. This tree had been felled. It was clearly the work of an animal, probably a beaver. I had seen a beaver or two swimming in a nearby lake but I wouldn’t have guessed that they were so problematic as to require the placement of cages around the trees.

This begins to get philosophically tricky when I notice that the context of the felled tree and many of its caged cousins is a small waterway called Lakewood Gulch, situated along a greenbelt in my neck of the urban jungle. This gulch once had a rail line next to it, only to have that torn out and replaced with a new one, this time in the form of a light rail corridor. Houses are fairly close to the gulch in some areas and many others are set back from its meandering course. But a wild watercourse this is not. Not anymore.

The domestication of Lakewood Gulch explains all the erosion control structures placed at intervals along the little creek. Stones set into concrete are the most popular, but there are more sculptural and structural concrete forms that have been appearing since construction of the light rail line began. The banks have giant boulders set in place, presumably to guard against bank erosion. Small dams and other structures are built to slow the flow of water. (Those of you who are civil-engineering minded would probably call them “drop structures”.) Giant slabs of precast concrete stand guard at the side of the tracks. The entirety of the earth-, concrete-, and stoneworks are in place because we don’t want Lakewood Gulch to change. We’ve employed many skilled workers for many hundreds of hours so that they can engineer and introduce a system of watercourse control that will keep the little stream from scouring its sides and bottom. Those people are trying to ensure that no matter how much water flows down to the South Platte River through our little gulch, storm after gully-washing storm, the banks will always be where we cemented them. The South Platte itself is the recipient not only of all the gulch’s water, but even more incredible amounts of effort to control the effects of flooding, erosion, and sedimentation. The ultimate example of all this expenditure, the stop at the bottom of the slippery slope is the L.A. River as we know it from pop culture: a glorified drainage ditch, concrete from port to starboard, head to mouth.

A much less expensive and more industrious type of worker was already trying to do this for us. The beavers build dams. They cut down trees and obstruct the flow of water enough that erosion control becomes unnecessary. The banks of the waterway are free to move and change as a living waterway should. Yet here we are, putting up wire mesh around trees just to enslave ourselves to an engineering project that never really needed to be undertaken. Somebody needs to do the beavers’ work in the end.

Then we start building right on top of the damned gulch. We put rail lines right next to its course, since most of the time the grades are gentle enough for trains to handle. Because water looks and sounds nice, people sometimes decide to live right upon its banks. We want all the advantages that the gulch provides without any of the disadvantages: heavy rains leading to short-term flooding; bank and channel erosion that changes the course and character of the water’s flow; beaver dams breaking under high water or from lack of maintenance by the critters. Then there’s the trash that builds up everywhere near the water. For some reason we can’t figure out how to keep our trash from blowing all over the county with every wind storm. If anything should happen to our heedlessly-built waterfront domicile, we naturally see that as a failing of the local government to effectively ensure our protection. Blame the Corps of Engineers for failing levees that flooded sub-sea level New Orleans? Of course! If we should actually question our desire to build in such precarious and mercurial places, we’d probably be forced to change our actions.

Can anyone else see that this is silly? Wipe my sarcasm from the page and notice the degree of foolishness represented here in Denver and in your neck of the woods. Why not just let the beavers do their thing, stop building so close to the stream, and let the waters run as they will? Is it really too much to ask people to just stop trying to act like they need to control every last thing that doesn’t act according to human plan?

It might actually be. Asking such a thing means that people need to change some fundamental beliefs they have about their world. It forces us to deal head-on with the value of a rail line versus the value of a waterway. Most of the time that comparison is made using dollars, and not finding things in Lakewood Gulch that can be converted to dollars (excepting the valuable pieces of trash that make their way there) just led to a victory by default for the rail line. After all, it’s not money that flows down the gulch, it’s “wastewater”. It’s runoff that must be accounted for in an engineering plan. It’s a problem of urban design to be solved using the clever application of mathematics and industrial infrastructure.

But why build the light rail line there anyway? If the goal is actually to put people on trains and alleviate road congestion, then we probably should have used one of the many roads that run parallel to the rail line, closed a pair of lanes, and built the tracks right along an already established transportation corridor: no additional impacts, no new construction blighting an already fragile waterway. Paradoxically enough, building down the middle of an existing road is probably statistically safer than installing the many grade crossings that now must be built to handle all of the places where trains and cars will meet. Portland and Salt Lake City both feature light rail systems that safely share streets with traffic.

Yes, we’d be forcing people to adapt to an avenue with two lanes instead of four. Yes, driving would initially become more difficult along that street, requiring people to find alternate routes. But we already force people to adapt to a world that practically requires us to use cars. The walks along many of the parallel streets in question are disturbingly close to traffic, the streetscape is aesthetically abhorrent, and it seems as though every effort has been made to actually discourage people from walking anywhere short of posting “No Trespassing” signs like those found on the highways of our country. People can take the buses, but even those vehicles suffer the indignity of sitting in traffic created by the much greater numbers of automobiles plugging up most bus routes. Even right here in Denver, light rail lines have already been constructed by removing lanes of traffic, and in the very center of the city of all places. I’d hate to have been here to read all the nasty letters written when that was being proposed, and yet it functions perfectly, small bumps with careless pedestrians and motorists nothwithstanding. We have adapted.

My discrepancy is not merely with the placement of the new light rail corridor. After all, it is a far superior choice to the cars that we’ve been choosing. I find it poetic that it uses an old trolley car right-of-way. However, I wonder why we are still perpetuating the I-need-to-be transported-everywhere myth. If I need to go somewhere, a train is better than a bus is better than a car on many measures. Walking is best of all. Walking is healthy and natural. Most of us come equipped with the necessary gear to use it as transportation. We are still scattering ourselves so far apart that something like a train or a car is required to move us where we need to go in anything like a reasonable amount of time. We often take so much with us that cargo capacity becomes an important consideration. My little family has many rental van miles behind it.

We’ve dedicated ourselves to an ideal that prescribes these things. This ideal separates humanity from the rest of the world and leads us to believe that we are superior; that everything else is naught but resources. If we can’t harvest it, run it through a factory, and produce a product recognizable to the ideal as useful, then it is waste. That big, wide, separate world out there is useless unless it can be made to serve us directly. The idea that something like a waterway has intrinsic value just by being itself is left to the environmentalist zealots and activist psychopaths. Suggesting that we back off and leave it alone is heresy. Suggesting that we walk and only take what we can carry is often interpreted as some bizarre restriction of personal freedom. So we keep transporting ourselves to and fro, using trains, buses, and automobiles because that seems to fit the ideal, or maybe because we just want to take our favorite things with us. Sometimes we build roads and railways near waterways. Then the engineers and designers come in.

I can’t really take issue with those engineers and designers: they need to make a living somehow, and some people are just born engineers and designers, like beavers. I take issue with the fact that Lakewood Gulch has no intrinsic value until we step in and fiddle with it. A disc golf course, or a biking trail, a sod activity field, a drop structure, or some other type of domestication must be dropped onto this wild waterway before we figure out what to do with it. Not only this, but our fiddling just ensures an endless string of “improvements” and repairs to existing structures in order for the greenbelt to be “safe” and enjoyable: endless domestication that keeps us busy as…rodents. Our efforts and public resources are poured in, flowing down to the Platte along with the rest of the trash and the cuttings left by our industrious little beavers.

But at least the stream banks aren’t eroding.

Author: Hontz

I am the best author you have ever read. There is absolutely no chance that after reading my blog, you will think, "What an absolute weirdo."

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