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Restoring urban streams and the quality of life

Restoration of urban streams across the world are exciting and serve as a source of hope and inspiration while also adding greatly to the quality of life in local communities. This post is part of a special National Geographic news series on global water issues.  By Mark Angelo This past week, I worked with a large number of...

Restoration of urban streams across the world are exciting and serve as a source of hope and inspiration while also adding greatly to the quality of life in local communities.

This post is part of a special National Geographic news series on global water issues. 

By Mark Angelo

This past week, I worked with a large number of volunteers who were planting native shrubs and trees along Guichon Creek, a beautiful little urban waterway that winds its way through the City of Burnaby, British Columbia (adjacent to Vancouver). The stretch of stream we were working on ran through a largely undeveloped corner of the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT), one of Canada’s largest post-secondary institutions.


Volunteers planting (photo by Tom Saare).

What made this outing especially unique was that the site we were planting had been part of a parking lot until just a month ago. But in light of the Institute’s commitment to sustainability (it has been ranked as one of Canada’s greenest campuses) along with the availability of some alternative parking elsewhere, BCIT agreed to rezone this land as part of a natural stream-side buffer to better protect the integrity of the stream. This was just the latest in a number of positive developments that has enabled Guichon Creek to become one of Canada’s leading examples of urban stream restoration.

I first saw Guichon Creek almost 40 years ago and was saddened by its degraded condition. It had been stripped of streamside vegetation, was heavily polluted, and had been dredged and channelized. In effect, it was little more than a drainage ditch and virtually devoid of life. But after talking with long-time local residents who recalled how they once used to swim and fish in the creek, a group of us with the Institute’s Fish and Wildlife Program decided to launch a restoration effort to reclaim the stream.

While large scale improvements didn’t happen overnight, staff and students did make steady progress year-in and year-out; slowly, the creek started to show signs of life. Streamside vegetation was eventually restored, in-stream habitat improved, and water quality issues addressed. Finally, several years ago, the stream had improved to the point where we could re-establish a trout population for the first time in almost four decades.


Children releasing trout into the creek during last year’s World Rivers Day event. (photo BCIT archives).

These fish are now thriving! The stream corridor is also heavily used by wildlife and the walkway adjacent to the creek has become a popular natural escape for students, staff and nearby residents.

A diversity of groups across the community have also become engaged in the restoration process. In recent days alone, those helping us with planting projects ranged from young teens with the Catching the Spirit program to the HSBC women’s network.


The restored Guichon Creek (image by Mark Angelo).

Restoration initiatives like this are exciting and serve as a source of hope and inspiration while also adding greatly to the quality of life we enjoy in our communities. It has also been encouraging to see a growing number of similar restoration projects unfolding in other cities, both in North America and elsewhere in the world.

In southern California as an example, plans are afoot to revamp the Los Angeles River, which has been seriously damaged and is now little more than a concrete-lined flood channel. But thanks to the efforts of groups like Friends of the Los Angeles River, two billion dollars will be spent over the next 50 years to remove concrete where feasible, establish riverside parks and enhance or restore ecological values.

This initiative is especially exciting to me because I grew up in Los Angeles close to the river. As a boy, I biked along the river’s concrete banks but I didn’t have to be very old before I knew that’s not the way it was meant to be!

Elsewhere in the United Sates, other exciting restoration projects are underway, ranging from the Saw Mill River in Yonkers to Pipers Creek in Seattle.

And in Seoul, Korea, the Cheonggyecheon, a local waterway that had been encased underground in concrete was opened up and re-established as part of a major urban renewal initiative. This ground-breaking restoration effort has helped to reintroduce nature to many local residents. As former Mayor Goh Kun stated, the renewal of this river has laid the groundwork for Seoul to became a more human-oriented, environmentally friendly city.

As a final example, I live very close to Still Creek, a stream running through both Vancouver and Burnaby. In 1970 this waterway was considered to be the most polluted river in British Columbia, suffering extensively from sewage and industrial contaminants. In an effort to improve the stream’s condition, we’ve worked closely with the City of Burnaby, the Province and many others–and the progress made has been remarkable.

While there is still significant work to be done along the creek’s upper stretch, the lower section has become a hidden, natural jewel in this large, urban community. This is well documented in the attached short video clip, courtesy of Global BC news.

It’s important to note that bringing a damaged stream back to life is not an easy process; it takes time and can be fraught with challenges. But if an appropriate plan is put in place and adhered to over time, things can be turned around for virtually any waterway.

The number of restoration initiatives now underway also highlight a growing awareness that urban streams are wonderful features in our communities–and by working to protect and restore them, we can make our neighborhoods and our cities an even better place to live.



Mark Angelo is the chair of the Rivers Institute at the British Columbia Institute of Technology and an internationally acclaimed river conservationist. He has received the Order of Canada, his country’s highest honor, in recognition of his river conservation efforts both at home and abroad. He received the United Nations International Year of Fresh Water Science, Education and Conservation Award, the Order of British Columbia, the National River Conservation Award, and an honorary doctorate from Simon Fraser University. He is a Fellow International of the Explorers Club. Angelo is the chair and founder of World Rivers Day, an event celebrated across dozens of countries on the last Sunday of each September. He has traveled on and along close to 1,000 rivers around the world over the past 5 decades. He has authored numerous articles and papers about rivers and his expeditions, including the Riverworld presentation launched in concert with National Geographic Online in 2003 and shown to audiences across North America.

The views expressed in this article are those of Mark Angelo and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Read more blog posts by Mark Angelo.

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Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn