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B O O K R ev i e w s

River.Space.Design. offers design strategies that

balance flood protection with stream ecology
and the amenities of public space. With this aim,
it combines the qualities of a textbook with a
catalogue of relevant projects and a design toolkit.
The first volume contains strategies for riverside
design, extrapolated by the analysis of successful
European projects, and is divided into two chapters: Fundamentals and The Design Catalogue.
In Fundamentals, the authors explain the basic
hydrological principles by which each river can
be understood as an interplay of dynamics and
morphology. The hydrologic cycle, parameters
of slope, and meanders are introduced effectively
with the help of didactic diagrams. Based on this
foundational understanding of river dynamics, the authors identify the critical constraints
of process limits as a general method to frame a
set of design strategies that comprise the second
chapter. The tools and measures are distilled form
chapter threes best-practice case studies, The
Project Catalogue. This second volume consists of
forty-five case studies, each documented through
photographs, plans, and diagrams illustrating the
strategies to design public spaces along the river
in relation to the low or high river stages. The
two volumes are joined in a hardcover binding
intended to be used simultaneously, as each design
concept refers to specific case studies and vice versa.
However in actual use, the two volumes follow an
entropic impulse to separate.

River. Space. Design.

Planning Strategies,
Methods and Projects
for Urban Rivers
Martin Prominski
Antje Stokman
Susanne Zeller
Daniel Stimberg
Hinnerk Voermanek

Martin Prominski, Antje Stokman,

Daniel Stimberg, Hinnerk Voermanek,
Susanne Zeller

Planning Strategies, Methods
and Projects for Urban Rivers
Berlin, Birkhuser 2012
Yale University Press, 2011
ISBN 978 3 0346 1173 2
295 pp., 826 colour illustrations, maps,
and graphics

Review by Jrg Sieweke

ParadoXcity, University of Virginia, USA


During the course of modernization and urbanization, rivers have been thoroughly engineered to
provide particular services and functions, but as
an unintended consequence they have been engineered out of our daily perception and experience.
The former lifelines of a multitude of pre-modern
urban practices, rivers have been tamed, subdued,
and marginalized into objects. As projects, most
rivers have been managed to serve singular objectives such as dredging in favour of navigation or
discharge provisions in respect of flood-protection
mandates. While experiencing the limits of control
during the 2013 European river floods one can
identify a design opportunity to cope with future
flooding. In this respect the publication River.
Space.Design. appears at a critical moment within
a larger paradigm shift that reconsiders our relationship to natural systems, their innate dynamics
and animate qualities. Will this book be the missing manual that guides the redesign of our rivers
in response to more frequent flood events?

The book expands and qualifies the emerging

concept of collaborating with nature rather than
imposing control and order over natural dynamics,
which we begin to question as the past predominated strategy. Instead of funnelling water swiftly
through channels, river design is now about
retaining and slowing water to allow time for
infiltration and expand the period of runoff time.
Although this sponge strategy has been conventional wisdom of the ecological imperative for
example, in Germany since the 1970s it did not
gain traction until the paradigm of acceleration
met its systemic limits apparent in floods events
around the world.
The full scope of designing river spaces, as the
authors suggest, requires balancing the demands
of ecology, flood protection, navigation, and its
amenities within the public sphere, reconciling all
facets into a holistic perspective. Redesign of urban
waterfronts gained new attention in Europe beginning with the 1990s, when regional redevelopment

Journal of Landscape Architecture / theme issue autumn 2013

plans were put forward to promote the revitalization of European post-industrial regions, such
as the International Building Exhibition (IBA) at
Emscher Park for the Ruhr District, or Bilbaos Ra
2010. In fact the Bilbao Effect, often attributed to
Gehrys iconic Guggenheim Museum, can only be
appreciated in the larger context of urban stream
revitalization efforts in the Bilbao region.

Questioning past conventions of waterfront

design by proposing an alternative perspective, the
authors deliberately challenge the traditional approach to river frontage and suggest the river as a
focal space to be reconciled with urban space. Starting from the assumption that urban rivers are no
longer to be reduced to passive backdrop_as was
the case, for instance, with projects developed in
the 1980s for the London Docklands, which seemed
to focus on the waters visual quality as if it was a
reflecting pool for real estate_River.Space.Design.
demonstrates that river dynamics can actively
engage public spaces and the urban morphology
in calibrated ways. The extensive catalogue, presented in the second volume, documents relevant
European projects that blend river management
with public amenities and offers examples for
rethinking many urban river spaces on the continent and beyond.

It is from a comparative analysis of these projects

that the book derives its most original contribution, The Design Catalogue, which contains
design tools and strategies based on a typological
classification system and on the concept of process
spaces. The case studies are synthesized into rigorous conceptual categories, and are deconstructed
by interpretative diagrams that analyze each case
study in its design principles and components.
Process spaces provide a classification relative to
river bank types; they reach from vertical embankments to dynamic river landscapes allowing for
morphodynamic expressions. Design strategies
group projects according to their design tools
and measures from tolerating to resistant. This
analytic retroactive conceptualization allows for
the transfer and application of a strategy derived
from a successful project. This reverse engineering from case studies to design principles, from
practice to concept, represents a particular type of
knowledge production rooted in the design professions. By means of abstraction, the authors reverse
synthetic design thinking and make implicit con-

cepts accessible in a matrix of process spaces and

design strategies for transference and application.
Process space

The book categorizes process spaces ranging from

strangely familiar hard-edged embankments
to dynamic river spaces that allow room for the
rivers morphodynamic self-expression. What is
driving the current attention on process space of
urban rivers? How can the emphasis on change
and dynamics that has been a lingering interest
in the discipline of landscape architecture since
the early 1990s be qualified as an instructive principle? For one, a remarkable interest in observing
natural processes in the urban context is witnessed. A collective human desire lies in observing
the vivid nature of a river allowing us to literally
reflect and contemplate the conditions of nature.
Process space may permit everyday aesthetic and
conscious experience of a river that constantly
changes in character and appearance. The rivers
regimes regarding sediment and nutrient flows
are characterized by continuous fluctuations. The
rivers order is not to be defined by homeostasis, but by homeorhesis. The rivers change and
dynamic become formative in preserving its flow.
Navehs ecosystem definition, far from equilibrium, is based on principles of self-organization
and seems to materialize with a lag time of four
decades. It may be indicative of how we begin to
conceive and manage our rivers differently today.
Second, we come to acknowledge the magnitude of unintended side effects that surface
as late consequences of neglect, denial, and arrogance, of not recognizing these very ecological
principles. The formerly misread and neglected
externalities of sediment, nutrient, or salinity
regimes are moving to the foreground as they
begin to impact systems in their economic and
functional entirety. The former unaccounted and
non-represented implications rise to matters of
concern and demand to be recognized as projects
at last. In this context it appears critical to
conceive the process spaces not in narrow, but in
most inclusive ways to hopefully capture former
excluded entities.
Both recent acknowledgements require a more
holistic paradigm that accounts for managing
rivers for the benefit of all constituents. Therefore
we find ourselves refocusing our actions towards a
layered system that asks to transgress definitions
of the object, site, and typological approach. This
agenda must go well beyond the oddly technocratic term of multifunctional landscapes referenced

in the book and does not do justice to the authors

ambitions. It appears to be a shadow of a reductive
and mechanistic landscape concept we hoped to
have surpassed since every landscape is carrying
multiple dimension be it identity, memory, or
Typology versus topology

The site focus on process space helps designers and

clients to articulate their needs and preferences in
being able to point at identifiable and transferable
types. Although the authors rightfully reject presenting the inventory of case studies and the design strategies extrapolated from them to function
as a catalogue of designed objects for off-the-shelf
solutions_this temptation continues to loom between the pages. The books design catalogue can
be understood in the tradition of Pattern Language
(Alexander 1984), an attempt to establish a canon
of universally applicable architectural typologies. This leaves us with a word of caution about
potentially uncritical application of the certainly
admirable case studies.
Students and professionals need to be mindful
of how to apply the matrix of design tools and
strategies the book offers to a river that must be
recognized as a topology rather than a typology.
Each delineation of a river process space needs to
be understood in its systemic topology, including, for example, its sediment regimes. The term
regime, well established in hydrology, refers to a
feedback loop that relates any intervention back
into its system of subprocesses, as called out in
Fundamentals. Local design interventions in any
particular process space will most likely affect
the rivers hydrology at length downstream and
upstream exceeding the conceived process limits.
Changes in slope or profile will impact bank and
sole erosion elsewhere. Precisely these unanticipated and unaccounted externalities of any given
project are critical since they will return as side
effects and remind us of conceived project boundaries falling short. The book remains ambivalent
in addressing the subprocesses in the chapter
Fundamentals, but does not account for them in
The Design Catalogue. Failing to respect the comprehensive dynamics beyond the limits of the site
of interventions is the root of the shortcomings of
many projects we inherit as maladaptations today.

contexts. As with every powerful tool, the book

does require a self-conscious designer who has
internalized the contents of the first chapter,
Fundamentals, to carefully apply the design ideas
and strategies presented in the second chapter
to any project. Well aware of the implied risk of
the Project Catalogue separating itself and being
uncritically transferred elsewhere, the authors
insist that applying a tool or measure requires an
interdisciplinary team of designers, engineers, and
hydrologists for each particular site. It does require
a reflective practitioner (Schn 1983) to design river
spaces that can withstand the test of time while
accounting for the full range of indeterminate
dynamics, riverine as well as urban. The book
refers to the task of designing rivers as an exciting
challenge: how to understand design, not as a finite formal imposition, but as an ongoing staging
of uncertainties.
Assuming the thinking represented in the
two volumes will remain bound as one, this may
be the most comprehensive book on designing
rivers available. If anything the book is, perhaps,
compromised by its own didactic ambition that
implies we were capable of imposing our will on
a river. Ultimately, the river will transgress any
delineation imposed on it - therein lays its beauty.


Alexander, C. (1979), The Timeless Way of Building

(New York: Oxford University Press).
Naveh, Z. and Lieberman, A. S. (1979), Landscape Ecology:
Theory and Application (New York: Springer).
Schn, D. (1983), The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals
Think In Action (New York: Basic Books).

You wont step into the same river twice!

The authors consciously challenge the dilemma of

risk and opportunity in making design interventions applicable and transferable to different
Journal of Landscape Architecture / theme issue autumn 2013