A Human-Made River, Marooned No More?

Designers find modern appeal in the 19th-century Erie Canal.

By Zach Mortice

The Upstate Archipelago proposal. Image courtesy Cornell Design, H+N+S, and SOAR (Strengthening Our Area Residents) of the Cornell University Cooperative Extension.

New York’s Erie Canal once projected a young nation’s power and commercial ambitions across half a continent. Connecting New York City and the Hudson River north of Albany all the way to the Great Lakes, at 363 miles long, it was the second largest canal in the world when it opened in 1825, and one of the most transformative infrastructure projects of America’s early history. It reduced bulk commodity costs by 90 percent, according to some estimates, and it’s been immortalized in stories and songs ever since.

But in the 201 years since it began construction, the canal has been leapfrogged by nearly every manner of freight and commodity transit: rail, road, pipelines, and even the now-navigable St. Lawrence River. Vessel traffic on the canal peaked in the early 1950s, and recreational boating peaked in 1989.

To reverse this slide, the New York State Canal Corporation is hosting the Reimagine the Canals Competition to re-envision how this feat of 19th-century land engineering can be better integrated into the 21st century.

While the population of upstate New York has sagged in recent decades, recreational uses along the river (if not on it) have gone up. The competition seeks to expand this sort of access. Despite their diminished industrial significance, the canals are still a rich artery of settlement. Many of the communities along the canals (more than 200 in all) sprung up because of it, and 80 percent of the upstate New York population lives within 25 miles of them. A revived canal system would complement plans for the 400-mile Empire State Trail, which runs concurrently with several canals.

The goals of the competition are to develop tourist destinations and recreational assets, to encourage sustainable economic development, to respect the historic value of the canals, and to enhance the long-term financial stability of the canal system. Ideally, these plans would allow the canals to pay for their own maintenance and upkeep.

The canal corporation (under the aegis of the New York Power Authority, which has three hydropower plants on the Erie Canal) released a short list of seven plans last month, selected by a jury that included Mia Lehrer, FASLA, of Studio-MLA. Public input and the jury will choose two or more finalists in the fall, and each will get $250,000 to $1.5 million to be spent on planning or partial implementation. Beyond the Erie Canal, the competition is also considering the state’s three other major canals: the Champlain Canal that connects the Hudson to Lake Champlain on the Vermont border, the Cayuga-Seneca Canal that connects to New York’s Finger Lakes, and the Oswego Canal that joins the Erie Canal to Lake Ontario—524 miles in all.

These short-listed plans are divided into traditional design prescriptions and more ephemeral programming initiatives, and Steven Gosset, the media relations manager for the New York Power Authority, says these two tracks could be installed together to have a “complementary effect.”

The Canal Winterlocks project. Image courtesy CLUAA, John Ronan Architects, and Urban Engineers.

The most landscape-centric plans of the bunch include a proposal called Canal Winterlocks, by Chicago-based Clare Lyster Urbanism and Architecture and John Ronan Architects, with Urban Engineers of Philadelphia. They see the canals as wintertime playgrounds for ice skating, cross country skiing, and more. In her plan, Lyster, an architecture professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says the canals already offer a multitude of activities in warmer months. “We thought that this would address a hole in the program calendar,” she says.

The Upstate Archipelago plan by the Cornell landscape architecture professors Jamie Vanucchi and Maria Goula, the Cornell Cooperative Extension, and the Netherlands-based landscape architecture firm H+N+S softens the canal’s edges with vegetation. It would add lush wetlands for outdoor recreation: canoeing, hiking, and bike trails. There’s no specific site for this plan either, and Frank Talsma, a project leader at H+N+S, describes it as a “toolbox” approach to be applied at a handful of potential pilot sites.

There was no aquatic ecology here 250 years ago; a new wetland would be as engineered as the canal itself.  “It’s an artificial system, so there’s no use in looking backward and trying to restore anything,” Talsma says. “It’s about [enlarging] the water system so there’s more capacity in it to hold the water.” Beyond offering an attractive recreational environment, such a plan would offer more biofiltration and stormwater capacity than the current hardscape. Though removing the hardscape entirely wouldn’t be good for the ecosystem, either. “If you remove the borders, there might be a risk that you could lose the water and drain the canal,” he says.

The wetlands might just be an additive layer that could still allow for new formal possibilities. Because it’s an artificial construction, Talsma says, he believes his team can take more geometric liberties with the shapes of the canal. These wetlands could re-create the meander of nature, install ornate curlicues, or, he says, embrace the sharp lines and self-consciously human-made angles of a rectilinear “water machine.”

 Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram. 

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