INVISIBLE RIVER, an event that took place for the second time in July 2014, was a unique and topical piece of Philadelphia performance art. A celebration of the Schuylkill River, it blended artistry and environmentalism through a remarkable exploration of performance space. The piece took place on the shores of the river itself; dancers performed along the banks, on an island midstream, on canoes alongside the viewers, and even hanging aerially from the Strawberry Mansion Bridge. Kayaks, canoes and dragon boats filled with spectators traveled together downstream. Art seemed to be gushing from the landscape, not on display, but emerging organically from the river itself.

The project, however, was not only intended to be beautiful. Rather, it was meant to engage Philadelphians with an important aspect of the city – the river that provides its drinking water and has launched much of its history. A narration, playing from a pontoon boat during the event, provided the audience with some of this information as the event unfolded. Alie Vidich, founder and director of the project, explains, “In 2012, I was trying to figure out what to make next … The romanticism of the past was driving me crazy, and I really wondered what was the future and how could this art be a part of creating the future? I was thinking a lot about how to create a positive celebration that drew people to the river.” She particularly wanted to stimulate conversations about “access to the Schuylkill – lack of public access to this river that has been the backbone of Philadelphia since the beginning of time.”

This message, promoting watershed access and preservation, could not be more topical in Philadelphia. Recently, the city has begun implementing a twenty-five year plan to expand watershed sustainability and improve river health. Known as Green City, Clean Waters, the initiative will install green stormwater infrastructure, including permeable pavement, green roofs, and tree trenches, which prevent stormwater runoff from overflowing sewers and, as a result, decrease river pollution. In addition, ambitious plans are being discussed for improving public access to Fairmount Park, the green space surrounding the Schuylkill that is the largest part of the city’s park system. A report endorsed by PennPraxis, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, and other groups explains several ways in which the park can become a more active community space for local residents. Attention is given to youth and those with limited mobility. The goal is to take full advantage of the city’s largest green area, encouraging complete community access and creating a unifying space.

Both of these plans, however, require popular engagement in order to reach peak effectiveness – individual contributions (such as personal green roofs and rain barrels) as well as community funding are necessary in order to see these ambitious projects through. They seem to develop from below, using ingenuity and resources from local neighborhoods in order to create public spaces that conform to public needs.

These infrastructural developments coincide notably with the evolution of city planning as described by Ben Highmore in his book, Cityscapes: Cultural Readings in the Material and Symbolic City. He write that sewers, such as those with which Green City, Clean Waters is concerned, indicate “an understanding of the city as something like a body, requiring lungs (parks, for instance)…and efficient expulsion of waste.” He adds, “the understanding of cities as bodylike has tended to align itself with the city as seen from above…requir[ing] a perspective removed from the densely populated streets of the city.” This seems to shed light on the current situation in Fairmount Park; although the city contains sizeable sewer and park systems, both inherited from the nineteenth century, the issues currently being addressed could have derived from such telescopic methods of city planning. Issues of stormwater overflow indicate a sewer system planned in a vacuum, without adequate consideration of the environmental factors surrounding the city. Lack of local access to Fairmount Park, the heart of the Schuylkill watershed, indicates a park system planned haphazardly, without the needs of local communities in mind.

The strides being made today, however, seem to indicate a forthcoming revision of these oversights. Highmore tentatively supports this, stating, “at the start of the twenty-first century, such attitudes [“a regulated form of modernization”] have been the object of several decades of criticism,” and referring to them as “urban paternalism.” He makes it clear, however, that the change is incomplete. “The desire to plan the city,” he explains, “…is as much a feature of present-day urbanism as it was in the middle of the nineteenth century.” This tendency is clearly at work in Philadelphia: although current ambitions are designed with local needs in mind, relying intrinsically on citizen support, they are still designed and subsidized by the government or other large organizations. Despite a clear shift towards the needs of individuals, these endeavors are not truly grassroots developments, but rely on outside manipulation to affect change. In some ways, it seems that a shift in values, rather than method, has occurred within city planning.

INVISIBLE RIVER functions representatively as part of this emerging dialogue.   On one hand, it is encumbered by logistical needs in its efforts to affect change: city permits, grant applications, and the necessity of ticketing and advertising all inhibit this endeavor in its outreach goals. Despite working within these limitations, however, the project still makes incredible strides towards a more accessible watershed. The company actively encourages discussion of the river, dissemination of its history and explanation of its current challenges. The project draws audiences to Fairmount Park, and showcases the river as an outlet for community recreation – a space for artistry, boating, and public festivals. In addition, the project creates an outlet for community organization; “I would like to see more community input,” says Vidich, “and I am working to develop a community advisory board that will curate and contribute to the decisions about the presentation of the art.”

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Perhaps, this new blending of popular involvement with officially-sanctioned action will create the opportunity for more effective, efficient forms of community planning. Vidich is certainly optimistic. “Long term,” she writes, “I want to see this event grow into an annual festival that really brings people to the river – maybe one day people will swim in the river again!”

 

For more information about INVISIBLE RIVER, check out http://www.invisibleriver.org.

For more information about Green City, Clean Waters, visit http://www.phillywatersheds.org/what_were_doing/documents_and_data/cso_long_term_control_plan.

To read more about proposed improvements to Fairmount Park, click here: http://planphilly.com/eastandwestpark


Highmore, Ben. Cityscapes: Cultural Readings in the Material and Symbolic City. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005. Print.

All photos courtesy of INVISIBLE RIVER.

 

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