You have done a great deal of work on the important changes in the role that nature plays in developed societies. Are rivers stakeholders in this process which is not just symbolic, but also practical in relation to how “objects of nature” are used in a contemporary urban context? What would be their role?
Yes, industrialized societies are discovering, to their great concern, that the physical and biological realms have rules and boundaries which cannot be ignored. Whereas in the past we believed that scientific and technical advancements would free us from these constraints, today we must undertake a radical revision of this Promethean stance. Alongside “objects of nature” (such as climate, biodiversity, soils), rivers occupy their own particular place in this context. They have been dammed, redirected, had barrages installed on them – we have long tried to use them in all sorts of ways, for navigation, irrigation, producing hydraulic and later hydro-electric energy, and that’s when they are not being used to dump waste. Our changing relationship with nature means that where rivers were previously the sole preserve of hydraulic engineers – and just treated like pipes – they are now becoming a field of study for hydrogeomorphologists, who see rivers as a dynamic environment, and hydrobiologists, because rivers are also ecosystems. In the towns and cities they flow through, where previously the main concern was protecting against flooding, rivers are also now regarded differently. As elements of the landscape which symbolize “otherness” in the very heart of a world which has been tamed, they are appreciated as a space for contemplation: an unremitting flow which arrives from elsewhere only to move on again. More and more cities want to reinvent their rivers as urban green corridors.
Whether they are rethinking or rediscovering their rivers, interest is growing among riverside communities and visitors alike. This interest encompasses a delicate balance between local usage and cultural significance, and the challenges of managing a river as a system (e.g. ecosystem, hydrosystem, transport infrastructure). How can we accommodate different standpoints and ways of thinking?
The changes currently taking place in the way we view the physical and biological realms which surround us cannot fail to have an effect on the hierarchy of values we assign to nature. These realms cannot continue to be thought of solely as an inexhaustible resource; they must be considered our collective heritage, that is, a shared resource which we inherit and which we should pass down intact. We must rethink how we coordinate the different ways they are used. This can only be done through forums where a broad range of stakeholders come together to find ways to reach an agreement. For rivers which are managed as bodies of water, this is already happening to some extent with the various River Basin Committees, and in an even more interdisciplinary manner with the Loire and Rhone Plans which have recently been put in place.
Numerous territories and practitioner groups, ranging from village to macro-regional level, are seeking to ensure the voices of riverside communities are heard and to secure a role for rivers in local development projects. In light of this reterritorialisation, are governments, planners and managers ready to adopt a new stance, viewing river domains as a public space, for the use of the public? Will this require some innovative thinking?
In France, rivers legally belong in the public domain, which means that they are in fact the direct responsibility of the Government. In relation to the territories they flow through, we could say they enjoy a kind of extra-territoriality. It’s true that the various moves to reclaim rivers that we are currently seeing challenge this state of affairs. To ensure that rivers can become, as you put it, not just public in the narrowest sense of the word but also something that can be enjoyed by everyone, people are now calling for them to be included in the new legal category which is being established: public commons. This must necessarily lead to the creation of new forms of governance, as laid out in the Loire and Rhone Plans, for example.
Do the River Centres have a specific role to play as catalysts at a time when a gap seems to be opening up which could lead to a totally new approach?
The River Centres, which are for the most part recent creations, are testament to this new perspective. They exist alongside the changes being experienced by more or less all river stakeholders, not just riverside communities. And I think the Centres’ specific role lies particularly in this capacity to bring all the actors together. Their real mission, above the new scientific and technical knowledge required by this new sustainable approach to river management, is to encourage actors to embrace the idea that people in society see rivers as “objects of nature” and at the same time, inevitably, as cultural objects. At a time when the importance of ecological approaches is increasing (water quality, movement of aquatic wildlife, rehabilitation of river beds and tidal wetlands, etc.) and when advances in environmental engineering are beginning to look promising, I think these efforts need to be accompanied by on-going dialogue with all the relevant users and practitioners, to continue to ensure that rivers are held up as a shining example of public commons.
(Translation from French by Joanna Bartlett)