If you listen carefully, you can hear the streams of water flowing under the pavement of Baltimore's streets. These creeks were buried underground in the early 19th century due to urbanisation. Now they are brought back to light through a 2.4-kilometre-long urban intervention by artist Bruce Willen.
Ghost Rivers explores the path of Sumwalt Run, a stream that disappeared from Baltimore’s landscape in the early 1900s and now flows almost 40 metres underground through culverts. The installation currently consists of 10 interventions, which can be seen in the city as wavy blue lines across the pavement marking where the stream once ran. Willen created the installation with the intention of showing what has been lost to urbanisation and what could possibly be a path to a more symbiotic, sustainable future.
Willen created the installation with the intention of showing what has been lost to urbanisation and what could possibly be a path to a more symbiotic, sustainable future
As you tour the city, you can follow the streams and read the panels placed in the streets as part of the tour. The artist reports that these hidden streams are not commonly known in Baltimore, so the project creates awareness about the effects and consequences of urbanism and sheds light on the city’s history and what once was. In this way, the visualisations make history more accessible and engaging for citizens.
In recent years, there has been increased focus on uncovering lost rivers in and around cities around the world to bring nature back to the city, but also as flood prevention and reducing heat islands. In 2020, the Paris city council announced plans to revive the Bièvre. This stream, once described as an idyllic oasis in the city, was buried in 1912. Perhaps one day the ghost rivers in Baltimore will also resurface from the underground, but for now it remains a visual attribute of the natural environment and its history — one that is often forgotten in our hectic and urban environment.