Urban Waters

Revitalizing urban waters and the communities around them


Decades-long degradation of urban waterways presents numerous challenges, but also amazing opportunities to strengthen connections between local waterways, adjacent habitat, and surrounding neighborhoods, catalyze community renewal, and improve residents’ quality of life. Many lower-income communities and communities of color are located in low lying areas adjacent to degraded and polluted urban rivers, streams, and creeks, some of which also flood into their neighborhoods. Community residents lack safe, easy, or visible access to these waters.

  • Restoring Urban Water Systems
  • Connecting Communities
  • Strengthening Climate Resilience Through Green Infrastructure
  • Providing Economic Benefits
  • Improving Water Quality

Restoring Urban Water Systems

Groundwork Denver has developed a watershed plan for Bear Creek, a tributary of hte South Platte River
Groundwork Denver has developed and is actively implementing a watershed plan for Bear Creek, a tributary of the South Platte River

Groundwork Trusts engage in a range of water restoration projects, including “daylighting” previously covered-up rivers, planting trees along old industrial riverbanks, removing invasive water chestnuts that choke water recreation areas, and creating new pocket parks in vacant lots by streams.

Many people think of river restoration as returning a watershed to its natural state—hard to do in an always-changing urban environment! Who knows what used to be? Also, a watershed means more than just water from the hills, but also includes streets, stormwater systems, leaky sewers, and parking lots. For urban areas, restoration really means “re-creating” what you can to reconnect people with their “urban” water.

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Connecting Communities

Groundwork Indy youth reviewing Riverside Park Master Plan
Groundwork Indy youth reviewing and commenting on the Riverside Park Master Plan.

Groundwork practitioners help local residents connect to their local waterways to support healthy urban waters and healthy communities. Through hands-on urban waters cleanup and restoration projects, Groundwork Trusts bring community residents together with each other and with local businesses and institutions to achieve mutual goals, including increasing access to open space, improving water quality for recreation and fishing, and developing venues for outdoor education.

These projects help communities better understand the impact that they have on their waterways and provide a platform for local residents to advocate for ways to reduce flooding, an issue that plagues many lower-income communities and communities of color.

Urban waters can also play a vital role in helping residents connect to resources outside of their immediate neighborhood. A good example of this is how the South Platte River Greenway enabled a Groundwork Denver Green Team member to commute to his college campus by bicycle. It was his shortest, most direct, and least expensive transportation option—but, like most people in his community, he was unaware that the greenway existed and that he could take it for miles in either direction to access parks or get downtown. Groundwork Denver worked to create safer and more visible access to the South Platte River for this reason.

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Strengthening Climate Resilience Through Green Infrastructure

Groundwork New Orleans Rain Garden
Groundwork New Orleans’s OC Haley Raingardens

While people worry about the flooding caused by intense rainstorms and the damage it does to their homes, many don’t recognize that these storms can also cause sewer pipes to overflow into local streets, polluting rivers and local waterways. Groundwork Trusts, along with many watershed organizations, are working on ways to capture and absorb rainwater before it overwhelms sewers and urban waterways. Such efforts include the installation of rain gardens, rain barrels, bio-swales, pervious paving, and green roofs.

In addition to protecting homes and waterways, green infrastructure improvements provide many other community benefits that are important to the Groundwork Network.

Green infrastructure planning and implementation programs present an opportunity to create jobs and train residents in affected communities to install and maintain green infrastructure sites. They also help lower-income communities and communities of color—those most vulnerable to climate change impacts—become more resilient to our changing climate.

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Providing Economic Benefits

Daylighted Saw Mill River in downtown Yonkers, NY
Daylighted Saw Mill River in downtown Yonkers, NY

Many cities, over time, turned their backs to the water, and riverfronts became places to store refuse, dump vehicles, and “manage” unwanted inventories. Now, many cities are finding that reinvesting in their urban core areas can provide economic benefits community residents and businesses.

By developing restaurants, walking paths, and greenways overlooking flowing, mesmerizing waters, municipalities are reviving their economies and bringing life to their downtowns and neighborhoods. In many Trust communities, Groundwork projects champion this win-win strategy.

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Improving Water Quality

Volunteers working at Groundwork Lawrence's annual Spicket River Cleanup, 2015.
Volunteers working at Groundwork Lawrence’s annual Spicket River Cleanup, 2015.

Urban areas are notorious for polluted waterways. While the causes are usually known—leaking sewers, polluted runoff from urban streets, upstream contamination—solutions are often expensive, making the water pollution problems seem impossible to fix.

Groundwork Trusts work with communities in many ways to help their municipalities improve water quality

  • Training residents about their water through volunteer water quality monitoring
  • Reporting problem areas to municipal agencies
  • Bringing in technical experts and engaging local residents to plan and implement green infrastructure improvements, and
  • Building a core of stewards to educate the community about ways to reduce pollution.


Are you currently working to improve urban waterways and looking to connect with a community of like-minded peers?

The Urban Waters Learning Network is a peer-to-peer network of people and organizations working to revitalize urban waters and the communities around them.

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