Digby Hall

Oct 5, 2021

3 min read

Stream Daylighting — From Trench to Trendy

The art of removal to make our cities more climate resilient

It was Michelangelo’s assertion that his marble sculptures were already complete, and it was merely his role to chip away the superfluous material to reveal the beauty within.

Never could I have predicted how my exposure to such a seemingly small and simple concept during my early years of undergraduate study in architecture would have such a profound and long-lasting effect on how I see the world today.

Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash

And it’s this concept of removal that sets the scene for Daylighting — short for Stream or Creek Daylighting — the process of opening up buried watercourses in order to restore their ecological health — from which all forms of life benefit.

I first heard this wonderful term in the mid ’90s when I learned about the Strawberry Creek daylighting project in Berkley, CA.

They had the audacity to remove existing storm-water infrastructure to re-instate the creek.

Post-project research revealed improved flood control capacity and greater riparian vegetation density, both greater than the project planning predicted. The project site also became the adopted outdoor science centre for the local school.

Fast forward to today and perhaps the most well-known (albeit contentious) example of stream daylighting is Cheonggyecheon Stream in Seoul, South Korea. A 5.8km stretch of city stream that was buried during the 1960s then daylighted in 2005.

The new park has since become a hugely popular green spine for residents and tourists alike. I’ve highlighted this as a case study not only as an example of the mechanics of daylighting but also for the numerous ‘lessons learned’… no daylighting project is without its social and governance challenges (hit the link above to see a punchy appraisal of how this particular project was managed).

The restored Cheonggyecheon stream. Photograph: Jack Malipan Travel Photography/Alamy

Today, where ‘sponge cities’ are now on the agenda as an adaptation for climate-driven flood risk, I’m reacquainting myself with daylighting through the lens of city adaptations to climate change.

How might creek daylighting help us adapt our cities to the impacts of the climate-driven events that we’ve already triggered through global heating, and reduce carbon emissions, regenerate biodiversity and re-connect us with nature?

My back-of-the-envelope assessment makes a start in asking the right questions, after which the answers become more obvious.

Images from Global Designing Cities Initiative, written content by author

The headlines are simple: daylighting can be expensive, but so are floods.

At its core, daylighting is recognising that nature’s systems can be part of our urban infrastructure.

I’m absolutely fascinated by the positive adaptation benefits of daylighting. Not only can the approach better protect cities against flooding (easier to put a value to), but daylighting also brings nature back into our cities, giving us a swathe of environmental, social and economic dividends.

More than thirty years later I find myself practising the art of removal in the vast majority of my activities. Adding more stuff is easy compared to solving how to remove things, becoming more efficient, more elegant, more sustainable, and more profitable. It’s Robert Browning’s 1855 phrase ‘Less is More’(made famous by Mies van der Rohe in 1947) through the climate action lens.

Now go and find your nearest stream or creek that flows beneath your feet, and imagine…