Rivers Forgotten - The Underground World Beneath City Streets

I was in Toronto last week and finally had a chance to get my hands on Rivers Forgotten, Jeremy Kai's stunning book of underground photos (Koyama Press, 2011).

Kai has spent years exploring the cavernous system of storm sewers that run below Toronto's streets. Working in very challenging conditions, he has produced a book that is gritty, beautiful, and adventurous. There is something almost magical about the way he reveals a hidden world that has always been there, right beneath our feet.

Cities are in many ways a sort of illusion.

Things materialize seemingly out of thin air onto store shelves, waste is whisked away, and power and fresh water delivered quietly to our homes and offices.  It's usually only when something goes wrong that we recognize the elaborate machinery that makes that all possible. Rivers Forgotten chronicles a subterranean adventure that lifts the curtain on parts of those systems.

Beautifully lit (remember these are sewers, so he would often have been working in total darkness, except for the lights he brought with him) Kai's photos bring to the surface a world of sunken stairs, rushing rivers and underground Cathedrals. Some spaces are over a century old, years of mineral deposits acretted onto old brick. Others are stark modern constructions of still pristine concrete.


The photos in the book capture the intricacy of a world that most of us are completely oblivious to (despite the fact that we are all also totally dependent on it).

But there is more going on here.

Woven into their beauty is an argument for making the workings of cities more open and transparent to the people who live in them.  Michael Cook (the man behind vanishingpoint.ca) points out in the introduction that it's hard for people to care about -- or help care for -- infrastructure that they are never allowed to see or understand.

I totally agree.

Kai's Forgotten Rivers is a captivating invitation to roam through parts of the ecology of our cities that are simultaneously secret and central to what it is that makes cities possible.
photo: Jeremy Kai

[A special thanks to the friendly people at The Beguiling Books who helped me find this and a few other titles I was looking for.]

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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

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