“First, What kind of life was lived in this place, that is, Why and how did its builders build as they did?
And second, what rules with general validity and applicability did they follow?”
Carroll William Westfall, Learning From Pompeii.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Urban Wilderness

The James River near Haxall Mills, 1865
“Let the most absent-minded 

of men be plunged in his 

deepest reveries--stand that 

man on his            

legs, set his feet a-going, and 

he will infallibly lead you to 

water, if water there be in all 



Herman Melville, Moby Dick

What would the world be, once bereft of wet and wildness? 

Let them be left, O let them be left, wildness and wet; 

Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.”

G. M. Hopkins

Whenever Richmond’s citizens are gathered to assist in developing 
projects for civic improvement the 

talk inevitably returns to the river.   Richmond’s recent planning documents have emphasized 

the many barriers that block easy access to the river. This lack of connections is usually placed among 

the city’s most intractable problems. Under the sponsorship of the Capital Region Collaborative,  

attendees at more than 100 public meetings indicated that enhanced visitation would improve the river 

not only as a “recreational resource” and a “quality of life enhancement,” but as an “economic driver 

for our region.” While planning documents invariably list it among a range of more troubling social 

problems like inadequate education, substandard housing, and family instability, improved river 

stewardship and access is the issue that captures the greatest share of public comment. It appears, 

however, to Urbanismo that our search for domestic wilderness at the river’s edge coincides with a 

failure of the city and a passive negation of the American urban experiment.

The most recent and authoritative document put forward is the city’s Richmond Riverfront Plan, which 

has been labored over by citizen groups and organized by professional planners. The plan’s authors, 

who see the river as threatened by development, place it “at the heart of the Richmond region” and 

propose that it should become a “sustainable landscape corridor seamlessly connected with the River’s 

significant resources upriver and downriver.” 

They propose “placemaking” interventions at underused parcels, the addition of new trails, 

improvement access to the water at existing parks, and the creation of more entry points for boating and 

fishing. None of these activities are overly ambitious and some, like returning Mayo Island to its old 

role as a recreational park, are to be loudly applauded.

Urbanismo spent much of our youths climbing across the rocks, playing in the falls, and even guiding 

rafts down the James River as it passed through, or rather beside, the city, but we never fell to 

thinking that there was insufficient access to it.  More and safer access would have undercut our 

fascination. Even before the creation of the perennially underfunded James River Park, we made our 

way through broken and rusted fences, struggled through tall weeds and poison ivy, and tiptoed along 

forbidden railroad tracks to reach the river’s bed and its waterswept rocky islands studded with 

mysterious iron rings and hollowed by quarries. The risk to life and limb of directly encountering the 

river is part of its attraction for young people. More than a few of them have actually drowned in the 

unexpectedly swift water. The wildness of rivers is alien to the city, and it arrives perpetually from the 

outside, shoving against the constraints of civilization.

The yearning for water and wildness imposed on the beach and the riverbank by bootless urbanites 

seems misdirected to city dwellers. In the city, the river is restrained, sifted for its contents, and mined 

for its energy-- including its current potential as an “economic driver.” They know its moods, because 

the town and the river have always been bound together. Indeed, what great city is not on a mighty 

river? Rivers bisect the cities of every region in the state. Although they remain untamed, the wildness 

of city rivers can be deceptive- their every crevice has been explored and exploited in the name of 


The city river is always framed by buildings, harbors, and equipment. Its edges make room inevitably 

for strolling and gazing, but have always been irresistibly conditioned by the raw exchange of civic 

order and primal power. The recent subsidence of industrial activity along its banks fosters the illusion 

that we would be even happier if Richmond provided more “solid connections” to the river’s many 

seasonal moods: we want to extend “the ability of people to get to, around and across the river on foot 

and on bicycle, by car or public transportation” as Mayor Dwight Jones says.  But what we have told 

the planners is that the river is actually too wild, too dangerous, and too strong for us. The new plan 

calls for safe, code-compliant access to a system of public interventions that would virtually line both 

banks of the river-- our “great, wet Central Park”--  for most of its length through the city. 

Not every intervention is so heavy-handed a part of the official planning process. The North Bank 

Mountain Bike Trail along the river bluff below Hollywood Cemetery contrasts with the kinds of 

“placemaking” typical of most park systems. The trail, created and maintained with minimal 

infrastructure by cyclists, is kept as clean and clear as an animal path. It retains the subtle sense of 

adventure that gives zest to urban exploration.  On the public side, however, walking to the parkland at 

Texas Beach seems “wild” in a more unsavory way. Crossing the rusted steel bridge and decaying stair 

tower is like traversing a disused New York Subway tunnel accompanied by unpleasant sights and 

smells, only to reach a waterlogged and often unusable path to the river. The decaying industrial ruins 

along other sections of the river seem of a piece with the park’s access structures and support buildings.  

City dwellers will realize that Richmond’s problems do not stem at all from lack of access to the river. 

We already drink from it, drive over it, and keep its powerful image in our imaginations, where 

rivers and other similarly potent forces of nature do their most effective work. In fact, the heart of the 

city is most certainly not the James River: real wilderness has only a small place in the city’s necessary 

order. Our life as citizens- practicing politics- the great art of living together- is at the heart of the city.  

Neglecting our urban life and its finely crafted architectural setting, we have somehow abandoned a 

shared understanding of what it takes to build and maintain a good city. Our sidewalks have been 

depopulated, the prosperity that serves the civic good has fled, and our schools are unable to fully 

reform themselves. Richmond’s fragile connective tissues should be of more immediate interest 

than the waters of the beautiful, unstoppable river.