Restoring streams in an urbanizing world


Emily S. Bernhardt, Department of Biology, Phytotron Box 90338, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708, U.S.A. E-mail:


1. The world's population is increasingly urban, and streams and rivers, as the low lying points of the landscape, are especially sensitive to and profoundly impacted by the changes associated with urbanization and suburbanization of catchments.

2. River restoration is an increasingly popular management strategy for improving the physical and ecological conditions of degraded urban streams. In urban catchments, management activities as diverse as stormwater management, bank stabilisation, channel reconfiguration and riparian replanting may be described as river restoration projects.

3. Restoration in urban streams is both more expensive and more difficult than restoration in less densely populated catchments. High property values and finely subdivided land and dense human infrastructure (e.g. roads, sewer lines) limit the spatial extent of urban river restoration options, while stormwaters and the associated sediment and pollutant loads may limit the potential for restoration projects to reverse degradation.

4. To be effective, urban stream restoration efforts must be integrated within broader catchment management strategies. A key scientific and management challenge is to establish criteria for determining when the design options for urban river restoration are so constrained that a return towards reference or pre-urbanization conditions is not realistic or feasible and when river restoration presents a viable and effective strategy for improving the ecological condition of these degraded ecosystems.