Boneyard Creek has been little more than an afterthought throughout much of Champaign-Urbana’s history and development. By the 1900s, the creek became a drainage ditch, squeezed behind Green Street like an alleyway. The cities didn’t build around the shallow tributary – they built on top of it. The creek was channelized and forced into tunnel so the whole riverbed was covered in concrete. What remained of it was hidden with fences (sometimes fitted with barbed wire) that ensured that nobody would be able to interact with the creek and furthered the notion that it should be forgotten.
The creek had other plans. A few floods in the 1970s and 90s quickly reminded the people of Champaign-Urbana that they could not ignore their stream. After all, concrete doesn’t soak up floodwater. It spills over and seep into your basements, it gets your feet wet, it floods Green Street, and Campustown grinds to a halt. Around 2000, the issue of flooding was partly resolved by a large basin situated between Green Street, First Street, Springfield Avenue, and the railroad tracks on the far western fringe of Campustown. The basin is about one square block and completely fenced off. It is devoid of trees, and the overgrown grass is the only semblance of nature that can be found. Looking north, the sign for an can be seen over a large wooden fence. For the next decade, this was the closest Campustown residents could get to being reacquainted with their resident waterway.
Roughly ten years later, the Second Street Basin opened. It continued to serve the purpose of the first drainage pit but also allowed for something new: recreation. Green space with trees and native plants line the bowl, opening up to a pond where geese swim.. This, along with the reintroduction of Boneyard Creek into the Engineering Quad, helped reacquaint students with Champaign-Urbana’s only waterway that was forgotten one hundred years. The community has made strides in reconnecting with the Boneyard but much of it is still obscured.How can we, the people, reach it?
The creek has made considerable rebounds in the past few decades. Fish, albeit only tiny minnows, have returned to the once dead waterway. The flooding problem has been mitigated by the construction of the aforementioned basins. It’s viable but it’s not yet healthy; much of the bed is concrete, it’s still largely channelized, and few plants grow alongside it, preventing the intermingling of plants and animals necessary for a healthy creek ecosystem. But maybe we can improve the environment by introducing humans. Human impacts typically aren’t considered as environmentally-friendly, so let me explain.
Throughout much of its course in Urbana, the creek is not only fenced off, but walled into a tiny tomb by concrete. There are a few feet on either side of the creek that are currently owned by the City of Urbana, but this space is neglected and abandoned.. We could put that little buffer of about five feet on either side to work. Removing the Boneyard’s concrete casing, rebuilding a riverbank, and allowing the creation of a natural riverbed would greatly improve the creek overall. The additional space would allow a pseudo-natural slope as an attempt to rectify the century of waterway alterations and afford us the opportunity to replace the current scrub plants with natural plantings and healthy trees. Humans can enjoy this reintroduction, too.
A space for a pedestrian walkway running parallel to the creek would let people enjoy this small stretch of nature within an old neighborhood. Not only would this provide an amenity and a much-needed park for West Urbana, but it has the potential to raise awareness and concern about the health of the creek and help residents realize how important our only waterway is. It is extremely hard to build public interest for a creek that is designed to be ignored and deliberately hidden from view.
Although flooding has been mostly resolved using a complex system of retention basins, maybe it’s time we let nature do some of the work for us. Trees and long grasses are extremely thirsty plants and they can alleviate some of the monetary strain placed on municipal systems. Aside from providing clean air, these same plants also have benefits for mental health, happiness levels, and overall neighborhood beautification.
North Champaign also has a small stretch of the creek that winds for a few blocks north of the basin. This stretch is mostly open, but it has the appearance of a drainage ditch, rather than an important waterway for the area. Incorporating wetlands and replacing the large swaths of grass with more absorbent natural plantings would both help the chronic flooding that plagues the underserved north side and provide a desperately needed park.
Of course, this won’t be easy. This is simply an idea of how we can embrace our waterway. Urbana’s Comprehensive Plan states that they’re committed to a healthy creek, yet there is no long term plan to reclaim the creek for public use. It will be pricey, and eminent domain may have to be used for a few feet of some of the properties, and spatial constraints (like along Green Street) or actual buildings atop the creek make daylighting the creek extremely unfeasible in the short term. But why not do what we can? Cities everywhere have learned the value of clean waterways. If Pittsburgh can reclaim its three riverfronts, what’s stopping Champaign-Urbana from opening up a mile or two of a creek? The Boneyard may slowly make its way back into student life and life in C-U overall. We only have one waterway, let’s do right by it.
Check out these links for more information:
Urbana Comprehensive Plan: (http://www.urbanaillinois.us/sites/default/files/attachments/Comprehensive_Plan.pdf)
Google Streetview links
Boneyard Creek in North Champaign: https://firstname.lastname@example.org,-88.2371186,3a,60y,304.89h,80.92t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sD-LtuXySwYi5Afpkag605A!2e0!7i13312!8i6656
Read more on the Boneyard here:
Written and Photographed by Andrew Dunham