In the late 19th century, the banks of the Charles River near the Harvard campus were covered with marshes, cut through with small streams that advanced and retreated with the tides.
Then engineers took over. The tidal marshes were filled, land was reclaimed, and many of the streams were buried underground in pipes.
Now, as Harvard begins its expansion on the Allston side of the Charles, there is a push to return the area to a more natural state - part of an emerging national movement that touts the environmental benefits of landscape restoration.
"We have this urban landscape with all this infrastructure that has basically trashed the river," said Kate Bowditch, director of projects for the nonprofit Charles River Watershed Association, which advocates for the protection of the watershed. "So the challenge is figuring out how to fix the problem without pulling up the whole city and planting forests, marshes, and grasslands."
The watershed association's effort is about more than just "beautification." The paths and roads along the Charles flood regularly, as does most of North Allston, where large pools of water are persistent obstacles for walkers and joggers. In the heaviest rains, stormwater mixes with sewage and runs out untreated into the Charles.
"It's only now that we're starting to realize the full impacts of trying to cover up and build against these natural features, Bowditch said. "They're starting to come back to haunt us."
For the last two years, Harvard, the city, the local community, and various groups including the watershed association have worked - sometimes contentiously - to determine the best course for the project. Bowditch said her group's main goal is to figure out how the drainage systems in North Allston work and how to make them work better.
Using old maps of the area, some dating back as far as the mid-1800s, Bowditch and her colleagues have pinpointed several waterways that once drained the area.
One stream, which the group has named Allston Creek, formerly ran from near the Everett Street Interstate 90 overpass to the Charles, just north of the Western Avenue Bridge. Technically, Allston Creek is still there. It's just out of sight, running under North Allston in a series of branching pipes. Bowditch and her colleagues want to bring it back to the surface - to "daylight" it, she says - and break up the neighborhood's large tracts of concrete and asphalt with greenways, public parks, and trees.
Traditional floodwater efforts - catch basins and sediment ponds - eliminate only about 70 percent of organic sediments, metals, and oils from the stormwater, said Rob Roseen, director of the University of New Hampshire's Stormwater Center. What the Charles River Watershed Association is advocating - tree planters and specially engineered soil and vegetation drainage systems called "bioswales" - would eliminate 95 percent of those pollutants, he said.
Such large-scale urban waterway restoration projects have become more common in the last 20 years, particularly on the West Coast, as a way to improve water quality. In Berkeley, Calif., Joshua Bradt, restoration director of the Urban Creeks Council, said he has overseen 15 stream daylighting projects in the area. One of the steams, he said, now hosts a population of rainbow trout and steelhead, which have returned from San Francisco Bay to spawn.
A Boston native, Bradt said Boston's building preservation ethic gives a good approximation of the thinking behind waterway restoration. "When I go back to Boston it's amazing to see how they preserve their old buildings yet the uses are different every generation," he said. "There's no reason why we can't do that with Boston's natural resources."
The City of Boston and Harvard say they will incorporate some waterway restoration techniques into the Allston project, which includes about 220 acres in North Allston and will unfold over the next 20 to 50 years.
"We all agree that this is a unique opportunity to showcase sustainable design principles," said James Hunt, Boston's chief of environment and energy. "Whether it's green buildings or sustainability through the landscape and the public realm, there are huge opportunities here from a stormwater perspective."
Mike McBride, program manger with Harvard's Allston Development Group, said the design for the first science building that will be constructed in Allston is a promising first step toward sustainable stormwater management, reducing runoff by more than 50 percent compared with its current industrial use.
"We think we've done yeoman's work in that area," he said.
But Pallavi Mande, an urban restoration specialist with the watershed association, said the problems cannot be solved one building site at a time.
The science building "is a good building," Mande said. "But when it comes to incorporating water in a major way throughout the site, Harvard's plans have fallen short."
In spite of the watershed association's visions, obstacles stand in the way of full restoration. The work must be carried out in a heavily developed neighborhood. Ground contamination on former industrial sites is a concern. And the pipes that now contain Allston Creek divert most of the stream away from its original, northeasterly course.
McBride said major engineering would be required to restore the creek's natural direction of flow.
And, although costs haven't yet been estimated, full restoration would clearly be expensive. Clifton Bell, a Virginia-based hydrologist with the environmental design firm Malcolm Pirnie, warned that the price tag attached to urban daylighting projects like these are significant.
One urban daylighting and flood control project, which restored a five-block stretch of the Arcadia River in downtown Kalamazoo, Mich., for instance, carried a price tag of $7.5 million.
Mande and Bowditch say their group is willing to make some compromises - as long as water remains a design priority in the redevelopment of the area.
"Land is shaped by water," Bowditch said. "If we let the water work for us, it's going to work a lot better."