The Newsletter 94 Spring 2023

Launch of the River Cities Network: Engaging with Waterways in the Anthropocene

Paul Rabé

The River Cities Network is a new transdisciplinary and global network to promote the inclusive revitalization of rivers and waterways and the landscapes/waterscapes, cities, and neighborhoods that co-exist with them. The network is being coordinated from the Urban Cluster of IIAS and, as of December 2022, comprises 40 project teams from around the world, each of which critically examines a local river-city relationship (the ‘river-city nexus’). A board of advisors has been formed, which includes prominent people in their fields from the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. Please contact us if you are interested!

The River Cities Network (RCN) was formally launched in December 2022 via two online meetings that brought together—online for now—members of the project teams and advisors.

The urgency that brings together the River Cities Network partners is the degradation of rivers and waterways all over the world, particularly in urban areas, where most of the world’s population lives. As stated by the international NGO International Rivers, “free-flowing rivers work like arteries, providing the world’s ecosystems with critical freshwater resources that sustain a higher biodiversity per square mile than almost any other ecosystem”. Yet, the fragmentation, diversion, and pollution of these water bodies endanger the food security, livelihoods, and cultural traditions of millions of people. The effects of climate change exacerbate river degradation in the form of flooding, drought, and unpredictable water levels, temperatures and quality, made worse by other man-made interventions. This trend is especially pronounced in urbanized areas, where the health of river ecosystems competes for attention with many other policy priorities.

The RCN was established to address this complex set of problems by contributing action research on the river-city nexus in different parts of the world through local case study projects of urban river disruption and degradation. The river-city nexus provides a lens through which to critically analyze relationships between human settlements and rivers over time and a platform to engage in collective action to revitalize local river ecosystems and the communities adjacent to these rivers.

Justice and Biodiversity

Across all the case study projects, the network partners are motivated by a central question: In what ways can rivers and waterways better sustain productive’ urban life and vice versa? Key indicators of a productive life’ are improved water quality and increased biodiversity, and socially, culturally, and economically vital and just communities. The approach of the RCN to river revitalization is to elaborate a theoretical framework, backed up by practical tools, to bring together the two pillars of ’productive life’ in a river-city context. Namely, a socio-economic pillar aimed at transformational resilience (‘justice’) and a nature-based pillar aimed at biodiversity restoration. These two pillars of the RCN are considered critical to the restoration of the relationship between rivers and cities.

Many of the RCN project teams have as their revitalization strategy to reconnect communities to their local rivers and waterways. Whereas rivers and canals were once at the center of urban life—economically, socially, and culturally—these connections have often been ruptured for a variety of reasons. This rupture, in turn, leads to further degradation, as local people no longer feel a connection to their water bodies. Re-establishing a connection to the rivers and canals can help communities better understand their history, rediscover connections with nature and with each other, and as a result, acquire citizenship in a broader sense.

Historical approaches are front and center in the River Cities network. RCN project teams will adopt a historical perspective to tell the story of rivers or sections of rivers and their relationship with human interventions over time. The rationale is that river disruption issues must be understood from a longue durée perspective to learn from the past and re-establish future connections between humans and nature.

Join us!

RCN is a peer-to-peer learning network, with learning taking place within project teams, between project teams, and between the network and other networks and initiatives. Teams represent many parts of the world, with different water management traditions, in the global North as well as the global South. Over half of the river-city case studies in RCN are in Asia (covering East, South and Southeast Asia). RCN’s regular events will include project team presentations, in-situ graduate schools, workshops and short-term research exchanges. They will all have this peer-to-peer learning relationship as a central feature. RCN recognizes that there is a crucial need for broad-based learning, including from societies whose traditional knowledge of water systems has been neglected.

Expressions of interest from project teams all over the world are welcomed, particularly on river-city case studies in Africa, the Americas, Europe, and the Middle East. Please consult the River Cities page on the IIAS website, also for updates about regular events open to a general audience: For more information, please contact the RCN coordinators: Paul Rabé ( and Satya Patchineelam (