10 Rivers Buried Under Cities

What’s that gurgling under the sidewalk? It could be an actual river buried underground in the name of urban progress.
Vienna’s Wienflussportal, showing the spot where the Vienna River emerges from its underground course.
Vienna’s Wienflussportal, showing the spot where the Vienna River emerges from its underground course. / Gugerell, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Humans have a history of burying rivers because of pollution, pestilence, population growth, or all the above. City planners and engineers around the world have sent streams underground as recently as 30 years ago, while novels, poetry, and films remind us of long-forgotten rivers from earlier times. Clues that a river rushes beneath our feet may appear in abundant street-level greenery, the way a road roams rather than runs straight, or places where you might still hear the telltale sounds.

But whatever the immediate goal for entombing a river might have been, it was generally in the name of modernization. And in today’s world, many a city with a river running through it is discussing what reopening, or “daylighting,” that river would require—with some urban centers already bringing their rivers back to life.

1. Neglinnaya, Moscow, Russia // Buried by 1812

The outflow of the Neglinnaya in Moscow.
The outflow of the Neglinnaya in Moscow. / Alexander Savin, Wikimedia Commons // Free Art License 1.3

Russia’s Neglinnaya River once flowed freely from the north of Moscow to the south. There, it met with the Moskva River, forming a triangle of land upon which the Kremlin’s familiar red brick fortress first rose in the late 15th century (the Neglinnaya served as a moat on the Kremlin’s eastern edge).

One theory regarding the river’s name is that it comes from the old Russian word neglinok, meaning a “swampy place.” As Moscow grew, the Neglinnaya narrowed, and industry sprang up along the spring. Flooding and pollution had become problems by the middle of the 18th century. Then Moscow’s disastrous fire in 1812, allegedly started and stoked by Russians when Napoleon invaded, further fouled the Neglinnaya so that engineers decided to cover it.

Today, the Neglinnaya flows alongside other buried streams, secret Soviet bunkers, and an unused underground rail system supposedly built by Stalin to link strategic sites. Approximately 4.7 miles of tunnels contain the river, with two openings discharging it directly into the Moskva. And as long as you stay away from the Kremlin, you can explore this underworld.

2. River Farset, Belfast, UK // Buried by 1848

A giant sculpture in the shape of a fish titled ‘the salmon of knowledge’ in Belfast
‘The Salmon of Knowledge’ sculpture marks the point where the river Farset and Lagan converge. / William Murphy, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

The River Farset, stemming from the Gaelic Béal Feirste (“mouth of the sandbank”) gave Belfast its name. As the former commercial artery of the burgeoning city, the Farset first flows from a field full of watercress rising above Belfast on Squire’s Hill to the north, snakes underground before reaching Shankill Graveyard, passes parallel to the “Peace Wall” that once formally separated Protestants and Catholics, hikes its way down to High Street, and regroups with the River Lagan approximately 3.5 miles later. This marks the spot where Belfast was first occupied during the Stone Age (though the city didn’t receive its royal charter until 1888).

As in other European cities, the Industrial Revolution wreaked havoc on the rivers that facilitated Belfast’s commercial development. With the Farset fueling growth, Belfast became known as one of the world’s leading linen manufacturers. However, pollution from increasing industry turned the river into a sewer, and then a secret as the last section was buried by 1848.

Advocates have been discussing the possibility of daylighting a portion of the Farset since 2013, so the river may once again see the light of day.

3. Waihorotiu Stream, Auckland, New Zealand // Buried by 1860

A View of Auckland, ca. 1853
An 1850s view of Queen Street, Auckland, which follows the path of the Waihorotiu Stream. / Historical/GettyImages

According to Māori mythology, Waihorotiu is the home of Horotiu, a local nature spirit. And the Waihorotiu Stream, an ancient awa (“river”) and source of drinking water and food, used to flow along modern-day Auckland’s Queen Street in the heart of the city.

Running approximately one mile, Waihorotiu trickles from Aotea Square (originally a marsh) to the harbor. Though the first known European explorer, Abel Tasman, arrived in the area in 1642, it wasn’t until after James Cook’s 1769 expedition that Europeans began emigrating to New Zealand in earnest. Settlers’ reports from the 1840s described Waihorotiu as “a considerable tidal creek” full of eels and trout [PDF]. But colonization during the 19th century increased pollution; businesses along the stream dumped waste straight into it. As Tāmaki-Makaurau (the Māori-language name for the land surrounding the creek) was altered and built up to become Auckland, Waihorotiu was bricked over. By 1860, the former stream had become an official sewer.

Auckland’s regional council has reviewed opportunities to daylight the Waihorotiu and deemed existing infrastructure insufficient, but it doesn’t appear to be completely off the table.

4. River Fleet, London, UK // Buried by 1880

Fleet River, London, 1854. Artist: Anon
The Fleet River in a buried section, circa 1854, by an anonymous artist. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

Flowing approximately four miles from Hampstead Heath, London’s River Fleet once formed a tidal basin hundreds of feet wide where it met with the Thames. Legend suggests the Celtic Queen Boudicca led her famous rebellion against Roman rule in 60 AD along its banks, and even before that, the river provided drinking water and power for mills [PDF]. Deriving its name from the Anglo-Saxon word flēot, meaning “tidal inlet,” it’s the largest of London’s many buried rivers.

As the population of London grew, so too did the pollution, with tanners, butchers, and others throwing the waste from their industries into the river. As early as 1290, a group of monks wrote to King Edward I complaining that during mass, “putrid exhalations of the Fleet” disturbed the worshipers. The river notably gave its name to Fleet Street, the famous former home for Britain’s newspaper industry, which started up in 1702

The smell became so bad by the 1730s that the city began to brick the Fleet over. That effort continued for more than 140 years, and the streets around the river became slums featured in Charles Dickens’s fiction. A series of cholera epidemics further depressed the reputation of the river and contributed to the Great Stink of 1858; the River Fleet was made a part of Joseph Bazalgette’s modern sewer system, and was fully covered by 1880.

5. Wienfluss, Vienna, Austria // Buried (Mostly) by 1910

A detention basin of the Wienfluss. Vienna, 14th district, Penzing. Hand-colored lantern slide. Around 1895.
A detention basin of the Wienfluss. Vienna, is shown in a hand-colored lantern slide from the late 19th century. / brandstaetter images/GettyImages

The Vienna River (or Wienfluss in German) takes its name from the city, with some sources claiming Vienna derives from the Celtic Vedunia, translating to “river in the woods.” Bubbling up at the base of the Kaiserbrunnberg, a forested hill west of the city, roughly nine of the river’s 21 total miles flow within Vienna.

Originally the Austrian capital’s most important commercial river, thw Wienfluss was used to transport wood until 1754. It was a main source of hydropower along with the nearby Danube River. However, area residents and businesses made a habit of throwing waste into the waterway, which flooded regularly and caused health issues. Following a cholera outbreak in 1830, Vienna began covering many of its streams, incorporating them into an already significant sewer system. By 1910, the city had covered parts of the river and channeled other sections into a canal.

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The river reminds us it’s down there, though. Its tunnels made a cameo in the 1949 Orson Welles film The Third Man. Visitors can also see the Wienflussportal, a grand arch over the spot where the river emerges from its underground course in Vienna’s Stadtpark.

6. Tibbetts Brook, Bronx, New York // Buried by 1912

Van Cortlandt Park Lake in the Bronx, NY
Van Cortlandt Park Lake in the Bronx, where Tibbetts Brook flows before sliding into the New York City sewer system. / TheTurducken, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

New York City is built atop subterranean streams and springs galore, as an 1865 sanitary map of Manhattan shows. In the 1800s, rapid urban development flattened rolling hills, filled in marshland, and funneled many rivers underground. One such buried body of water is Tibbetts Brook in the Bronx.

The Lenape called the brook Mosholu, meaning “smooth or small stones,” and it was later dubbed Tibbetts Brook as a variation of the name of George Tippett, a 17th-century settler. Springing from Yonkers, Tibbetts Brook flows for approximately four miles before it feeds Van Cortlandt Park Lake, created in 1699 when Jacobus Van Cortlandt dammed a portion of the stream to run his sawmill. Tibbetts Brook was forced underground at Tibbett Avenue in the early 1900s to reduce flooding and provide more viable real estate. However, because it flows directly into New York City’s overloaded sewer system, it now causes flooding in the streets around the original streambed.

As a result, Tibbetts Brook is one of New York’s underground rivers approved for daylighting. In January 2023, the city agreed to purchase a section of land needed to surface Tibbetts close to its original open-air path. Once the project is completed, which is estimated to be around 2030, it will “remove roughly 4 to 5 million gallons of water” from the sewer system daily and provide new green spaces for residents, according to a press release from the New York City mayor’s office.

7. Bièvre River, Paris, France // Buried in 1912

The Bièvre River flows through a tunnel under Paris.
The Bièvre flows through a tunnel under Paris. / Hugo Clément, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

When people think of a Paris river, La Siene likely springs to mind. But Bièvre River once ran through the city, too, making an appearance in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and feeding the fountains at Versailles. Theories abound as to the origin of the name. It may derive from the Celtic beber for “beaver,” or the Latin bibere, “to drink.”

The Bièvre’s source lies approximately 22 miles southwest of Paris. Originally, it met up with the Seine near the Jardin des Plantes in the 5th arrondissement. As early as the 1300s, Parliament banned butchers from dumping their refuse in the Seine but allowed disposal in the Bièvre, creating a disgusting cesspool. When the Industrial Revolution revved up, industries like tanning and dyeing made the Bièvre an open sewer.

The river inside the city limits was covered in 1912 and no longer runs under the streets, having been diverted roughly 13 miles outside of Paris. Many passionate Parisians and sustainability advocates are now working to bring the Bièvre back: suburban sections have been daylighted, and a portion in Paris near Parc Kellerman has been selected for revitalization, which planners hope will help the city combat the effects of climate change.

8. Cheonggyecheon, Seoul, South Korea // Buried by 1958

People visit Cheonggyecheon in central Seoul.
People visit Cheonggyecheon in central Seoul. / SOPA Images/GettyImages

Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon River is a daylighting success story. Originally named Gaecheon (“open stream”), it was renamed Cheonggyecheon during the period of Japanese rule beginning in 1910. As urban populations rose after the Korean War, the city’s substandard housing and overcrowded neighborhoods increased pollution in and around the stream. In 1958, the city covered the river with a concrete platform, and by 1976, an elevated highway snaked over the top.

As urban planning became more focused on environmental health and sustainability, Seoul’s mayor launched a project to revitalize the Cheonggyecheon in 2003. The concrete cover was removed, the water supply restored, and about 3.6 miles of the nearly seven-mile river have emerged.

Restoration of Cheonggyecheon has contributed to a 15.1 and 3.3 percent rise in bus and subway ridership, respectively, reducing air pollution and traffic. It helped revitalize blighted neighborhoods and increase real estate values. It now serves as a channel for flood protection and receives an estimated 64,000 visitors per day. Cities around the world look to this success when forming their own daylighting projects.

9. Shibuya River, Tokyo, Japan // Buried by 1964

Ever-Changing Shibuya Shopping District
The Shibuya River trickles somewhere under the famous Shibuya Scramble intersection. / Keith Tsuji/GettyImages

Originally named Edo, meaning “coastal waters” or “estuary,” Tokyo once resembled Venice. With an impressive water management system for more than 100 rivers and canals, Tokyo had a greater population than London by the 1700s. Merchants shipped goods on the waterways throughout the city, creating the sophisticated metropolis depicted on the woodblock prints and called ukiyo-e (which means “floating world”).

The devastating Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, followed by Allied fire bombing during World War II, destroyed much of Tokyo’s mostly wooden housing. In the aftermath of these two horrific events in close succession, the city rebuilt with less emphasis on its waterways. Many of the rivers were buried as part of preparations for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

In one famous example, the Onden and Uda rivers come together to form the 1.5-mile-long Shibuya River. By the 1960s, the Shibuya was already a polluted, disused stream, and Olympic planners realized it was simply easier and faster to build roads and railways directly above it. It now flows under the feet of thousands of pedestrians as they cross the iconic Shibuya Scramble intersection. Ironically, the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo revived discussion of unearthing the Shibuya and creating green spaces.

10. La Senne, Brussels, Belgium // Buried by 1996

The old Senne River tunnels under Brussels.
The old Senne River tunnels under Brussels. / Mark Lovatt/Moment Open/Getty Images

Brussels owes its name—and its very existence—to the Senne River. One of the earliest references to Brussels comes from the 10th century, when it was called Bruocsella, meaning “settlement in the marshes.” At 62 miles long, the Senne crosses three regions of Belgium and eventually empties into the North Sea, with more than nine miles running through Brussels. Lambic aficionados owe their gratitude to the river because the beer is spontaneously fermented by wild yeasts native to the Senne valley.

Yet, in the late 1800s, city authorities began covering the river, citing pollution and terrible water quality. Frequent flooding followed by cholera outbreaks contributed to Belgians’ eagerness to put it out of sight and out of mind.

Today, while some of Europe’s other rivers hold romantic connotations for citizens, Belgians appear to have lingering reservations about their buried river, with sections having been submerged as recently as 1996. Recent efforts to daylight portions of the river met resistance from residents who remembered the Senne as a festering swamp. But some of the Senne has been freed from its tomb: Over the last decade, the city has worked to restore fish and plant communities in the river, and the European Union is kicking in funding, according to its climate change goals.