Rouge River Michigan

During the course Coastal Morphologies, I generated a series of maps focusing on the Rouge River, south of Detroit, MI.  These maps examine the formal changes that the river and urban environment impose on one another.


The Historic Edge of the Rouge River has been transformed from a diffuse field condition to a simplified network of lines. The French explorers of 1670 found a large wetland area with abundant oak forest s, game and Native American inhabitants. At the turn of the 19th century, the majority of Wayne County remained wetland. Depending on water levels at various points of the year, the Rouge River was a large shallow heterogeneous mixture of earth and water. As wetlands were drained the division between land and water was further established. Small creeks and streams remained as capillary extensions to the more permanent river channels. Eventually, this rich interface between land and water was also destroyed. Small waterways were filled in or covered over. Agriculture, industry and residential neighborhoods claimed the space that the water once occupied. As raw materials flowed upstream to factories, transportation became a major use for the Rouge River. Finished materials flowed out to the world. With each increase in production, the river required more dredging for navigation. Establishment of firm banks provided more space for production at the river’s edge. Today we are a left with a highly directed and controlled waterway that flows straight and fast to a confluence with the Detroit River.




The Rouge River Flood Zones identify the “water-places” associated with the river. These water places are the traditional territory of the river when mapped over longer time periods. Each new division of time reveals a new zone of occupancy for the river. Time based flood zones are delineated as a projection of possible future floods. Due to the elimination of Wetland and Riparian zones, the flood zones adjacent to the River rouge have become exacerbated. A rethinking of the urban water system should take into account areas that can absorb the fluctuations of the river over time.




The Water Table and Sewer System serve as collection points for water within the natural hydrological cycle and the man-made urban water systems respectively.  Early settlers deposited waste directly into the Rouge River from the bordering agricultural tracts.  As land use shifted from agricultural to industrial and residential, streams were buried and marshlands were filled.  Central sewer systems with instituted to handle the increased waste water flow.  The two systems come into contact via the Combined Sewer Overflow points in place to handle excessive rains.  Rain water that is not able to penetrate the impervious surfaces to reach the water table is collected in the storm water system.  During heavy rains the mix of sewage and water is released directly into the Rouge River.  As of 2004, the CSO have started to be replaced with retention areas. 




Wetlands begin the process of purification within the natural hydrological cycle.  When first settled, much of the Rouge River watershed was covered by wetlands.  This purification resource has been systematically filled in or drained.  Agriculture, Industry and Commerce have exerted their influence at the cost of the river system.   As a result, waste and toxins that would have been removed by the wetlands flow directly into the Rouge River.  The Rouge empties into the Detroit River and thereby the entire chain of the great lakes.  The national wetlands inventory shows what has been lost, what remains and what areas might be reclaimed as wetlands.




The Major Transportation Lines surrounding the Rouge River have developed over several centuries.  Originally the river served as the primary means of transportation.  Wetlands and clay soils in the area made overland travel in the spring and fall difficult.  The river could be navigated by boat in the summer and by sleigh in the winter.  As industry grew, the river was dredged to accommodate larger and large watercraft.  In 1827 it was proposed that the Rouge River become the start of a canal between Lake Erie and Lake Michigan.  The arrival of the Railroads squashed that plan and imposed and entirely new landscape and network on the land.  During the 1950, the interstate highway system was also constructed.  In the area surround the Rouge River – Detroit River confluence each of these three systems interface with one another.

 Gnau, Tara B. “Indian Mounds to Dumping Grounds : A History of the Rouge River.” Dearborn Magazine. 1975: 57-75. Print.




The geometry of the River Frontage of land division is indicative of the river’s agency.  Ribbon bands of agricultural properties abutted the river in during the settlement period by the French and English colonists.   This spatial organization ensured river access to each settler in the area.  “The farms had river frontage of anywhere between 1 to 5 arpents (200 to 1,000 feet) so that each settler had access to the water for drinking, fishing and transportation.”   These colonial territorial divisions marked the beginning of the rivers commercial use.  As commercial and industrial uses shifted, so have the divisions of land abutting the river.  As manufacturing was built up in the area, ribbon farms gave way to large square plots along the river with their own private landings.  Major industries such as brick making and ship building relied upon water transportation.  These industries gave way to automobile production. The Ford Company went so far as to dredge a private canal for supply delivery and automobile.  With the collapse of these wartime industries, an opportunity exists to redefine the division of land along the Rouge River and thereby reintroduce the river’s agency in the area.


Map Sources

Historic and Current maps were used in the production of each poster.  Images of historic maps were traced, while current maps from the Michigan Dept of Environmental Quality were obtained through GIS software translation.