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London, United Kingdom
I am an engineering academic at University College London where I work on the sustainability of urban water systems. I am interested in the role of engineers and technology in sustainable cities.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Water, bodies and landscapes

This is an extract from an essay written for Smout Allen's installation 'Surface Tension', exhibited at the Nevada Museum of Art, Reno, 2011.

Water is unique in providing a direct, material connection between bodies and landscapes in mundane urban experience. Every day we encounter water itself. The water we splash on our faces or flush down our toilets first thing in the morning provides a real, tangible connection with both the hidden landscape of urban infrastructure and the hydrological landscape that extends beyond the city. Water utilities are distinct in this regard. Our connections to landscape through energy or food are much further removed. We encounter electricity, not coal itself. We encounter meat and vegetables, not soil itself. When we wash, flush, drink, cook and clean, we are directly engaged with the one of most fundamental elements of life and landscape. Water as a connector to landscape is much celebrated in bottled water marketing, which reminds us that we are drinking in the Scottish Highlands or French Alps, and the same is true of the water that flows from our taps every day. Every morning in London I shower in the Cotswolds, the gentle limestone hills beyond Oxford. Visiting family in Western Australia I wash dishes in the Perth Hills. At a conference in Colorado I flush down the Rocky Mountains. 

Our physical and cultural needs for water provide fundamental connections between our bodies and the landscapes we inhabit. The particular form that this relationship has taken in modern cities reflects deep ambivalence to water. The aesthetic qualities of water are recognised in urban design and architecture through attention to coastal, riverside or lake vistas, the desirability of water front development, and the continued popularity of the fountain in various guises in urban design. Such design predominantly emphasises visual experiences of water, with occasional attention to its auditory qualities. Water is also recognised as a source of public pleasure and a medium of leisure in urban spaces such as beaches, swimming pools and ponds, and water playgrounds. Water provides a key point of interaction with non-human nature in cities with urban rivers and wetlands providing small patches of wildness and habitat for birds, turtles, fish, frogs, insects and water faring mammals. However, our most vital and personal daily connections with water in cities are invisible and private – sublimated and taboo in everyday discourse, buried beneath our streets and hidden from view in our buildings. We are rarely more than a few feet away from flowing water in our buildings and streets, yet are usually unconscious of this most significant urban water cycle. Visual and public experiences of water are celebrated, bodily and private needs for water are hidden.

This comes as no surprise given the dominance of mind over body, public over private, visible over invisible, reason over emotion, and culture over nature in western thought. Feminist scholars such as Val Plumwood have analysed this system of dualism to demonstrate the underlying philosophical structures which link the domination of masculine over feminine to wider patterns of oppression[i]. The feminine is associated with the body, emotion, nature, privacy and invisibility, while the masculine is celebrated along with the mind, reason, culture, public life and visibility. Water flows between these categories, appearing in public and private, as cultural product and natural environment, as object of rational planning and subject of bodily pleasure. However, it is our bodily and private needs for water that are most fundamental, and that are proving most problematic in designing future landscapes, buildings and urban spaces.

Although water itself flows from rivers and aquifers, through reservoirs, treatment works, pumps and pipes into our bathrooms and kitchens, and back again, our experience of water is disconnected from its hydrological and ecological context. Daily water habits are socially and culturally constructed, and technologically mediated. Technical experts trace the flows of water from landscape to bathroom and back, so that modern citizens don’t have to. Engineered water systems provide a buffer between personal demands for water and daily, seasonal and climatic changes in rainfall, groundwater and river flows. Freed from the daily struggle to find water modern citizens are able to engage in higher urban pursuits. However, the invisible engineering systems that deliver fresh water to cities are reaching their limits. The buffer between bodies and landscapes is being breached.   

Reweaving the ties between cities, bodies and landscapes requires new threads as well as new arrangements of existing systems, technologies and norms. Strategies for renegotiating urban water landscapes include: 1) confronting the demarcation of public and private which exempts bodily water practices from purposive critique and change; 2) interrogating associations between water and comfort, pleasure and purity, and proposing alternative technologies, practices and norms to meet these desires without using water; and 3) constructing local water cycles in buildings and neighbourhoods to relieve pressure on landscapes beyond the city. Examples of each of these strategies can be found in design and public discourse. During the 2005 drought in London Mayor Ken Livingston encouraged people to follow the ‘if it’s yellow let it mellow’ practice in toilet flushing, signifying an incursion of public debate into private, bodily water practice. Throughout the developing world waterless ecological sanitation systems are being implemented in pragmatic attempts to the Millennium Development Goal to half the number of people without access to sanitation, decoupling sanitation and water. The third proposition is evident in the growth of non-potable water supply systems based on a ‘fit-for-purpose’ principle using greywater, rainwater and recycled water for flushing toilets, watering gardens and washing clothes.

Water itself uniquely connects bodies and landscapes. In modern cities this connection is sublimated, hidden in pipes and sewers. As a result we have developed technologies and practices that consume water as if it was endless. Fresh water is a spatially constrained resource and many cities are now exceeding the hydrological capacity of their surrounding landscapes. Conventional engineering models of water provision are reaching their limits, reopening the space of possibilities for how water flows through cities and bodies. Propositions are emerging which reconfigure urban cultures and spaces to allow more hydrologically sensible relationships between cities and landscapes. It is imperative that these efforts acknowledge the centrality of bodies and bodily functions in these relationships, following water itself across boundaries of polite urban discourse.

[i] Plumwood V. (1993) Feminism and the mastery of nature London: Routledge.

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