Hydro Fictions: Commoning Strategies for Water Literacy and Place-making

Water is the foundation for all life on Earth. However, a “multitude of calamities” is causing water to become one of the most rarefied resources that people cannot take for granted any longer. From the market vying for the privatization of water and sea level rise impacting real estate values, to waterfronts being threatened by climate change and a growing concern for access to clean water, water is so powerful in our lives. Yet, we are blatantly oblivious to its implications on all facets of our lives. Charles Fishman, author of “The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water, calls the human race “water illiterate” – and rightfully so. Did you know that producing one pound of meat for consumption uses more than 2,400 gallons of water, equivalent to more than a semester’s worth of showers? Due to conventionally apathetic consumerist behavior, we don’t even question the process of treatment of water, a resource-based commons that is most intimately tied with our homes, our neighborhoods, and every living being on this planet.

Since water and sewage systems have been relegated to the underground, we have hidden water from our sights and lives, forgetting that water was the focal point for social gatherings from as early as the bath houses of ancient Rome to the wash houses of France. Even today, several European neighborhoods incorporate a drinking fountain in their public spaces, around which people spend hours of leisure or recreation, and many cultures around the world hold water in high regard, as an asset that unifies large groups. We are starting to develop this dissolute behavior, completely overlooking the myriad of impending problems regarding water.

This increased distance from our relationship with water and creeping destruction of the hydro-social cycle has caused a distorted perception of water and lack of public knowledge. Architects have focused on the consumption end of the food/water chain through restaurants and stores providing environments to export packaged and processed goods. They barely consider the global discussion surrounding water access and its consideration, missing a huge opportunity for urban designers to intervene and produce collaborative spaces for the state and public to harmonize and share knowledge on our critical resources, perhaps even spark ideas for alternative methods of resource negotiation.

Pittsburgh has been struggling with entrenched infrastructure problems that are a century old, with water-main breaks and boil advisories becoming routine for several neighborhoods. Water systems are one of the few infrastructural elements that instantly warp the price and quality of water for citizens. The authority responsible for the water and sewer system here, the PWSA, led by Robert Weimar, have held themselves accountable, admitting to years of incompetence, changing governance, and a “fix-fail” mentality as causes for their inefficiency as a municipal authority. Fortunately, the PWSA released a $1 billion 12-year plan to reinvest in Pittsburgh’s aged water systems for the year 2030 and beyond.

Their primary locale for water treatment, the Aspinwall Water Treatment Plant, has catered to the city of Pittsburgh and its surrounding communities for over a century. The plant, like the water system of Pittsburgh, has suffered from a lack of investment in recent years, most recently retouched in the late 1960s. However, with the 2030 plan set in motion, PWSA has identified a series of infrastructure changes that will renew the plant by rebuilding its fixtures and systems – almost $120 million in initial investments. While the inner workings of the plant are essential to the treatment and distribution of water, the plant exterior and surrounding environment – a total of 91 acres – have been treated just like the interior: an infrastructural issue. PWSA claims to adapt the plant to meet green building standards – techniques that would result in minimal impact on only the building and no influence on the site and surroundings.

Weimar has been vocal about altering the PWSA governance to provide residents with more of a say when it comes to their water, strengthen relationships between the producer and consumer, and increase transparency of the organization and its technical processes. The plant already provides tours to students and other groups, indicating an interest in water treatment and related knowledge from both the state’s side and public’s side. This also demonstrates PWSA’s desire to bring people into their facilities to learn and be a part of the water treatment process. Obviously, a public institution like PWSA is totally against the idea of privatizing water, despite ample interest, specifically from Peoples Natural Gas, to privatize Pittsburgh’s water.

It is clear that the PWSA has been struggling with maintenance of their organization and infrastructure for years now, damaging their reputation. This large investment through the 2030 plan should not be thought of as infrastructural issue, but as a set of strategies that would provoke collaboration between the public and state, provide citizens with a safe space to express their concerns, and promote advocacy through place-making for this growing contested resource through the access of knowledge and information. The Aspinwall plant has been considered by the PWSA plan in a superficial manner, and I stress that this is an opportunity for the PWSA broaden their vision, with the goal of providing accessibility to clean drinking water and awareness about water-related issues through various schemes mentioned below. The interventions would cultivate a growing relationship between the producer (Allegheny River), the supplier (PWSA) and the consumer (more than 300,000 customers across the city of Pittsburgh and its surrounding areas).

Some of the initial strategies that could result in small but immediate impact to raise interest in the workings of PWSA would be:

  1. Using crowdsourcing methods to create content for a smartphone application that indicates the location of drinking water fountains in the city of Pittsburgh region – similar to the creation of the Smell Pittsburgh app implemented by The Breathe Project to give residents a voice as well as accumulate data on air quality for more evidence-based activism. This app could also provide residents to indicate taste and quality of water in the city of Pittsburgh, zoomed to the census tract level. This would give residents a chance to recommend locations to install drinking water fountains in the city and provide critiques on PWSA’s performance on water treatment, entering the decision making process regarding water accessibility.
  2. An open design festival hosted by the PWSA to invite the creative community of Pittsburgh to design water fountains in each neighborhood across the City of Pittsburgh. Currently in across the city there are several neighborhoods that lack public drinking water fountains. Similar to the New Public Hydrant designed by Agency-Agency for the Water Futures Research Program – where designers created a series of bright blue plumbing fixtures that could turn the New York City’s fire hydrants into inclusive public drinking fountains or showers – this would be a method for a municipal authority like PWSA to advocate for public drinking water, as well as engage the public in innovative methods for access to drinking water. A similar process already takes place through the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s Public Art Bike Racks, and the Water Cube – an artist-designed water fountain that dispenses both still and sparkling water on Penn Avenue. By even starting with one public water fountain per neighborhood, that would amount to a total of 92 fountains – a significant addition to the current 46 fountains across the city.
  3. Providing the residents of Pittsburgh with safe platforms to discuss issues on Pittsburgh’s water crises, moratoriums in low-income neighborhoods, and water accessibility in the city. By helping create a momentum from discussions on Pittsburgh’s strained relationship with water, these meetings could incite advocacy for appropriate water treatment. While events like this are already done in several locations around the city, this strategy would ideally be located in a central area, such as Market Square, or at Point State Park – areas with heavy foot traffic, where concerned citizens and anyone passing by can be involved in this conversation. Similar to a space like El Campo de la Cebada in Madrid, where an abandoned community swimming pool project became a community focal point for sociocultural discussion, or the Braddock Carnegie Library, where a historic landmark in a neighborhood has been rethought of as a flexible space for programs that empower the community. Over time, this space will be considered synonymous with water advocacy, and will give PWSA and its customers a space to conduct meetings, seminars, and workshops to increase awareness as well as brainstorm alternative notions on tackling Pittsburgh’s issues with water.
  4. Sensory installations placed in a series along the Three Rivers Heritage Trail or around the City of Pittsburgh, which would exhibit conditions that would arise, if we do not stray from our currently apathetic behavior to our environment and its natural resources. Despite scientific data showing rising surface temperatures, increasing carbon dioxide levels, sea level rises and extreme weather occurrences, environmental issues are occurring on a scales of time and size too large for our comprehension, hence a direct relationship between these issues and our negligence. These human-scale sensory interventions could be a medium through which we confront our relationship with the hypothetical environment we could create by targeting our senses.
  5. And finally, the largest of the strategies would be a total redesign of the Aspinwall Water Treatment Plant and the site on which it stands. By not focusing on the obstacles that hindered the PWSA’s procedures with drinking water, this revitalization of the building and site would celebrate the process and experience the infrastructure by illuminating the various water cycles that occur on the site that visitors can immerse themselves and learn about water. As per the 2030 plan, the building and site is considered equal to the piping – a means to an end. There has been a growing dichotomy between nature and culture, when in fact they can be interwoven through this site. I assert that this facility should be envisioned as an asset that can set the stage for a long-term scheme that can provide space and enrich the knowledge on issues surrounding water for the region and the world. By creating a vast learning space on the landscape that depicts the benefits of green infrastructure and need for concern around water, similar to the Landschafts Duisburg Nord of the Ruhr Valley – a public park that used an abandoned coal and steel production plant to heal and understand the industrial past, rather than trying to reject it. The primary intention of this strategy is to create a safe, educational, and interactive public space out of a long-time municipal authority building, providing all parties with access to water as well as access to education and recreation.

As I have already initiated conversations with PWSA, my steps moving forward are to identify a point person within the PWSA to meet and consult with on a monthly basis, design prototypes of drinking fountains or coordinate a design charrette on designing water fountains at a school in Pittsburgh, as well as multiple interviews and consultations with individuals from the state and public spheres on water issues in Pittsburgh, the reputation of the PWSA, and their faith in the 2030 plan.  

Water is rapidly growing into the most contested resource in the world, at both local and global scales. However, there are disadvantages to both governing and negotiating this resource from solely the top-down or the bottom-up approach. I believe that when considering our natural resources – especially in times where they are subject to destruction by private interests – we need to bolster the relationship of the state and civic spheres to work towards the access and treatment of the resource through place-making that heightens partnerships and kindles advocacy.

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