How can micro-placemaking address the lack of access and awareness to urban infrastructure and natural resources?
A myriad of problems have been causing water to become one of the most rarefied and contested 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 has done its job so “well” that we have become desensitized to nature and oblivious to its rarity. Charles Fishman, author of “The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water”, calls the human race “water illiterate” – and rightfully so. Due to our apathetic consumerist behavior, we don’t even question the process of treatment of water, the one resource-based commons that is most intimately tied with our homes, our neighborhoods, and every living being on this planet. Charles Fishman, author of “The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water”, calls the human race “water illiterate” – and rightfully so.
Since the implementation of underground water and sewer systems, we seem to 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. Whatever the relationship with this resource, we are starting to develop this dissolute behavior, in a world where where children die of diseases caused by water at the same time communities struggle to get water more than once a week. It very simply needs to stop.
This increased distance from our relationship with water and creeping destruction of the hydrosocial cycle has caused a distorted perception of water and lack of public knowledge, barely considering 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.
I stress that this is an opportunity for the local water authority, the PWSA, to reassess their vision and potentially collaborate with local water nonprofit organizations, with the goal of providing accessibility to clean drinking water and awareness about its issues through various micro-urban spaces that not only provide access to public drinking water in urban areas, but also reactivate public spaces around this resource to increase visibility and knowledge of this infrastructure, encouraging its preservation as a public good. 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 Greater Pittsburgh region and various nonprofits advocating for clean drinking water).
It goes without saying that water is one of the most contested resources in the world right now, 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 placemaking that heightens partnerships and kindles advocacy.