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WATERMARKS

restoring water's status in the urban scape

Fall 2018 - Spring 2019  | Pittsburgh, PA

 

**To watch the final thesis review, please click here.**

**To read more about the thesis, please click here.**

We use it everyday, but don’t think about it very much. It’s everywhere in the city, the lifeline of almost every single aspect in the world. If water is an essential ingredient of life, then water supply is an essential ingredient of civilization. Initially, people settled near bodies of water for trade and security. Over time, as these settlements grew into cities, people were forced to live further away from their water source. Now, 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”. He's right.

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 every living and man-made thing on this planet.

Since the implementation of underground water systems, we seem to have disconnected ourselves from our water, 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.

Water covers less than 2% of the area in the Pittsburgh metropolitan region, but somehow one is always encountering it when travelling through the region. All throughout the Pittsburgh area, the three rivers - Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela - have been crucial throughout the development of the region. These three rivers have greatly influenced the daily lives of its residents, through settlement, built landscape, and economy. At the same time, Pittsburghers have shaped and bent the rivers to their will, ultimately changing the riverine ecology and intimately connecting the two characters together. Access to water across the city -as early as the mid-1800s- was unevenly distributed. Working-class districts generally had poorer water supplies than affluent neighborhoods, relying on local springs or wells. There was even a time in the South Side where tenements owned by US Steel had one spigot in a yard serving almost one hundred families.

According to historian Robin Einhorn, the Pittsburgh water distribution network was a segmented one - providing benefits to those who paid for them, but “made the American urban landscape a physical expression of social inequality.”

In 2012, Pittsburgh came to realize that its century-old water system desperately needed repair. However,  the local water authority - PWSA was plagued with administrative problems and massive debt - an issue that a lot of public utilities around the country are struggling with, and seek the aid of private management companies. Pittsburgh sought the partnership of a Paris-based consultant called Veolia - and things were changing for the better. However, with knowledge of the Flint Water Crisis - a disaster that Veolia was also involved in - Pittsburgh terminated its contract with Veolia after a series of lawsuits going back and forth. Even after 5 years, with PWSA making great strides in the positive with its 2030 Plan and lead pipe replacements, Pittsburghers still hesitate to trust their water authority.

 

I believe that one of the first steps in speeding the trajectory of concern and amendment towards water and its surrounding issues is altering the public’s perception of water as well as the organization handling it, and providing them with access and visibility to this resource hidden in an antiquated but pervasive infrastructure. The added distance from our relationship with water has caused a distorted perception and lack of public knowledge. We need to fix this, and I believe that we as designers have an extremely critical role to play in not only producing spaces to provide access to drinking water in the urban realm, but act as organizers, advocates for the environment, and be catalysts, providing education and awareness that can perhaps spark ideas for alternative methods of water negotiation.

The two notable infrastructure components where this extensive hidden network crosses the threshold into the public realm are the fountain and the hydrant - one a fading segment of social growth, the other a ubiquitous piece of infrastructure that is incessantly looked over.

 

Fountains, whether it be for drinking or for leisure, were long revered features of urban life, at one point in history a celebration of technological and infrastructural advancement to the people. Today, these fountains are in a massive state of crisis. They are decreasing at immense rates, similar to the inevitable demise of the payphone. We have now turned back to bottled water, with Americans drinking almost 34 gallons every year, more than milk or beer. What also seems to have caused the demise of the public fountain is clearly our attitude toward public space and water itself. Many adults claim to have fond memories of drinking fountains as kids, but the public does not trust fountains anymore. When people care or know less about the public water supply, the will to maintain it goes down as well.

The fire hydrant, an everyday but critical component of street furniture is the other only junction at which this extensive water infrastructure meets the public realm. While mostly used in emergencies, fire hydrants also have an extremely pivotal social component, iconic in New York City, where the simple turn of the cap produces a jet-like spray for children to play in on hot summer days - an improvised urban shower.

The PWSA currently oversees a total of 8,205 hydrants in their purview that spans across the city of Pittsburgh and some of its surrounding townships. With the current population of the city of Pittsburgh, there is 1 fire hydrant for every 40 Pittsburghers,

compared to the 1 drinking fountain for every 2,000 Pittsburghers. 

 

It is with this balanced distribution of hydrants across the PWSA service that these pieces of often overlooked public infrastructure are one already tangible interface that express the intangible infrastructure underneath.

The hydrant and the space around it are considered to be one of the highly regulated infrastructural components of the public realm, primarily due to its access in times of need. With these regulations and classifications, it may seem that tapping into the fire hydrant is a task in itself, but I stress that its presence in the public realm as a standardized object with potable water is an invaluable opportunity to uncover urban water infrastructure.

Furthermore, by occupying the space in the 15’ and beyond zone with micro-urban public spaces on the streetscape, there is an opportunity to not only harness the hydrant as an amenity, but by creating bump-outs in this zone that merge with the street furniture zone of the sidewalk, we can ensure that the space around the hydrant is secured for the fire department at all times.

Above, I have illustrated three typologies: The Basin, the Cooler, and the Playspace.

These interventions not only provide for access to drinking water on the streetscape, but make calls to the historic and cultural relations to water - through a large basin in front of a fountain, like the Trevi Fountain in Rome, or using water as a cooling component for plants and people on warmer days, and incorporating a sense of outdoor play with water for children and families.

There are more opportunities to implement these mico-urban hydrophilic spaces in Pittsburgh - potentially in spaces where either water is accessible, or where urban public spaces are readily available. While spaces like urban plazas and the Three Rivers Heritage Trail are distinct in their popularity among Pittsburghers and would allow for access and foot traffic, these locations are a lot less frequent and hence, I believe the streetscape typology should be the more conventional format for these micro-urban spaces.

 

Along with these physical interventions, a major method to simultaneously promote water literacy and push for more public involvement and awareness about urban water challenges would be through a smartphone application that uses crowdsourcing methods to accumulate data on water quality in the PWSA service area.

**While the application depicted here is to merely show what it could look like, a fully-functioning application can be designed and completed by an organization such as the Carnegie Mellon University CREATE Lab, the same group that created the Smell Pittsburgh application.**

This application can also be used to provide users access to scientific research and findings on water quality, locations of drinking fountains in the region, as well as connections to various nonprofits that advocate for public drinking water. Crowdsourcing will not only reveal the issues and aspirations Pittsburghers are most concerned about with their water, but also gives them an opportunity to contribute to the research and be involved to create positive change.

Similar to the Smell Pittsburgh app implemented by The Breathe Project - an umbrella organization that aims at empowering citizens with the information and knowledge to be more engaged and take action towards better air, to give residents a voice as well as accumulate data on air quality for more evidence-based activism, this application 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 and potentially rekindling the relationship between the public and their local water provider.

Modern water systems are unobtrusive by design. The pipes that bring water to our homes, drain our streets, and transport our wastes are hidden underground. Treatment plants are tucked away on the outskirts of the city  or are located on streets that are rarely frequented. By handing the management of our urban water systems to professionals, we have reduced our daily encounters with the water cycle to the turning of a faucet and flushing of a toilet. As long as our bills are paid and the service continues, we assume that the people who provide the service and the officials responsible for overseeing their activities will make sure that we are safe.

Given PWSA’s constraints in funding and current debatable public opinion, the typical community development model would not facilitate the prescribed solution. I believe a new model needs to be considered - one that pairs nonprofit and community organizations with local government, to collaborate and provide innovative and cost-effective solutions to promoting awareness around urban water systems and their challenges.  The pathway to the evolution of urban water systems may take the edge off some of our future crises, especially if coupled with economic incentives and policies that lower some of the risks inherent in potential experimentation.

Finally, from the standpoint of bringing about lasting change, raising awareness within our communities about the importance of figuring out the right path for a local version of water system innovation is crucial.The PWSA and other local government authorities that regulate their actions pay heed to public opinion. We as designers need to make sure our spaces provide a platform for voices to be heardwhether it be about water infrastructure investments, or the urgent need to consider both climate change and chemicals that pose risk to human health and the environment. The map to our future will be drawn collectively by the thousands of small decisions made in our homes, at community meetings, and in the voting booths. We all have a role to play in determining the next evolution of urban water systems and what it could look like when we build it.  

 

By making informed choices about our water, we will be learning and working on this next stage in infrastructure evolution. The time has come to secure the water future we want before a crisis forces it upon us.

**To watch the final thesis review, please click here.**

**To read more about the thesis, please click here.**