Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

A Phenomenological Approach to Water in the City: Towards a Policy of Letting Water Appear

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

A Phenomenological Approach to Water in the City: Towards a Policy of Letting Water Appear

Article excerpt

Abstract. Ivan Illich and Jamie Linton have both argued that our current technological relation to water constitutes an abstraction. Developing this insight in the context of phenomenology, I draw on Michel Haar's French translation of Gestell--the essence of technology, according to Heidegger--as 'consommatiori' (consumption), to put forward a criticism of the abstract status of water in postindustrial, consumer societies. I propose in its place a concrete, phenomenological approach, according to which a policy of 'letting water appear' can not only play a significant role in the unconcealment of poiesis-- Heidegger's response to the question concerning technology--but also form the basis of a renewed urban water policy. Four key examples of letting water appear are examined: daylighting urban rivers and streams; harvesting local rain and ground water; treating wastewater on-site using 'living machines'; and attuning demand to local water flows. I conclude by suggesting that urban water policy cannot be reduced to integrated water resource management, for the transition to sustainability also requires a fuller understanding of the phenomenological issue of 'letting appear' (poiesis).

Keywords: water, city, phenomenology, Heidegger, poiesis, Gestell


Probably the most famous modern philosophical text about water is Gaston Bachelard's L'Eau et les reves (Bachelard, 2011). It analyses water as one of the four elements that the 'material imagination' draws upon to produce dreams, poems, and works of art. Bachelard's text in turn provides the philosophical starting point for Ivan Illich's essay "[H.sub.2]O and the waters of forgetfulness" (1986). Illich argues that the scientific conception of water as FLO is in fact a 'creation' of industrial society (1986, page 7), and that, prior to the creation of FLO, water was the material basis of many of our dreams. In a similar vein, Illich sees the city not as a portion of space--describable scientifically in terms of Cartesian coordinates or census data (page 4)--where we may 'live', but rather as a specific place where we may 'dwell'. In keeping with these two points, Illich's objective of a "partial reconstitution of urban dwelling space" (page 11) through rethinking water's relation to the city would not involve simply living in an urban environment free from water pollution, or even having pleasant aesthetic experiences of water; water in the city should above all stimulate the imagination and the ability to dream (page 7).

More recently, Jamie Linton's What is Water? The History of a Modern Abstraction also develops the idea that 'modern water' is a quantitative abstraction produced by modern science, particularly hydrology (2010, page 98). The specific criticism Linton brings to bear on modern water differs, however, from that of Bachelard and Illich in that it is not poetic and psychoanalytical, but rather ecological and sociological. Linton rejects essentialist notions of water, drawing instead on process philosophy and relational dialectics to argue that water is not a self-sufficient thing-in-itself, but rather a process that is intrinsically constituted by the ecological and social phenomena to which it is dialectically related (2010, pages 24-44). Linton further notes that the quantitative abstraction constitutive of modern water is far from neutral, for it goes hand in hand with modern engineering techniques, which likewise fail to account for the ecological and social specificities of place, and thus give rise to problems of environmental degradation, as well as ecological and social injustice (2010, page 14).

The present paper draws on the basic idea common to lllich and Linton that 'modern water' is an abstraction. Nevertheless, it differs from their work inasmuch as it focuses primarily on phenomenology, and more specifically on Heidegger's claim that the essence of technology--the Gestell--conceals poiesis (Heidegger, 1993a, page 332). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.