Tag Archives: Geography

The Lived Experience of Water

Recently released from UTP, The Wonder of Water: Lived Experience, Policy, and Practice is an edited collection that reminds us of our primordial belonging to and need for water – a relation so essential that it is often taken for granted in policy development and decision making. The chapters are written by some of the world’s leading phenomenological thinkers who tackle subjects from flow motions to urban river restoration.


Ingrid Leman Stefanovic

If you are like most people, you will have begun your day by brushing your teeth, flushing a toilet, washing your hands and face and, then, tea or coffee was probably a necessary part of your breakfast. As you moved through these morning activities, you will have taken for granted the fact that safe and secure water was ready and available.

For many of us in the developed world, that ready availability of water is accepted on a pre-thematic level: it is only when the water is turned off that we explicitly realize how vital it is to our existence. As others have said, try going three days without water to recognize its ontological value.

The Wonder of Water: Lived Experience, Policy, and Practice, brings together thinkers who are attuned to the fundamental importance of water to our embodied lives. They each hope to shed some light on the fact that our water policies and practices should be informed not simply by abstract principles but by that deep need that we each have, as beings composed 60% of water, of this basic, life-giving liquid.

Certainly, it is important that rational thinking and evidence-based science inform decisions and policy making around water. Many books on water ethics and water security do an excellent job at covering complex policy issues. However, The Wonder of Water uniquely argues that we need to ensure that the deeply personal, embodied, imaginative, ontological interpretations of the value of water equally inform policy conversations.

Consider, for instance, how every day the news media highlights the growing risks of climate change to our health and to the well-being of the planet. Fewer and fewer skeptics deny the anthropogenic causes of climate warming and, increasingly, there are calls for substantive policy change in favour of more sustainable lifestyle choices.

Whether manifested through more serious droughts or deadly floods or rising sea levels, the reality is, as UN Water pointed out in 2019, that “water is the primary medium through which we will feel the effects of climate change.” Moreover, “the world is on the brink of a deadly crisis, as the combination of water stress and climate change creates a dangerous outlook for children.”[1] UNICEF recounts the stories of 12-year-old Swapna who, after Cyclone Roanu hit Bangladesh, returned home to find her neighbourhood, including all the trees, gone; or how a father in Zimbabwe, struggling to feed his family after a severe drought, was forced to sell his daughter for a few goats. In Canada, we have whole communities operating on boil water advisories. And then there is the reality that every day, over 800 children die from preventable diseases caused by unsafe water and lack of sanitation.[2]

Our book is meant to remind us that each of these lives, and others like them, are at risk and, consequently, meaningful policy changes cannot wait. Climate deniers and environmental skeptics should be invited to look each of these children in the eyes and ask themselves whether these children’s everyday embodied pain and suffering do not matter. “Policies” and regulations affect real lives. They are not simply articles of debate for conferences or international meetings. Rather, the urgency of enacting water policies that are effective and comprehensive comes from the realization that individual lives, emotions, physical health, and happiness are affected by high-powered decisions that themselves must be meaningfully informed by the lived repercussions of those policy choices.

Certainly, environmental decision making should be informed by statistics and quantitative data. Our point is, however, that a different kind of thinking – one that is less calculative and more originative, discerning, and perhaps reflecting even a kind of poetic sensibility toward individual human experiences – needs to drive policy making.

So, Part One of the book aims to remind us of what the lived experience of water might mean, not only in terms of human priorities but also relating to non-human animals and the breathing planet. Part Two shows us how water defines place, not simply as a geographical location but as the embodied projection of human understanding of the world in which we find ourselves. Part Three offers examples of how policies and decisions arise in different communities that are informed by diverse practices and ethical perspectives. The book begins and ends with poetic reflections, reminding us that policies must be driven not only by calculation but by mindful, discerning commitment to our embodied, revered, existential experiences of water.

Overall, the book invites the reader to re-engage with the lived experience and wonder of water, not only because human rights demand safe water or the benefits outweigh the costs of providing water security, but because, simply put, without water, there is no life. This fact we can never take for granted.

***

To read an excerpt from The Wonder of Water, click here.


Ingrid Leman Stefanovic is Dean of the Faculty of Environment and professor in the School of Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University. She is also a professor emerita in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Toronto.

[1] Please see https://www.unicef.org/wash/waterandclimate/

[2] Please see https://www.unicef.org/wash/

 

 

Unlocking The National Mall

BentonShort_NationalMallLisa Benton-Short, author of The National Mall: No Ordinary Public Space talks about overlooked urban national park sites, getting inspired by her own neighbourhood, and more.

How did you become involved in your area of research?

My first book, The Presidio: from Army Post to National Park, explored the challenges in converting an army post into one of the newest parks in the national park system. I learned a great deal about the politics of park planning and development, and about the unique role that urban parks provide. Since that book, I’ve been fascinated with the issues that confront the urban parks in our national park system. When I joined the faculty at GW I realized I was only a few blocks from one of the most important urban national parks, the National Mall. It seemed like a great opportunity to continue to learn about the wonderful diversity of our national park system.

What inspired you to write this book?

When I first started researching about the National Mall, I thought I would publish a paper or two that looked at the controversy over the design and location of the World War Two Memorial. But as I became more involved with the research I realized there were other significant and unexplored challenges such as continued demands for new memorials, security post 9/11, and numerous planning and development issues. So what started small became a larger book project.

How did you become interested in the subject?

On my commute to the GW campus I would drive down 17th street, which runs right in front of the Washington Monument. The first time I drove past the Monument I remember feeling very humbled and awestruck. The soaring obelisk is inspiring. To me, the Mall has been a place where I connect to American history and identity, and our country’s founding principles and ideals. It is place where you can feel the power of the monuments and memorials, the legacy of events, marches and protests. The Mall is an incredibly meaningful place. This book is the result of my intellectual curiosity as a scholar, but also my personal attachment to this place.

What do you find most interesting about your area of research?

I am a geographer. In the US, this means explaining what I do, since Americans have not had much exposure to geography in school. My research is a blend of urban studies, urban planning and the environmental. I’m interested in how people influence and are influenced by cities and important places. I’m driven by questions such as “How do places become sacred, meaningful and enduring? What is the role of public space in fostering community and identity? Why are many cities redeveloping their waterfronts? How are immigrants changing the economic, social and political processes in cities? How are cities planning for climate change?” These are the types of questions that fascinate me, and that I’ve been exploring for many years.

What do you wish other people knew about your area of research?

When most people think of “national parks” they imagine Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon—the big nature parks that epitomize the national park ideal. Most people don’t appreciate how diverse the national park system is. National parks include monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails, and the many urban units—such as the Mall, the Statue of Liberty, and Independence Hall. The national park system includes 412 sites that cover more than 84 million acres in every state! Many do not realize the significant role of the urban units in the park system. I think of them as the “poor stepchildren” of the park system. They are often overlooked and underfunded. In reality, the urban parks contribute tremendously to educating people about the history of the U.S. They promote public use through convenient and often much less expensive access. For example, about 4 million people visit Yellowstone each year, but some 25 million people visit the National Mall. For many people a visit to an urban national park may be their only experience with the national park system.

What’s the most surprising thing you discovered during the course of your research?

I have been surprised by how difficult it has been to generate meaningful debate and change in either the Congress or White House on really important and long-lasting decisions that impact the Mall. In the years that it’s taken for me to write this book, I’m amazed that most of the issues I began exploring in 2004 are still issues in 2016. And this is despite the advocacy of many individuals and organizations.

Do you have to travel much concerning the research/writing of your book?

Not really, this project was literally in my backyard!

What was the hardest part of writing your book?

The hardest part of writing this book was that many of the issues I explore have not been resolved. I had to learn to let go and stop waiting for resolution. I came to realize that the primary role of this book is to introduce a lot of questions to which we don’t yet have answers.

What are your current/future projects?

Given that there are hundreds of national parks in the US, there are many more stories to tell! I can’t wait to get started on the story of another urban national park.

What do you like to read for pleasure? What are you currently reading?

Since I spend my days reading non-fiction for work, I love to read fiction. I’m in a book club, which gives me a great excuse to read a good book every month! In addition to reading, it’s in a geographer’s nature to travel. I just returned from a fantastic trip to Rwanda and Kenya. I’ve been reading some excellent histories on these countries to better understand the context!

What is your favourite book?

I don’t have a favorite book—that’s like asking if I have a favorite cat! I love them all. Some women collect shoes or accessories, my husband and I collect books. As Thomas Jefferson said “I cannot live without books” and I’m trying to live up to that.  In our house, there isn’t a room that doesn’t have books.

If you weren’t working in academia, what would you be doing instead?

I think I would have a found a job that allows me to travel and explore for a living!

Last thoughts: This year is the National Park Service Centennial, which was established in 1916. This is a great excuse for everyone to visit a national park this year!