Towards a new water culture

We are going to have to learn how to handle water in future. This means co-operative planning and a high level of participation. A project in Hannoversch Munden has produced some early experience in this field.

If you ask people about environmental problems in surveys, water is almost never mentioned. More of them are aware of traffic, noise and air pollution and the hole in the ozone layer. We carried out surveys in Dresden and Frankfurt in which only 7.6 % of the Dresden residents questioned mentioned water as an environmental problem, and in Frankfurt it was only 3.3 %. We need to drink water every day, and use it to keep clean, to promote a sense of well-being, and for recreation.

So why is it not watched with particular care in respect to possible environmental problems? How can this be explained?

Obviously the fact that water is generally and constantly available, naturally and through technology, the frequent pre­cipitation in our latitudes, full streams and rivers, and running water in our homes all seem to give the lie to the idea that water could be a problem. Anyone who looks at the world a little more closely knows how the deserts are spreading, remembers the droughts in the Sahel and Somalia, and has heard about conflicts over the waters of the Jordan and the Euphrates. But why should water be a problem in Central Europe?

In fact the water problem in Europe is not a problem of quantity, as a rule, even though water represents the greatest flow of any material through our cities. The principal problem in Central Europe is not a general shortage, but a shortage of water of outstanding quality, and the pollution of waterways, which goes far beyond the point at which streams or rivers can clean themselves. Obviously in recent decades people have become accustomed to the fact that rivers are not suitable for bathing, or springs for drinking. Even tap water is distrusted. Over 84 % of people never or seldom drink water from the tap.

And so the water problem is first and foremost a problem of quality. The quantity problem comes second. Groundwater pollution has accustomed people to the fact that large cities can draw only a tiny proportion of their water from their own territory, and so use supplies from further away. In any case, poor groundwater quality means considerable expense for treating and transporting water, and often triggers regional conflicts. Then pressure groups demand reduction of the quantities drawn and a more sophisticated handling of water.

Подпись:Towards a new water cultureThe current argument runs that anyone who air-conditions offices with best-quality drinking water, cleans cars and flushes toilets with it, is lowering groundwater levels and causing damage frivolously, not as a matter of necessity. Poli­tical pressure can be exerted on towns and cities to be more 130

Towards a new water culture

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resource, and the social side, which is categorized by a loss of awareness of the problem. Both poles are very closely connect­ed with the development of the modern city, where a technical administrative infrastructure has been built up so that the city’s natural side can be regulated as efficiently as possible.

If we see the emergence of this infrastructure as the 19th cen­tury’s reply to the environmental crises identified at the time, then the perceptual distance from ‘nature’ is the 20th century social consequence of this piece of problem-solving.

We use the concept of ‘water culture’ to relate the various aspects of water, and thus also of water problems, to each other. Usually the idea of culture is linked with the culture business, with theatre and museums, cinema and concerts. It is also used in a quite different sense from day to day. We talk about a cooking culture, or planning culture, and refer dispar­agingly to an uncultured attitude. Systematically speaking, the idea of culture has an analytical and a normative aspect. We understand culture to be the meanings and senses that permeate one or more realms of the material and social world. When we speak of water culture we are referring to the mean­ings and senses that relate to water as a material, to water technology, to the aesthetics of water and to the various social ways of dealing with water. But water culture also includes the interpretations and meanings associated with water. The con­cept of culture helps us to understand the different aspects of water in their relationship with each other. Just as Roman culture was not made up merely of the Latin language and the writings of Seneca, but also of the roads and aqueducts of the Roman Empire, in the same way water culture includes legal standards, water technology, water economics and social ways of handling water in one meaningful relation. So we do not mean that there would not be a water culture today, but that the water culture that is predominant today could be changed if we try to deal with water in a sustainable manner.

We understand sustainable water culture as a ‘culture of many waters’. Today as a rule the same water is used for making tea, taking a shower or washing the car. A sustainable water culture would have different water available for differ­ent purposes. One and the same lot of water will be put to work in different ways in use cascades. Streams in towns will no longer be drainage ditches and sweep faeces and refuse past the sewage treatment plants into the rivers when it is raining heavily. Rivers will be used for irrigation, for bathing, for sport and for recreation, thus enhancing the value of the landscape outside our front doors.

Prices for water and sewerage services have risen consider­ably more than the average cost of living in recent years. And the new sustainable water culture will not get any cheaper. This will also need care to be taken by ordinary citizens, as
well as by the ‘professional water suppliers. It is not just the local authorities and the state that will be responsible, but everybody. This will also not be simple, even if it is possible to imagine fluent transitions from volunteer to paid work.

Ordinary citizens are only likely to take responsibility for water, and higher charges for developing a sustainable water culture will only be accepted, if people are aware of the value of water. One, perhaps even the most important, way of con­veying this value is the natural and designed aesthetic of water. Pleasure in water conveyed by the senses and reflection about the condition of water stimulated by the senses are paths to sustainability.

Fortunately this is not all just a pipe-dream or a piece of woolly-headed idealism, but a great deal of it has already been set in motion, and a lot of people are working on keeping it in motion. Of course this is not a simple path, and there are many questions to be answered: can we afford ecology? Are ecology and urban life contradictions in terms? Do town – dwellers want to address, or better, under what conditions can they address, ecological urban redevelopment? How can ecology become a guideline for future cities? What do eco­logical aesthetics mean in concrete terms? Finally all these questions boil down to one key question: how can ecology be fixed in town-dwellers’ minds as a meaningful project?

The town of Hannoversch Munden is addressing these questions with the ‘Wasserspuren’ (Water-Traces) project.

Three central squares around the church and the town hall are to be designed in such a way that the qualities of water can be experienced visually and acoustically. The town is between the rivers Fulda and Werra, and its history has been affected both for good and ill by these rivers. It is creating a new interpretation of its relationship with water as part of the natural environment. Traditionally urban squares, as some­thing shaped and designed by man, are set against the ulti­mately uncontrolled nature of rivers. Now they are to convey the ecology of the whole habitat, of the city and of nature, to the townspeople.

New planning approaches have to be taken if a project of this kind is to succeed. The less conventional and tried-and – tested the aims of a piece of planning are, the earlier the well – trodden paths of planning have to be abandoned. Planners and architects, artists and townspeople start to co-operate on developing and implementing the project. Planners, artists and townspeople developed planning suggestions in joint workshops, under an outside chairman who was familiar with the town and its characteristics. These ideas were then put to a jury of external experts and local politicians. This was intended to produce high-quality designs and also to develop co-operation between the planners and artists involved. In this

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way the initiators of the process hoped that the townspeople would not just be involved in developing concepts and plans, but they would be protagonists in their own right, and thus also disseminators of the planning idea. Politics and adminis­tration create the general conditions needed for this process.

We call this kind of planning ‘deep participation’. But it does not just go beyond the boundary between citizen and planning, but also beyond the boundary between the various views taken by the involved. Artists, landscape designers, architects and townspeople work in a team, without changing or confusing their roles. Administration and politics admit an open process, with results that are often surprising. The polit­ical culture also benefits from the fact that politicians and administrators prove they are open to discussion.

The townspeople were informed – at first via the local press, then at meetings intended to provide information – about the new design and the possibility of being actively involved in the process themselves. Shortly before the pro­tagonists’ first plenary meeting a good third of all the people of Hannoversch Munden knew about the new project they were about to be involved in. Private individuals working with artists and planners in so-called planning workshops were the key point of the active participation. These workshops were intended to come up with a joint design concept. The sug­gestions were examined and reported on by a jury of outside planners and local politicians or members of the administra­tion, and then ‘returned’ to the planners and artists for revision, with suggestions and corrections. The participating townspeople could also familiarize themselves with other groups’ ideas during the workshops. If a process like this is successful, the townspeople who are actively involved can also help to disseminate the ideas that the other planning teams come up with.

But the innovative potential is essentially to be found in the constellation of townspeople-planners-artists as an active group. A constellation of this kind, with the minimum involve­ment possible by politicians, administrators and the other usual interested parties, really is new. At the design phase in particular it is relieved of pressure from the particular interests that usually impinge upon planning processes.

By the time EXPO 2000 opened, the town’s newly designed squares were ready to be assessed by the townspeople and visitors. We asked a representative cross-section of towns­people for their opinion of the new design.

In reply to the question ‘What do you think about each of the squares?’, in the case of Kirchplatz 60.9 % said ‘pleasant’, 21.1 % ‘unpleasant’ and 18 % were indifferent. The equivalent figures from the poll in September 1997 were 54.6 %, 10.6 % and 26.8 %. In the case of the intermediate square, 56.6 % of
respondents were positive about the design, 21.5 % negative and 21.9 % indifferent. Three years before the same question had produced proportions of 15.8 %, 39.5 % and 44.7 % respectively. And finally for Rathausplatz, in 2000 65.3 % of respondents reacted positively, 19.9 % negatively and 14.7 % indifferently. In 1997 the equivalent figures were 70.9 %,

8.2 % and 20.9 %.

If we compare the surveys taken in 1997, when the squares were in their original condition, it is clear how much the townspeople’s opinion differs. In the case of Rathausplatz, which in 1997 was in a condition acceptable to the towns­people, the renewal of the pavement, shifting the market to this square and including it in the ‘Wasserspuren’ project met with a positive response from most people, but this group has become smaller. There are now also more people who find the reconstructed square unpleasant. In the case of Kirchplatz, which has been clearly redesigned and makes an unambig­uous reference to the theme of ‘Wasserspuren’, there is more general approval. The highest level of acceptance is found in the intermediate square that has changed from being a municipal bus-stop to an aquatic urban space.

Two things are clear here. There is not a great deal of addi­tional gain to be had from a base where acceptance levels are already high. On the contrary, supporters of the old conditions turn against the ‘new’ design in greater numbers. Secondly the key thematic design, in this case the idea of ‘Wasser­spuren’, seems to have been convincing. And this increases in proportion with the unpopularity of the square in its old state.

Ecological aesthetics are not always successful even when townspeople are profoundly involved in the planning process. But firm commitment to the theme is probably the way to broaden identification to the greatest possible extent.



Towards a new water culture

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Updated: October 8, 2015 — 4:48 pm