Hydrology and a Critique of the Eco-City

For the past two centuries urban dreamers and some with a proclivity for creating nightmares have been looking at the city in both fascination and horror. A minority wanted to abolish the city seeing only in its walls, streets and sweatshops, the misery of the oppressed whilst others wanted to aesthetically strengthen these features finally making these streets safe against insurrection. Thus Baron Hausmann's Paris freshly reconstructed in great boulevards nonetheless failed to prevent the Commune of 1871. Most wanted to ameliorate the conditions of the poor like Ebenezer Howard's  late 19th century Garden Cities movement. It was a woefully naive project. It was followed by projects such as Le Corbusier's Unite de Habitation where a supposedly utopian project on the architect's drawing board merely masked the horror of its realisation. Those who wanted the city abolished in one way or another retain some interest. For instance Los Angeles first saw the light of day ironically as a radical Fourierist commune and we can never forget some of the imaginative whimsical fantasies deriving from aspects of Russian Constructivism between 1917-25 like Khlebnikov's lakes of soup and others who proposed zoned city climate areas to satisfy different aspects of a liberated social life.

 Everything failed. Liberated zones became the stuff of science fiction or a film by Francois Truffaut when it wasn't Disneyfied in a  celebration of a trivialised commodity cornucopia endlessly celebrating money and greed. In the early 1950s a more serious practical experiment evolved in the shape of psycho-geography which, investigating the ambience of existing city neighbourhoods as shaped by their often poor inhabitants, helped provide a core of radical revolutionary subjectivity through the activity of the International Lettrists and subsequently, the Situationists. This passionate quest initiating a search for an ever greater subversive totality, found expression in the French uprising of spring 1968. It was however, an experiment that could not survive as it was born in the lacunae between a city of memory, (often ad hoc, and based on peoples' everyday movements) and  environmental planning as an adjunct of the spectacular commodity economy and where people are only of consequence as consumers. (Incidentally Thomas De Quincey's drift through the rookeries around London's Clerkenwell is, if you like, a foreshadowing of psycho-geography). At this highest point of historical becoming again everything failed.

 Now we must try and make another great effort. It will probably be humanity's last chance. Is eco-city a possible solution? Though ecological critique must be an essential part of the critique of contemporary urban redevelopment, sadly the paradigms of eco-city - predicated on the social relations of commodity production - are lamentable.

 The recent catastrophic floods in Europe (said to have cost £30 billion over the past six years) and elsewhere is leading to a change in the mechanics of water technology as significant as  Leonardo's  epochal plans to divert the Arno between Florence and Pisa in order to create what is recognisably the world's first business park. Though in his day Leonardo was the world's leading hydrologist, his plans to channel the movement of rivers was based on a conception of water flow which owes more to plumbing than a fully worked out appreciation of the very being of rivers from  source to river mouth. Thus it was unlikely he could even begin to understand the importance of water meadows, marshes, upland drains, culverts even aquifers (if they were known about then) etc as a means of regulating flow. For this to happen Leonardo's vision had to become progressively more concretised through the urban geography of flood plains whilst inevitably the economic function of rivers as the main transport artery was set to decline. That we understand more about  how rivers function and the necessity of returning them to their natural state, in so far as that is possible is solely due to the growing awareness the very nature of rivers has been violated and now threatens the violators.

  Leonardo viewed his plans for the  River Arno from, as it were, the air, thus anticipating aerial cartography. His cartographic innovations cover a territory controlled by renaissance princes not by the people, thus whatever control exists is illusory in the last analysis. The map is not the territory as defined by the likes of you and I. There is no map for that and hence all maps up to now are an abstraction of man and nature. Likewise the new thinking on rivers, the need to create porous urban spaces to prevent the inhabitants from being overwhelmed by periodic flooding on an ever more frequent and devastating scale takes place amidst increasing powerlessness. This solution in essence is  technocratic despite its not incorrect claim to be more ecologically sound. It deliberately avoids dealing with the social relations of capitalism and cannot pretend therefore to be a lasting solution. The new relationship between man and nature necessarily implied by this superior understanding of rivers will forever be a pious dream because the only practical force capable of implementing it - that of an aroused, conscious populace - is discounted from the outset. At best it will remain a mere palliative.

 The response of river engineers has been to get rid of the water fast, draining it off the land and down to the sea in tall-sided rivers re-engineered as high performance drains. Progressive planners are tearing down banks, dykes and levees to return the rivers to their flood plains. They are putting back meanders and marshes to slow the flow and even encouraging flood waters to percolate underground. Formerly when rivers meandered to the sea flood waters would lose their impetus because of wetlands, inland deltas and flood plains that did flood. By trying to turn the complex hydrology of rivers into the simple mechanics of a water pipe engineers have intensified the floods.

 The Rhine is Europe's most engineered river. For two centuries German engineers have erased its backwaters and cut it off from its flood plain. The river has now lost 7% of its length and runs up to a third faster. Four fifths of the lower Rhine's flood plain is barricaded off so the water rises ever higher doing ever greater damage to the homes offices and roads that sit on the flood plain. After the 1995 floods Germany now intends to lower the level of the Rhine by 70 centimetres by 2020. The plan is to reinstate 1500 sq  kilometres of flood plain on the lower Rhine. Drained fields will be replaced by water meadows and reed beds.

Rhine Drowned Car
Above: Drought and drying-up. The Rhine, 2004 Above: The opposite - a drowned car

   Hydrologists are increasingly insisting on a new approach to engineering not just rivers but the whole landscape. The UK's environmental agency says 'the focus is now on working with the forces of nature. Towering concrete walls are out and new wetlands are in" (The floods of 2000 cost 1 billion pounds). The agency is breaking the Thames banks upstream and flooding 10sq kilometres of ancient floodplain at Otmoor outside Oxford.


A tenth of all Europeans live on the flood plain of rivers.

  Today's eco-cities are yesterdays living cities envisaged by Archigram/Cedric Price etc - both evading the central question of town and revolution though suburban dispersal tends to make the latter formulation archaic and vague. Even in their day in the 1960s these Little Englander technicists had hardly heard of psycho-geography. The hopeless idiocies of Will Alsop and other architects with schemes for  uninterrupted techno cum heritage cities - like  a proposed link up between Liverpool and Hull - point to Archigram with knobs on.  We have lost all conception of what a 'new city' might be like in terms of a liberated social space whilst the idea of a even a liberated 'edge city' appeals to no one because it suggests limitless sprawl and the continued devouring of greenery as the inhabitants in turn are devoured by privatised consumption. For the moment a limited, compromised, eco pragmatism is all there is, absorbing the ideal within a practical, narrowed down, utopianism entirely acceptable to sectors of capitalism. Berlin is their shining example. In the Potsdamer Platz a huge commercial development by Daimler Chrysler drainage has been limited to 3 litres per second per hectare which is just one percent of the potential run-off during a big storm. Architects have designed buildings to divert rainwater from roofs to flush toilets and irrigate roof gardens. This high-tech urban development can store a sixth of its annual rainfall.

   New housing estates across the city are adopting a similar technology. In the Zehlendorf suburb, rain from the roofs, gardens and drives of 160 houses is collected to irrigate local parkland. In Harzahn there is a drain free estate of 1800 homes packed onto just 30 hectares and features cobbled roads that allow rainwater to percolate through to the soil beneath.

   There are even far fetched plans to turn Los Angeles into an eco-city but in the present harsh anti-environmental climate it is unlikely to get far. Impervious surfaces cover 70% of the metropolis and la la land has spent billions to speed water flow after intense storms by digging huge drains and concreting river beds. An LA environmentalist reckons the city receives half the water it needs in rainfall. A number of citizens groups have appeared like 'Friends of the Los Angeles River' and 'Unpaved LA' that wish to hold on to the city's flood water. The expense involved is huge and besides conservation measures are increasingly deemed subversive in the States today. So a traditional solution whatever the expense is more than likely to overrule the limited rationality of a cost benefit analysis favouring the latter. The latest plan in LA is to spend $280 million raising the concrete walls on the Los Angeles River by another two metres yet the city lays out millions annually importing water from hundreds of kilometres away.

   By the time the world is forced to adopt an eco solution to city planning it will already be too late. The planetary practicality of the ecologists is only likely to be fulfilled in a situation of overall nightmare but by then it will totally ineffective against the destructive forces that have been unleashed. We only have a short time left and unless the mass of the population begin to see through the unfolding catastrophe we are truly living without any hope of a future. Forlornly the chances of this happening are getting slimmer by the minute.

                                          Stuart & David Wise 2004