Considering the tremendous struggle over the Dakota Pipeline, I’ve been thinking a lot about what water really means to people, what water brings to us, and what we can bring to water. Closer to home, I recently heard that the 20-year-old plan mapping the future of the LA River is getting an update that will coordinate numerous ongoing efforts to revitalize the 51-mile-long body of water. The prime concerns about the plan have to do with the change of land value, bad gentrification, and losing affordable housing, conditions which rushing to develop the water corridor may bring about. As a landscape designer, I care most about what kinds of changes would occur in the interaction between the river and people.
In the city where I was born, water channels weave in and around a historic village (Hong Cun). The village hasn’t changed through hundreds of years, and people there have preserved their intimacy with water: creeks still weave in front of their houses and they perform all kinds of daily activities there: washing clothes, playing, fishing, swimming, growing food, and so on. At first I thought these water channels and water bodies were natural, however I was surprised to read that most of them were made purposely over hundreds of years, with the goal of moving water from outside the village inside, from the water channels to water wells in houses.
This interconnected water system shows the wisdom of using and enjoying water. For the people there, as with the North Dakota Sioux natives, water means their life. In other cultures too, interactions between water and people are sacred. In India, where tanks are usually categorized into temple tanks and agriculture tanks, a unique system of holding water and holding activities is intertwined. Agriculture tanks are everywhere, controlling floods, allowing water to flow and overflow, and providing cultivated land for people. More unique is the temple tank that allows people to perform many ritualized activities in water. While rituals are anchored in temple tanks, at the same time, people’s lives are being ritualized by water.
Some more great designs give me vivid images of people attracted by and interacting with water. The ongoing revitalization of the waterfront in Belgrade, Serbia, offers a great example of an SWA-generated transformation. And, instead of burying its problematic waterway, San Antonio created the popular Riverwalk attraction, which quickly became home to diverse water-related activities and a tourist and economic hub. The ChonGae Canal revitalization plan, by Mikyoung Kim Design, in Seoul, Korea, similarly restored and transformed a highly polluted and covered waterway into a public recreation hub. People now come from all parts of the city to gather in the ChonGae River.
Water brings and holds activities for people who live around it. It is celebrated in ordinary and everyday practices across many cultures. Four our professional purposes, water can be represented in many design vocabularies to offer new interpretations of landscape practice and design.
Yi Li is a designer in the Laguna Beach studio. Image of the Belgrade Waterfront by Tom Fox.