Problematic Surfaces and Collateral Urbanism: Reading Into the Owens Lake Parable

[Note: This post is part of the Infrastructural City blogiscussion – Chapter 1: Owens Lake: Reconstructing the Void]


[the novel, manufactured surfaces of Owens Lake]

“…Los Angeles is both an exception and the rule, a singular instance that reveals generic conditions.”

The above quote is from Ed Soja as cited in Varnelis’ introduction to The Infrastructural City. The statement effectively summarizes the collection of writings in the book: generalized urban parables illustrated through the examination of specific instances.  As such, each chapter leaves plenty to discuss.

One of F.A.D.’s aspirations for this blogiscussion is that it will enrich the pool of examples that The Infrastructural City began, offering opportunities to see similarities and productive differences in the groundings of our collective urban infrastructures.  And as we bring the physical text into Varnelis’ realm of Networked Publics, may the spatially dispersed multi-authored discussion produce interesting permutations and splicings of these networked ecologies from other places and texts.

Chapter one (Owens Lake: Reconstructing the Void) and the book as a whole provokes a general question of how ‘urban’ is defined.  The transformations of Owens Lake dramatically demonstrates the manner in which cities physically extend beyond themselves by borrowing from other landscapes to function.  Defining urbanity by the taxonomy of census numbers and density of buildings (the dominant and institutionalized convention) has its problems, or at least limitations (a theme explored earlier here and here).  Currently, cities physically cover approximately one to six percent of the Earth’s surface, yet the productive landscape area required to support a city has been calculated to be anywhere from 100-300 times the actual size/area of the city. Viewed from an infrastructural perspective, the political boundary of a city has minimal importance, as the city proper is just a node where materials accumulate and are vigorously consumed within a much broader landscape network of energy transformation and material processing.

Should Owens Lake’s problematic surface be read as urban, or as rural urban effect? An urban byproduct?  An off-site or collateral urbanism?  What about similar byproducts – such as mines?  The denatured soils and genetically modified mono-cultural expanses of industrial farming?  How do we place these productive/consumptive effects that urban conditions generate?  Expanding notions of urban could redefine what we mean by an urban census.  Perhaps that’s the next step in the infrastructural study of L.A. – assembling an alternative urban census centered around production and consumption; formulating different questions about lifestyles and urban ‘occupation’.

Or, approached from a different angle, dispersed infrastructural connections such as Owens lake and Los Angeles beg for more refined criteria to define regions.  As an area of inquiry and exploration, regionalism seems to have been largely forgotten in much of contemporary design (except by the new urbanists).  Examining the city via its extended web of  infrastructures could provide a new grounding for a more useful, operational regionalism.

[Sacramento – San Joaquin Inverted River delta]

The latter half of the Owen’s lake chapter consisting of the contested landscape and control mechanism sections, touches on a less-than-optimistic commonality to early and mid 20th century infrastructure, and in particular, to the history of engineered modifications in hydrology: that being the call and response of crisis-action-crisis repeated over and over in a viscous feedback loop of interconnected physical, bureaucratic and political ecologies.  Similarly, if we can bring in another bit of text to this discussion, researchers examining a very different problematic surface (the Florida Everglades – also a result of water drainage)  have wonderfully encapsulated this repetitive syndrome as if they had just read Lehrman’s evocative chapter:

“This cycle of crisis and response forms a syndrome with distinct characteristics.  The solutions proposed for the crisis of the moment ignored the consequence for the full system, assumed certainty in the future, and succeeded in solving the momentary crisis, but set in motion conditions that exaggerate future crises.  The original natural controls, the roles of which were unknown at the time, were replaced by human controls, the functions and controllability of which seemed to be totally apparent.  The system became partitioned into apparently manageable pieces of territory.  This initiated border wars between different users occupying different territories and the involvement of an increasing number of organizations whose goals began to shift to institutional survival and self protection.

This is a syndrome in which momentary individual repairs are implemented to address problems that are actually systemic.  Political capital is wasted, polarization develops, and public trust in governance wanes.  The goal too often seems to be driven by a need to identify enemies and defeat them, rather than to devise systemic solutions that are robust, that create win/win combinations, and that adaptively generate understanding and opportunity.”

At the service of urban development, 20th century hydrological engineering was essentially the school of extremely hard knocks – particularly for the non-anthropogenic sectors that have had to make do with all the mistakes.  Similar unforeseen disasters are numerous — such as the Salton Sea, the Everglades, the Sacramento Delta, the damming of the Pacific Northwest, and Italy’s Pontine Marshes.  During the last century we acquired the technological ability (or technological force) to radically alter landscape processes on a massive scale, yet not the requisite knowledge or experience to know how best to apply those skills, nor the implications of those actions.  Most of the time we got it completely wrong because we simply did not understand the complexity of what we were dealing with, and therefore, couldn’t appreciate the ingenuity and incredible productively behind the systems we were tinkering with, which again is particularly evidenced in the manipulation of water systems.  Or this could be argued more cynically: perhaps we’re just a selfish species with selfish cities that want what they want.  Perhaps the only way we will protect or consider the environment holistically is when they begin to turn into phenomena that is all together different and we begin to understand our dependency on them…i.e. the concept of ecosystem services.

[California aqueduct and Delta Mendota Canal of the Central Valley Project]

If there is an upside to the Owens Lake and what it means for infrastructure and urbanism, or if there is something we may place in a new manual for “re-imaging how to appropriate the codes, rules, and systems that make up the contemporary city”  (Varnelis – introduction), hopefully it’s a vivid collection of tangible lessons and observations from grand mistakes.  We have this relatively new  inheritance of typologically FUBARED landscapes to learn from as we set out to creative re-imagine and reclaim the processes, systems and landscapes that we lost in the last century.

(Above quote is taken from The Structure and Dynamics of the Everglades System: Guidelines for Ecosystem Restoration (by Holling, Gunderson and Walters) in The Everglades: the Ecosystem and its Restoration. All aerials via Google Earth)

12 comments

  1. More later, perhaps, but I wanted to take note of the obvious similarity between the thoughts that the chapter provoked in each of us, regarding problems with definitions/understandings of urbanism. When you say:

    “Viewed from an infrastructural perspective, the political boundary of a city has minimal importance, as the city proper is just a node where materials accumulate and are vigorously consumed within a much broader landscape network of energy transformation and material processing…”

    I’m reminded of Belanger’s assertion that the appropriate unit for planning cities and landscapes is the watershed, which I think is true, at least to some degree (I’d definitely be confident saying that it’s a more rational unit than the historically contingent/accidental political boundaries most planning is done within). But you also make me wonder if a broader conception of ‘shed’ wouldn’t be equally important — i.e. “powershed”, “foodshed”, etc.

    And then, having made that note and returning back to the watershed, this idea of the singular importance of the watershed as real boundary to the urbanized area of a city is why I find the artificial alteration of watersheds, which is so central to the formation and growth of Los Angeles, to be such a fascinating by-product of infrastructures. When you look at the Colorado River Aqueduct, for instance, you realize: Montana is in Los Angeles. And that is a stunning realization.

  2. Oops. That should be: “Wyoming is in Los Angeles”.

  3. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by eatingbark: F.A.D. uses Owens Lake to question definitions of ‘urban’, examine infrastructural bureaucracies/crises | http://bit.ly/93L3bI #mammothbook…

  4. great post.

    john wesley powell comes to mind here. a fascinating figure way ahead of his time, who advocated for planning regions according to watersheds back in the 1800’s when the west was urbanizing.

    a great biography of him is here, at the USGS page. Taken from page 5, a quote:
    “Powell continued to study the Colorado River region under Government auspices. He became impressed with the problems of settling the arid western lands and in 1878, encouraged by Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz, he completed his Report on the lands of the arid region of the United States, which was published as a Congressional document. The book was not only a report on the physical characteristics of the land and the rainfall but also discussed the need for a land classification system and contained drafts of proposed legislation providing for the organization of irrigation and pasturage districts. The book, since recognized as one of the most important ever written about the western lands, went unheeded at the time.

    Four surveys—the Powell, Hayden, King, and Wheeler surveys—were mapping the West, and some conflicts of interest began to develop, especially between Army and civilian scientists.”

    In some ways, had we followed his vision, the American West would be very different; with a different set of problems, of course.

    The link is thanks to this guy.

    More later…

  5. […] blogiscussion* | Chapter 1: Owens Lake: Reconstructing the Void *blogiscussion: Term addopted from F.A.D. [Free Association […]

  6. Great post.

    This brings to mind John Wesley Powell. A fascinating bio of him is on the USGS site. In the 1800’s he was arguing that the critical unit for planning and developing regions is the watershed, and advocated for pastureland, farms, and cities to be built according to this principle.

    A quote from the biography helps (emphasis in bold added):
    Powell continued to study the Colorado River region under Government auspices. He became impressed with the problems of settling the arid western lands and in 1878, encouraged by Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz, he completed his Report on the lands of the arid region of the United States, which was published as a Congressional document. The book was not only a report on the physical characteristics of the land and the rainfall but also discussed the need for a land classification system and contained drafts of proposed legislation providing for the organization of irrigation and pasturage districts. The book, since recognized as one of the most important ever written about the western lands, went unheeded at the time.
    Four surveys—the Powell, Hayden, King, and Wheeler surveys—were mapping the West, and some conflicts of interest began to develop, especially between Army and civilian scientists.

    We would likely have a very different West, had the US been developed more in keeping with his work.
    The link is thanks to this blogger.
    More later…

  7. …If we were able to track all those consumptive ‘sheds’ (via a contemporary version of Powell’s pioneering surveys), I’m confident we would indeed find that there’s also plenty of Montana in Los Angeles, via mining, ranching, or other exchanges.

  8. and a lot of china, in granite stones and labor, brazilian rainforest wood, iran in petroleum. there has to be a threshold where we cross in to the absurd.

    but perhaps water is different??

  9. Great question that I think could be taken in either direction. Is it absurd to try to map or conceptualize all the networked exchanges our cities are premised on because there are so many, or is it absurd the way we take it for granted and don’t really ‘see’ that incredible complexity anymore…the way we culturally expect to have just about anything from anywhere?
    Is water different because its a basic necessity? What about food, which is much more difficult to track, and is premised on water and lots of fossil fuels…….?

  10. I think water is different — it obeys a different set of physical rules than, say, food, whose movement depends primarily on energy inputs, and occupies its ‘shed’ in a much more complete way (i.e. water at least potentially permeates every terrain within the shed boundary) — which is probably why it makes more sense as a regulatory unit than the other sheds do.

    But, having said that, I think the dichotomy that Brett suggests between two opposite absurdities nicely illustrates one of the big tensions in contemporary landscape architecture. One side of that tension takes hold of the first absurdity — the difficulty of comprehending such complexity — and responds by seeking to make ‘smaller’ (conceptually, though not necessarily physically) interventions which affect incremental change (lo-fi landscapes, etc.). The other side sees the same complexity, but responds by trying to develop ever more complex models which can incorporate and understand that complexity, producing work which is more grounded in fact and science than the overly idealized master plans of the early/mid-twentieth century. I’ve lately come to think that the appropriate disciplinary response is not to try to choose between the two approaches, but to try and do both well, and let them overlap. Resilience not just in designed systems, but in the methodology of design itself.

  11. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Design New Haven, Ken Lo, Connected by Nature, dpr-barcelona, Cesar Reyes Nájera and others. Cesar Reyes Nájera said: RT @eatingbark: F.A.D. uses Owens Lake to question definitions of 'urban'… | http://bit.ly/93L3bI #mammothbook […]

  12. […] were produced by a “viscous feedback loop” of “crisis-action-crisis”, in Problematic Surfaces and Collateral Urbanism: Reading into the Owens Lake Parable.  A follow-up post, Reconstructing the Void, compares Owens Lake to the Everglades, noting the […]

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