“…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.
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)