William Morrish
Illustration: William Morrish These diagrams seek to visualize my shift in perspective on water over the years. The first one illustrates our existing design and development policies, or what I call the “envelope of regularity,” which stand on outdated notions where water regimes are segregated into technological channels and segregated into political events.

William Morrish is a professor of urban ecologies at the New School–Parsons School of Design in New York City, as well as a recognized expert on physical and social infrastructure, urban planning, and design. He has devoted his life to asking the big questions about water issues, recognizing that architects and designers need to take an “up river view” design perspective to identify the threads of the larger embedded urban context.

I’ve traveled on the waters of the Mississippi River, from Pilottown, La., to Lake Itasca, Minn.; I’ve charted the water flows of the California Aqueducts into Los Angeles; and I’ve walked the soggy ground after Hurricane Katrina water-deluged New Orleans. Through these travels, it has become clear to me that water exists at the intersection of landscape and infrastructure, “crossing between visible and the invisible,” as noted by geographer Matthew Gandy in his recent book The Fabric of Space.

Another way to describe this intersection is to state that water is a ubiquitous element. It is an intermediary agent flowing between every human and non-human act of inhabiting a particular urban landscape. Simultaneously, its turbulent currents and backflow loops unsettle the best-laid plans of our federal government all the way down to municipal maintenance, which constitutes our political-urban landscapes.

William Morrish
Illustration: William Morrish This second diagram proposes a different perspective, where the ubiquity of water becomes a uniting medium.

When water poisons the people of Flint or drought impacts the health of Californians, it is because we haven’t been looking at water as an everyday part of our basic systems of life. We have only been looking at it when catastrophe strikes. If we should have learned anything by now, it’s that we cannot simply manage water. We need to realize, instead, that it’s a multidimensional cultural, ecological, and political element of all of our lives.

One of the reasons for the shift between the two diagrams (at right) is that as a society, we don’t invest in everyday systems or design them with the capacity to be resilient. You can’t be resilient until you’re reflexive—which is to say actively reinvesting into society so that people in multilayered economic classes have the capacity to thrive. In many ways, water is at the intersection of ecology and economy, but it’s also a social element. How is water exchanged? How it is used? Those are multilayered ecological and economic questions, but they are also culture questions, understood by different societies in different ways.

Building a levee around lower Manhattan isn’t going to make us resilient when there are icebergs melting around the globe. We still don’t value, as a big project, the architecture of the everyday—or the buildings and spaces that define the experience of the majority of people on this planet. And we’ve never done that. So, sure, let’s save lower Manhattan, but let’s look at the deeper systems that have created our inability to understand water and try to make communities more resilient for the 99 percent as well.—As told to Steve Cimino

Read more of our interviews with experts on water.