Water defines the blue planet, Earth. Its surface is 71% water; our bodies are roughly 60% water. But water's distribution is uneven and unfair. Even in climatically stable times, parts of the planet receive less or more rainfall, leading to deserts and rain forests, each with inventive human adaptations. In today's time of rapid change, evidenced in sharp population increase and mass migrations, dramatic resurfacing of lands through deforestation and erosion, and catastrophic weather events, water can amplify this destabilization. Often negative impacts disproportionately fall to those least able to protect themselves: many of the world's poorest people live in flooding deltas; others drink polluted water; and millions walk miles daily to find it. But not always: hurricanes do not avoid wealthy communities, polluted or drying aquifers serve the rich and poor alike, floods ravage lakeside vacation homes, and tidal surges wash out everything at the water's edge. Nonetheless, it is often said that a small minority of the people on the planet use the vast majority of its resources, water included.
How can we imagine the blue planet in equilibrium, with adequate water where we need it, when we need it? How can we re-imagine the theoretical and physical construction of adaptive water infrastructures, equitable distribution systems, and daily individual practices? Can water be safe to drink and to bathe in and, very selectively, to use for irrigation? What can we learn from the past and from cultures beyond our own? Can we envision preferred futures in which the constructed environment is part of the solution? How can we hold in our minds and practices the paradox that water is equally a design element, a valuable resource, and a dangerous threat?
At the School of Architecture we focus on water in our daily actions, in our teaching, and through our research. From the rain garden at Campbell Hall, designed by Nelson Byrd Woltz as part of the Campbell Constructions, to a study-abroad program in India and a recent alumni project based in Cape Town, Ghana, to a longtime focus on coastal resilience and clean water, faculty, students, staff, and alumni have concentrated on the importance of water on the blue planet. During the 2012-13 academic year we will further concentrate our efforts on water, through ongoing coursework and a special series of lectures, exhibits, and an all-school charrette on Charlottesville’s Rivanna River.
A Zen saying tells us, “If you want to understand the teachings of water, just drink.” At the School of Architecture, we do.
For more, visit The Water Index, a blog that tracks various SARC water activities this year as well as water resources within the School.