Revealing the psycho-social: An expanded context for thinking about Water City Bristol?
To some, the Water City Bristol project with its four apparently disparate projects around ‘daylighting’ culverted, hidden or forgotten rivers; hidden ecologies; tidal reaches; and care for infrastructure, may seem oddly random, even given the overall sense of an ecological orientation. In my view this is not the case, particularly if we start to think about it in the expanded context I want to suggest here.
In her recent blog on this site, Lindsey McEwen writes about our “working with local people in South Bristol to explore creative engagements with culverted and ‘hidden or forgotten rivers’ in Bristol”. This process of ‘daylighting’ is highly resonant for somebody like myself with an interest in the joined-up thinking/doing that academics call ‘connectivity’ and Felix Guattari called ‘ecosophy’; and in social psychology. Resonant because it is suggestive of the psychoanalytical processes by which repressed unconscious material is once again brought to the surface, to the attention of the collective mind or culture.
This analogy fits well with Lindsey’s equating the exposure of “long-buried” rivers with a process akin to their ‘being exposed to fresh air after decades of burial’. So my sense of context for what WCB is trying to do can be understood in this sense; as a lifting of repression. What needs to be brought into the light of day, in our case, is the long discarded or repressed animist mode of thinking that once allowed humans to see ourselves as simply one kind of living organism within the mesh of vibrant matter that has been called Gaia, an ecosophical understanding that side-steps the usual sharp distinctions between human and non-human modes of being in the world. Instead it thinks in terms of the all-togetherness of three interwoven yet distinct fields - the constellation of identities that makes up a self, the social, and the environment.
In her blog Lindsey also points out that:
The activities of collective walking - to trace a particular route or honour a place - and storytelling (understood as the sharing of significant narratives) come close to being our culture’s best equivalents to ritual participation in the active social maintenance of place found in most cultures other than our own. Traditionally, walking as pilgrimage and storytelling grounded in the local landscape were two ways in which a sense of the numinous quality of place, its physical and cultural sense of depth (even of spirituality in a pagan sense), were maintained.
Consequently I would argue that, under the growing pressure of socio-ecological upheaval, we are now increasingly seeing a re-emergence of an ‘open’ or ‘non-aligned form of spirituality in that animist or pagan sense. Also that, at least in certain respects, this brings us closer to a fuller sense of place found in animist cultures.
I’m by no means the only person to notice this shift or re-emergence. While in my view it’s necessary to set aside the all-too-often often rather puerile reductivism of ‘New Age’ thinking, there is plenty of more nuanced evidence even within the academic sphere.
The art commentator and anarchist thinker Rebecca Solnit writes in As Eve Said To The Serpent: On Landscape, Gender and Art (2001) about alternatives to the still dominant assumptions about the relationship between linear temporality, creation and place that flows from the traditions of the three monotheistic Religions of the Book (Christianity, Islam and Judaism). Solnit notes that certain artists adopt an alternative approach to time that echoes that in “Native American creation stories”, evoking ”a worldview in which creation of the world is often continual and sometimes comic improvisation, without initial perfection or a subsequent fall” (Solnit 2001:12). That, it seems to me, is close enough to what is going on – psycho-socially speaking - with the walks and the storytelling that Lindsey refers to.
Mainstream academic thinking, which is still conditioned by assumptions that Enlightenment thinking inherited from the monotheism of the three great Religions of the Book is not comfortable with any talk of either non-aligned spirituality or of neo-animism, both of which it regards as relics of a pre-modern era. None-the-less, the perspectives on the world that these invite are now being taken seriously at the creative edges of academic work, for example by respected thinkers such as Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers. Furthermore, the consequences of taking those perspectives seriously are being put into practice in everyday contexts by a variety of creative individuals and groups.
A good example of this practical work is a recent doctoral project undertaken by Ciara Healy, a PhD student at UWE, Bristol who teaches at Reading University. Earlier this year Ciara organized a multi-faceted project to draw attention to these perspectives as part of a doctoral project. This led to the Thin Place exhibition, together with an accompanying symposium and a series of education events, involving the Oriel Myrddin in Carmarthen. Without going into great detail about Ciara's project here (a description can be found at: http://orielmyrddingallery.co.uk/event/thin-place/) - it seems to me that in drawing attention to these perspectives and in various other respects the aims, range and scope of her project model the kind of inclusive, ‘ecosophical’ approach that, personally speaking, I hope Water City Bristol is aiming to demonstrate in practice.
There is always a concern that re-introducing such perspectives is somehow a sign of a ‘mystical’ or ‘anti-scientific’ bias. Yet the Thin Place exhibition catalogue included commissioned texts by astrophysicist Haley Gomez, as well as the astrologer Mark Jones, Franciscan Brother Joseph MacMahon, and the poet Cherry Smyth; while the symposium speakers included a transformational therapist, a cultural ethnographer, artists, a lecturer in art and philosophy, an archaeologist specialized in prehistoric ritual sites in Wales, and myself as an artist/researcher/teacher interested in matters of place. It’s also indicative that the educational aspect of the project included, among other events, a critical writing competition and story-telling event for primary school children.
There may be no very easily discerned links between daylighting culverted, hidden or forgotten rivers, exploring hidden ecologies and tidal reaches, and care for the urban infrastructure, at least if these topics are seen from the usual instrumental and disciplinary perspectives. However, once we choose to see them in an expanded, ecosophical light, as resonant with open metaphorical as well as literal meanings and concerns, they each start to resonate with each other via tropes that relate to our psycho-social need to address issues of loss, change, flux, and care. Issues that are ultimately bound up with that sense of meaning and purpose that has traditionally been thought of as the domain of religion, of spirituality. To address, that is, the concerns traditionally referred to as those that preoccupy the ‘thought of the heart’, concerns that form bridges between our constellated selves, society and the environment.
Iain Biggs is part of NOVA, the creative collective advising and co-creating Water City Bristol. He can also be found blogging on his personal website at:
By Lindsey McEwen
‘In some cities, more than 70 percent of streams have been paved over. In many cases, city residents don’t even know that there are buried waterways under their feet’ (National Geographic, 2013)
The Water City Bristol (WCB) project is working with local people in South Bristol to explore creative engagements with culverted and ‘hidden or forgotten rivers’ in Bristol. ‘Daylighting’ forms one of WCB’s four interweaving strands (along with hidden ecologies, tidal reaches, and care for infrastructure). We have been exploring the background to daylighting debates and talking with local people in Bristol about their relationships with rivers. Here I share a few thoughts and reflections (as a geographer within interests in rivers, water and local ‘communities’).
A search of the web indicates that the impetus for daylighting of such lost or hidden culverted rivers has increasing international resonance in sustainable urban design and planning - in settings from Seattle to Seoul. Also of interest to WCB are creative explorations of the relationships (historic, new, evolving) between local people and ‘communities’ with these hidden water courses. For example, their activism has potential to link local people to global movements. The same National Geographic (2013) proclaims ‘Daylighting takes off as cities expose long-buried rivers’ with Saw Mill River, Yonkers, New York ‘being exposed to fresh air after decades of burial’.
The language of case studies on the web can be emotive - ‘buried rivers’, ‘hidden gems’, ‘unloved city rivers’... See From Parking lot to Paradise - a 3 minute time accelerated time lapse film of the daylighting processes on the Saw Mill River. Such high profile oft-cited case studies have local people active in campaigning for the release of their local river, with daylighting perceived as ‘breathing life not just into urban streams but also their communities’. See Americanrivers.org ‘Rivers Connect Us’.
The WCB team are tracking down a copy of the film ‘Lost Rivers’ (72 mins; Director Caroline Debacle; Icarus films, 2013), which ‘examines hidden waterways in cities around the world and introduces us to people dedicated exploring and exposing them’. This sounds an important film to watch.
There is also growing international research interest in daylighting (see daylighting.org.uk), and in creative practices around ‘hidden rivers’ co-generated with local people (e.g. walks tracing above ground the river’s underground route, and storytelling as in Toronto’s Rivers Rising project). The UK Guardian Witness is currently requesting stories and photographs for ‘unloved rivers’ – with the Bristol Frome and Exeter Exe on its pages. In South Bristol, culverted rivers also exist on a smaller scale including the Malago and Colliter’s Brook – both generating renewed interest and community mobilisation to petition for daylighting. While the focus can be on physical deculverting, sometimes ‘lost rivers’ are not actually culverted. They can be above ground but constrained, hidden or neglected (a dumping ground for rubbish).
What risks in the mix?
What is clear is that among local people, there are a number of different perceived risks within the debate – to daylight or not to daylight. While the positives for daylighting may seem obvious, risks presented against daylighting include health and safety of water courses and fear of local flooding. For example, the flood histories of the south Bristol rivers are distant in the memory of many local people. New residents may have no knowledge or experience of such excesses. The floods of July 1968 inundated Bedminster streets near the Malago and Colliter’s Brook (see Brizzle Born and Bred’s photograph albums Weather Archives and The Great Flood of 1968 on Flikr). The intensifying steep slopes of Bristol make it high risk from surface water flooding, and engineering effort has been placed historically to contain and constrain these rivers. One project that provides alternative approaches to this is the Engineering and Physical Sciences (EPSRC) Blue-Green cities project. This is researching the idea that water planning can involve parts of cities might be ‘green’ and ‘blue’ (or inundated) at different times. That particular project has Newcastle in north-east UK as its case-study.
Visiting South Bristol's hidden water courses
What is unclear is how the processes and impacts of such daylighting in the UK and further afield is being co-researched and evaluated, and what the role of the arts and humanities might have working alongside geomorphologists, engineers, water managers etc. in these processes. So how do we make space for water in settings with smaller water courses, and how might local people connect to themselves, other people (local, globally) and their place through their connection with their hidden local water course? As well as reading about daylighting, we want to get a sense of the rivers from visiting rivers with local experts.
Last Monday afternoon, some of the Water City Bristol team met at Windmill Farm in Bedminster to walk some of the Malago and Colliter’s Brook. Both are tributaries to the Avon and were included in the South Bristol Riverscapes project run by Helen Adshead who has now joined our team. We found the Malago behind Windmill Farm neglected and hidden - entrenched in walls with a load of bricks, bikes and tyres.
The water looked clear below but low and managed. What would it look and sound like with more water, more noise, and cleared of its waste? The Malago has a long history of entombment along its lower stretches, with a series of flood relief channels growing ever bigger in response to successive floods in the 18th to 20th centuries. We walked down Clark Street where an old flood interceptor was visible with its weights and chains.
The straight section below was cossetted with metal struts.
Above the engineering, the river although above ground, was hidden, choked along its line with homogenous Buddleia that had been cut level with the walls.
We heard about a community-led Green Capital initiative to enhance this area for walking, and to make it the new front entrance to Windmill Farm. We heard also about the river walks that had connected different river care groups along the Malago during the Bristol Living Rivers project but which no longer take place.
We then went to visit the Colliter's Brook - again constrained and hidden by walls - beside Bristol City Football club.
We followed its line underground down through Greville Smythe Park down to the River Avon – putting ears to the small water management structures that punctuate the old river course but no sound of the water underneath on that day. Down at the River Avon, the tide was out and the pools and riffles were evident within the deep silt banks.
We looked at the outlet from the concrete frame of the efflux of the Colliter's Brook and imagined what it would have like on the 1885-90 Ordnance Survey map when the Colliter’s Brook was depicted as a sinuous wide channel running through a rural estate.
Thinking then about further afield in Central Bristol, we reflected on the current state of the River Frome - Bristol’s largest ‘underground river’. In contrast to the smaller rivers of Bedminster, the Frome is a culverted river on a very different scale, hidden from eye in Central Bristol but with its own flood history. The urban part of this ‘lost’ river continues to capture the imagination of both agencies and the public alike. The Multi-story Water project creatively explored local relationships with the Frome with residents in Eastville, while the film The Lost Rivers of Bristol (produced by Weston College students and including Melvin Wood, engineer with the Environment Agency) exchanges its valuable river heritage. More recently, the Environment Agency has been exploring the possibility of working with artists to mark the Frome’s course.
If YOU are interested in creatively exploring the ‘Lost rivers of Bristol’ and the idea of daylighting from the perspectives of communities and local people, please add your comments below or email Katherine Jones at email@example.com.