This is a conversation between Alexa Mills of CoLab and Professor James Wescoat, who is an Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Architecture specializing on water in environmental design at MIT. James and Professor Anne Spirn are conducting a course that analyzes how the City of Philadelphia can conserve thirty to fifty percent of storm water run-off in the Mill Creek neighborhood of West Philadelphia, which sits on a buried flood plain.
AM: What was your path to creating this course on Water, Landscape & Urban Design?
JLW: This is the third iteration of the class. The course started, in its first incarnation, with local studies in MIT and Cambridge. We looked at water problems in our own home and community, and then looked at some of the solutions that are being generated internationally. Then, last year my co-teacher for this course, Anne Spirn, started talking to me about the work going on in Philadelphia: both the research she has been doing for over twenty years in West Philadelphia, and about how the new experiments that Philadelphia is doing with the Environmental Protection Agency are advancing the field of water resources management in the U.S. That really became attractive as a new way to approach the same ideas from the previous courses about studying U.S. and South Asian water resources management strategies.
It’s really a dream course. It’s a course I’d liked to have taught throughout my career, but it’s only since coming to MIT that we’ve been able to do this combination of studio, seminar, and environmental science all in one, and to find all the ways in which they can be integrated.
AM: I know that the students have to do case studies of other water management strategies to inform the Philadelphia context. What is your thinking behind the case studies component?
JLW: We’ll do case studies of relevant water resource management strategies in South Asia, which includes India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. Sometimes we have students with an interest in an adjacent region, say the Middle East, and we say, “Absolutely. Let’ see what we can draw upon in terms of innovations in that region.”
The idea behind the case studies is that the twenty-first century is a time when the innovations are happening world wide, and the U.S. won’t be solely in the export (export of ideas) model of the late twentieth century. There are still some people who think that it’s largely a one-way stream of innovation. From the get-go, that was not the idea in this course. The idea is that innovations are happening world wide, and one must search for them internationally; and one is likely to find solutions that are inspiring and adaptable. Sometimes it’s a different way of thinking about or looking at a problem, a different perspective rather than a different technical solution, which comparative case studies bring to the table.
For an example, you read about how community organizers will mobilize a water movement in rural India, and you’ll see how they lead a water pilgrimage from village to village raising awareness by a Gandhian-inspired walk on foot — which is not unlike the breast cancer walk that we saw yesterday here in Philadelphia. When we passed it, people might have thought, “Oh, that has nothing to do with what we will be doing,” but once they see the example of this water pilgrimage in India, they might remember the breast cancer walkers. Just imagine if there were walkers down these different urban water transects that we’re studying in the Mill Creek Watershed, or walks from the mouth of Mill Creek all the way down to City Line Avenue. That would be a consciousness raising activity.
It may be that no one picks up on that. But here is another example: just last night we had one team of students who started to look at the four blocks of an intersection—and having just had a talk on Islamic gardens, we thought, “You’ve got a Char Bagh,” and one starts to think, “Oh, we could have a model here, a conceptual model.” And that’s by a kind of imaginative analogy, and not a pure import, of ideas.
AM: What is a Char Bagh?
JLW: A Char Bagh is a four-fold garden, like the four gardens of paradise. In simple terms, there is this picture of a four-fold garden, and one starts to see the four parcels of land at an intersection, then one starts to say, “Oh, this is a pretty interesting way that space is organized.”
AM: You also brought your knowledge of Islamic Gardens to the course via a talk you gave at the New Africa Center in West Philadelphia. What was it like to give a talk to an African American Muslim community in Philadelphia?
JLW: It was fascinating! That was the part of the serendipity of this project. When we went to Philadelphia this summer to asses the possibility of doing the course, we met some of the community gardeners and found out that they’re an African American Muslim womens’ gardening group, and have been gardening with a philosophy of community development and their own convictions in mind. To be able to talk with them about the garden traditions, both in conceptual terms and also about the history of Islamic gardens in environmental design, was a real opportunity for me and something that interests them. It was unique to be able to give such a talk in an American-Muslim center.
One question raised by a person at the talk was really great: she asked about the relationship between community gardens in general and Islamic gardens, and suggested that one is not primarily thinking about whether there are Islamic gardens and gardeners in Philadelphia or Boston, but rather about how gardens created and tended by Muslims and other community members have shared meanings that really cross cultural boundaries.
AM: Do you have anything else to say about your experience speaking at the museum?
JLW: It was striking walking in there and seeing the historical photos on the walls. Some of the materials were from the earliest Muslim immigrants, often slaves brought against their will from Africa to the U.S. The manacles displayed had a profoundly disturbing impact.
Some of the photos around the museum space were taken during my childhood, especially of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and those images brought back memories of those times. That period of the 60s and 70s was so transformative for the urban neighborhoods we’re working in. It was a time of segregation and struggle. And the struggles associated with those urban movements came back into my consciousness through the images. These struggles were really complex; some were inspiring and others discordant. At the museum you have an African American Muslim perspective on history, some of the tensions of our lives and times, and some of the ways in which members of this community have been led to address them.
AM: How do you mesh this social aspect with the physicality of design?
JLW: Well, there is an emphasis on physical solutions because this is a design workshop. In a design studio physical solutions are foremost, but in a design workshop like ours, one is looking at the physical and the cultural/social strategies jointly, and so we really will try to get to a level of grounding community development ideas in physical transformations. One of the things that are important, especially for urban planning students who don’t have a design background, is getting a feeling for design by experimentation. What does it feel like to take a community development idea that’s a really good one and see how it lands on the ground? This is a great experience for someone who’s not going to work as a designer professionally, but who wants to know what it feels like working with designers. Conversely, the workshop challenges our design students to think about social driving forces, community-driven processes, and the long-term social implementation and impacts of design.
By working with the West Philadelphia community members we’re able to think much more deeply about the social aspect than would otherwise be possible. We can only do this type of course in Philadelphia because of Anne’s twenty years of experience with all of the community organizers and public officials, as well as the landscape. Even trying to do this in Cambridge, we could go out and interview and talk about the social aspects of the project, and still not be at the level where Anne is in Philadelphia.
Too often, water is designed or managed as just a physical substance, rather than something that has extraordinary significance for human livelihood, ecological systems, cultural meanings, and as a design element. And that’s what we really try to bring together, so that students feel comfortable looking at water in all of its different dimensions, and they’re able to draw them together in their work.
Post by Alexa Mills and Professor James Wescoat.
For more information on the Mill Creek Watershed, please visit the West Philadelphia Landscape Project (WPLP), a decades-long commitment to the people and landscape of West Philadelphia, where Professor Anne Spirn has been working since 1987. For the latest on the WPLP, please visit the WPLP Blog.