City Water Matters: Cultures, Practices and Entanglements of Urban Water

City Water Matters: Cultures, Practices and Entanglements of Urban Water


Reviewed by Edward Wigley

First Published:

04 Jun 2020, 10:09 am

City Water Matters: Cultures, Practices and Entanglements of Urban Water

London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019; 216 pp.: ISBN: 978-981-13-7891-1, £59.99 (hbk)


With City Water Matters, Professor Sophie Watson reminds the reader of the essentiality of water and its centrality to human life. Water is not only needed for basic survival in drinking and cooking, for cleanliness and hygiene, but, she argues, it can exact power over human life and wellbeing in cases of flooding or natural disasters. Critical to urban theory, however, is its capacity as a site to assemble publics, to expose differences and inequalities and to transgress boundaries of private/public, sex/gender, race/ethnicity and social class amongst others. This book aims to demonstrate how water can be co-productive in the assemblage of humans, non-humans, objects and materialities in urban spaces; how it can construct urban spaces and refract urban and cultural structures. Watson demonstrates this argument across nine largely freestanding chapters, with a predominant focus on London and the UK plus examples from across the globe.

Water and the national and global crises that surround it have been in the headlines increasingly over the last decade or so. These crises are often framed, Watson points out, as an issue of having too much or too little in one place: flooding and tsunamis on the one hand, and droughts, bushfires and lack of clean water for drinking or hygiene on the other. In many ways, water represents one of the final great challenges to western modernity, as it is difficult to contain, is impossible to monopolise or fully democratise and has a shifting and fluid character – and therefore defies a system which attempts to categorise and commoditise natural resources.

Watson’s focus shifts away from these global, environmental and political issues of water consumption and access to ‘human-organised systems, meanings and practices, in a way that does not neglect the materiality of water and water-ecological relations’ (p. 11), i.e. the social and cultural interpretations, representations and contestations of water in urban societies. Throughout the book, she draws on a variety of theoretical approaches, including assemblage, atmosphere and affect, vitalism and post-humanism, to make sense of how water co-produces urban spaces and peoples.

The introductory chapter builds up this case in a particularly compelling manner, highlighting the paradoxical nature of water where it is a taken-for-granted yet highly precious resource, separate from the body yet a predominant component of its make-up, a calming substance yet a terrifying force. This latter point also links to a post-humanist dimension to water where binary divisions of nature/culture are undermined by the interconnectedness, entanglements and centrality of water not just to our very biology but to the socio-technical arrangements of society. Watson justifies her focus on the cultural practices of water – ‘everyday water’ in distinction from the ‘big water’ of large-scale resource management projects – in terms of how these practices refract wider social differences, inequalities and structures of sex/gender, race/ethnicity and social class.

Chapter 2 brings the reader the first real case studies of the book, orientated around water in public space or the creation of public spaces using water features such as fountains. There is some discussion of the use of fountains, notably the spectacular Dubai Fountain, for city branding and place marketing or as part of urban regeneration in Bradford, UK. Most of the chapter, however, is orientated around the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain in Hyde Park, London. The theoretical framing of this is very strong, drawing on an approach which argues for unity and community-making through the performance and proximity of diverse bodies rather than through rationality.

Chapter 3 considers the consumption of water as a cultural product, to be bought and sold, to be distributed and disposed of. This features a rich case study of ‘smart’ state intervention projects in the UK that demonstrate a shifting of responsibility of water management from the state and water companies to individual households through meters, timers and other devices that monitor and reduce consumption. Watson highlights the urgent need for these projects to attend to factors of gender, religious affiliation, age, immigrant background and social class, as different social groups harbour differing moral and social attitudes to water. Yet this can also be a delicate balancing act, as state interventions can transgress the symbolic divides of the private domain of the home which many householders may resist.

Chapter 4 focuses almost exclusively on the River Thames in London, and the historical assembling of publics around the economic development of the city. The first case study of the subcommunities of the boat and dock workers over the last 300 years highlights the intergenerational belonging and increasing governance of a once-unruly river. The de-centralisation of warehousing and improved land transport technologies in London led to the ultimate decline of these industries. Reflecting other parts of the UK post-war economy, the freight and transporter ships, dockside buildings and labourers of the Thames were replaced by recreational, cultural and service industries of pleasure cruises, art galleries, apartment residences, bars and cafes.

Chapter 5 takes three main case studies themed around the implementation of hygiene in baths, toilets and laundrettes as part of the public health agenda since the 19th century. This narrates a shift in attitudes towards hygiene and sanitation practices which also become signifiers of morality and class and through which differences of sex/gender and race/ethnicity are layered. Just one example is the exclusivity of public toilets for men in 19th century London before campaigns led to women’s provision, enabling the mobility of women in the city. The gendered inequalities of public toilet provision today are also discussed – although there is much more room for expansion here than the author allows – as well as the issue of trans people’s access to traditionally gendered facilities which has drawn public awareness to gender self-determination, and the balancing of these needs with those of other community groups.

Chapter 6 considers contemporary urban bathing practices, with attention to spas, swimming pools, lidos and other public facilities. The centrepiece of this chapter is a case study of Parliament Hill Lido and the Hampstead Ponds in London which builds upon the themes of atmosphere, affect and belonging amongst the swimmers at these facilities. This is perhaps most visible in the political mobilisation that occurs when this water body is threatened by development plans. This chapter should, however, acknowledge more that the demographic characteristics of these communities are a factor in both belonging and political mobilisation.

In Chapter 7, the book turns its attention to purification rituals, informed by cultures and religion. It examines the challenges, contestations and inequalities of differing religious practices, including wudu, mikvah and ash scattering. Chapter 8 makes visible many of the forgotten infrastructures and architectures of water found in cities across the globe, including aqueducts, water taps and horse troughs. While this is interesting in parts, the links to hauntings are omitted here, which may have further illuminated the significance of these traces within the urban fabric.

Chapter 9 is a short ‘Final Word’ from the author that reiterates the importance of understanding water as a cultural object with all the critical investigation that culture warrants. The brevity of the ‘Final Word’ illustrates a weakness of this book. While the individual chapters are engaging, thought-provoking and enjoyable to read, the overall argument of the book is diminished by the absence of a more thorough conclusionary chapter. There are many threads which could be built upon chapter by chapter, not least those concerning gender, sexuality, belonging and civic spaces, to construct a more rewarding central thesis and conclusion. Additionally, while there are references to other global cities and other cities within the UK, the London-centrism of the case studies does limit the ambition of this project. At certain points, for instance, the discussion of the Bradford Mirror Pool (Ch. 2) site outside London would benefit from further examination of relationships between the diverse bodies in proximity, given local histories of social tension between different community groups.

It is a testament to the strength of the book, however, that once the reader understands the significance of thinking of water as a cultural object, many questions appear that could lead the book further and wider. For instance, issues around water contamination with its health consequences, spread of disease through water or the controversies surrounding water fluoridation could provide excellent lenses for exploring the boundaries between the State and the individual, the public and the private, purity and impurity. This book is a strong provocation to open the cultural field of water to further critical enquiry.


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