Rainwater tanks & the material politics of community-led greening

Authors: Charlotte Johnson*, UCL, Sarah Bell, UCL, Tse-Hui Teh, UCL
Topics: Urban Geography, Environment, Anthropocene
Keywords: Infrastructure, water, cities, co-design
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/8/2021
Start / End Time: 9:35 AM / 10:50 AM
Room: Virtual 40
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

A city’s water system provides material to reflect on diverse sustainability issues from the nature of modernity (Gandy 2006, 2008) to the constitution of politics and its subjects (Anand 2011, 2012). Scale is key in these analyses enabling broad systemic change to be read from the minutia of pumps and pipes. But a focus on the materiality of infrastructure also invites critical engagement with the forms of intervention possible. Drawing on the concept of ‘material participation’ (Marres 2012) we use urban water infrastructure not only as an interpretative tool to move from the local to the systemic, but as a methodological tool that supports local communities to produce systemic change.

We focus on rainwater tanks; portable storage for non-potable water. A tank’s portability provides an opportunity for communities to turn grey urban space green. A tank’s ability to store rainwater keeps community gardens thriving while also reducing pressure on urban drinking water supplies. This paper draws on three community gardening projects in London. We present the co-design processes used to bring water infrastructure impacts into community garden planning and rainwater tanks into urban neighbourhoods. Once installed a tank serves as a signifier of collective action and empowerment, which also invites countering forces. Our analysis highlights the politics involved in cutting into a housing estate’s downpipe and diverting the rainwater into a tank. We argue that the tanks, as small scale material interventions in urban infrastructure, can expose not only possibilities for, but also limits to an idealised community-led urban change.

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