A Sense of Time and Place for Water Sensitive Cities

In August 2014, I sat down with Professor Jenny Gregory (University of Western Australia) and Lisa Curtis-Wendlandt (Mind Your Way) to discuss the important role of History and historians in understanding urban water management in Australian cities. Here's what we had to say:

(from the CRC for Water Sensitive Cities, August 2014)

Ruth (left) and Jenny (right), Credit: CRC for Water Sensitive Cities

Ruth (left) and Jenny (right), Credit: CRC for Water Sensitive Cities

History is a binding force. Historical narratives have the power to connect people with place, uniting environmental organisations and the public with a common goal: to protect the places they love. This binding power has brought a number of historians to the CRC for Water Sensitive Cities (CRCWSC), with fascinating stories to tell about water in Australia. Professor Jenny Gregory and Dr Ruth Morgan are both Western Australians whose narratives have promoted a love of their hometown Perth – but also a concern for its future.

Ruth’s interest in water histories begins with her own family, some of whom grew up in the state’s goldfields before a water pipeline was established. This inspired her family’s culture of water frugality even after their move to Perth, she explains. Such personal narratives maintain Ruth’s attraction to her research.

Jenny also feels the pull of personal history. “I’m interested in attachment to place,” she says. “I think it probably goes back to the fact that, as a child, my family moved a number of times – Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney – before we ended up in Perth. All my historical work has touched on that notion of attachment to place.”

Jenny and Ruth are in a group of historians piecing together the water histories of Melbourne, Brisbane, and Perth. These histories explore the changing institutions, infrastructure, and cultures that surround water usage, and form part of the CRCWSC’s Project on societal innovation and behaviour change (Project A2).

Both women encourage historical research that is relevant to the present. In their eyes, the very same “sense of place” that drives their research can motivate people to change their use of water. The aim is to give people “a sense of place and attachment to their particular suburb, their region,” Ruth notes. “People will make positive changes toward more water sensitive cities if they have that attachment to a place.” In Perth this personal attachment is particularly significant. The metropolis is predicted to become the “world’s first climate change city”, where declining rainfall will make life significantly harder. It is therefore paramount, Ruth says, that future policies – along with their implementation and consequent usage behaviour – benefit from the lessons of the past.

Illuminating this context is central to Ruth and Jenny’s research, which provides insight into “how we got to where we are”, and what foundations are in place for developing water sensitive cities. Their work focuses on such questions as Why have certain water use cultures developed? and Why have things happened at those particular times? One interesting finding: triggers for relevant cultural change may themselves have little to do with water.

For Jenny, it is exciting to come into the CRCWSC as a historian – and to help a younger generation of engineers understand how past events have influenced the issues they now deal with. While engineers commonly develop an interest in their discipline’s history late in their careers, Jenny finds a lack of historical understanding in the younger generation.

Appreciation of historical context is vital for establishing rapport between the CRCWSC and the public. “I think we as historians know how to present information persuasively,” says Jenny. “We have a greater interface with the public than some of the highly technical disciplines. History can contribute so much to public understanding.” Ruth adds that the empathy of the historian can also help engineers and scientists better understand the public: “Quite often the assumption in the disciplines we work with here is that human beings are highly rational and will perform accordingly, and that would be great. But history can demonstrate our frailties, and historians are taught to be empathetic and ask, ‘Well why wouldn’t we act in a particular way?’ ”

So history builds attachment to place – but it also forges links between organisations like the CRCWSC and society. These connections are critical for encouraging a sense of environmental responsibility. “We can’t create these water sensitive cities without that larger understanding,” says Ruth.

Watch us in conversation here.

Courtesy: Christina Majoinen and Lisa Curtis-Wendlandt for the Mind Your Way team.