Botanizing the asphalt : politics of urban drainage

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Karvonen, Andrew Paul

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Modern cities are often perceived as the antithesis of nature; the built environment is understood as the transformation of raw and untamed nature into a rationalized human landscape. However, a variety of scholars since the nineteenth century have noted the persistence of nature in cities, not only in providing essential services but also resisting human control. Most recently, urban geographers and environmental historians have argued that processes of urbanization do not entail the replacement of natural with artificial environments, but are more accurately understood as a reconfiguration of human/nature relations. In this dissertation, I employ this relational perspective to study a specific form of urban nature: stormwater flows. Urban drainage or stormwater management activities in US cities are a vivid example of the tensions between nature, society, and technology. In this study, I present a comparative case study of two US cities--Austin, Texas and Seattle, Washington--where stormwater issues have been a central focus of public debate over the last four decades. Using textual analysis, in-depth interviews, and experiential research methods, I argue that stormwater management practices involve not only the rational management of technological networks but also implicate a wide range of seemingly unrelated issues, such as local governance, environmental protection, land use decisionmaking, community development, aesthetics, and social equity. To describe the relational implications of urban nature, I present a framework of ecological politics to characterize drainage activities as rational, populist, or civic. I argue that the latter form of politics has the greatest potential to relieve the tensions between urban residents and their material surroundings by embracing a systems perspective of human/nonhuman relations and engaging local residents in the hands-on management of environmental flows. It is through the development of deliberative and grounded forms of civic politics that urban residents can forge new relationships between technology and nature, and in the process, understand their place in the world.