Seeing the Anthropocene in something good

Lake Whitney Water Purification Facility, Hamden, CT. Google Earth. Imagery date 9/19/2013. URL:

Lake Whitney Water Purification Facility, Hamden, CT. Google Earth. Imagery date 9/19/2013. URL:

Recently someone asked me to point to something good in the Anthropocene. That can be a hard one. The Anthropocene narrative, to the extent that there is a single story there, is typically pretty depressing: it both evokes visions of a future (perhaps not so distant) environmental apocalypse, and reminds us of past and present suffering and injustice. And more hopeful visions of a “good Anthropocene” are liable to the critique that they are motivated by the very hubris—the belief that human beings can (or worse, ought to) “be in charge” of the planet—that has created the problem in the first place. Thus, two years ago, commenting on Clive Hamilton’s response to Andrew Revkin’s broaching of the topic, Elizabeth Kolbert tweeted that the words “good” and “Anthropocene” ought not be used in succession.

(Here are some highlights from an exchange between Revkin and Hamilton.)

But rather than trying to address the question “can we see something good in the Anthropocene?” directly, in this post I’ll try to reframe it a bit, as a way to make room for something other than the pessimism the answer “absolutely not!” seems to invite.

One of our aims for this blog is to act on a conceptual challenge of the Anthropocene, by working to articulate an understanding of the relationship between human beings and their physical environment that is responsive to the facts about that relationship that the Anthropocene has manifested: either—or more likely both—by changing that relationship, or by revealing features of it that have always been present. Our explorations of the ideas of habitation and habitability are key to that effort; we are trying to use them to fashion a way of understanding how people live in the surroundings that sustain them—where understanding includes both the descriptive dimension of grasping how people are able to live, and the normative dimension of evaluating what they do toward that goal. Thus, we hope, a broad outlook that is informed by thinking about the Anthropocene might allow for accounts of things that are good from that point of view.1

As an example of this kind of approach—one not focused on “something good about the Anthropocene,” but rather on “something whose goodness reflects aspects of the Anthropocene”—I’d like to present a place with which I’m familiar, depicted in the photo above: the Lake Whitney Water Purification Facility, located just outside of New Haven, Connecticut, USA. (The site of the facility is just a quarter mile from my parents’ home, so I have witnessed the changes it has undergone over the years.) The current facility was dedicated in 2005. Construction followed a lengthy design process involving local residents. Steven Holl Architects designed the structures, and Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates designed the surrounding park. The project was recognized by the American Society of Landscape Architects with its 2010 Design Honor Award, and by the American Institute of Architecture as a Top Ten Green Project for 2007.

Google Earth historical imagery. Imagery date 4/2/1991 (from USGS).

Google Earth historical imagery. Imagery date 4/2/1991 (from USGS).

The site as used previously, by the original water purification plant, was nondescript. That was certainly my impression when I first saw it forty six years ago. The image here (from 1991) shows what we called “the water company” as I remember it: a rectangle of concrete built into the ground, barely a story above grade, surrounded by a moat, outside of which (on the left) was the neighborhood football/dog walking field. (Note the dam on the lake in the upper right corner, as well as remaining structures from the mid-nineteenth century factory, founded by Eli Whitney, on either side of the road.2)

In the mid-1970’s the situation of the water company changed radically.3 As a response to an effort by the existing private water utility to raise capital by selling watershed land in surrounding towns, responsibility for the water supply was transferred to a newly created South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority (“RWA”), a public entity. The impetus for the renovation of the Lake Whitney plant came from the RWA. I should note that although (as far as I know) the plant treats water only from the relatively local Lake Whitney drainage, the fact that it is part of the RWA engages the Anthropocene idea, in two ways.

First, the facility is part of a system of management of the landscape, at a greater than local scale (the RWA polices 400 square miles of watershed, and owns and manages approximately 27,000 acres in an area that includes 20 municipalities, and supplies 46 million gallons a day to a population of 430,000 in 15 of them).4 Much of the management is designed to protect water quality, so tends to limit or mitigate development in order to lessen the flow of nutrients and other pollutants. But, of course, it also involves managing constructed reservoirs, like Lake Whitney itself. The lake and dam are visible from the facility site, appearing as an immediate example of the way human beings radically transform their surroundings, creating new landscape features.

Second, of course the purpose of the kind of landscape transformations associated with the RWA is to supply water to human communities. I mention this to invoke habitability as a lens for viewing the kind of anthropogenic landscape change associated with the Anthropocene. Obviously people create reservoirs in order, among other reasons, to provide for a basic necessity of human survival; ensuring a water supply is one of the fundamental practices of habitation, and creating the physical infrastructure—and perhaps more crucially, the social organizations which build and maintain it— is central to the way a society inhabits its location.

This simple observation underlines the idea that the habitability of a place—its ability to support the human society in question—should be seen not strictly as a given feature of the landscape, but rather as a social accomplishment: the product of the society’s efforts to take advantage of the potentialities the landscape affords, typically developed only when the landscape is transformed. Thus, as the financial and political story behind the formation of the RWA shows, the sources of habitability are not strictly the physical features of the landscape; what makes a place habitable are the practices and correlated institutions that satisfy social and political as well as resource demands.

In my view, this rich concept of habitability can be used to help us conceptualize the Anthropocene. Descriptively, the Anthropocene idea can be taken to refer to the results at a planetary scale of human habitation of Earth (at scales from local to global). And normatively, we can take the idea as a challenge: given that in our habitation of the planet we cannot but affect it, how can people structure their ways of living to maintain, if not enhance, Earth’s habitability? This is part of how the Purification Facility site invokes the Anthropocene in my mind. As a tangible place of contact with physical and institutional infrastructure of the RWA it provokes me to think in terms of the “habitability system” of South Central Connecticut—a local manifestation of ways human beings transform the planet.

But further, as an instance of landscape design the site itself embodies many of these thoughts, and it is important to give full credit to the designers of the facility for their success in this regard. I will close by emphasizing two other ways it invokes the Anthropocene to me.

First, to fulfill a commitment to green building practice, the project retained excavation debris on the site itself—in particular, by constructing the hill visible directly behind the long silver structure (which contains offices and education space). To one who recalls that area as a flat field, that hill is a vivid symbol of anthropogenic landscape modification—a bit of literal terraforming. In this respect the site acknowledges the constructed lake it adjoins.

But second, again speaking as a former resident and consistent visitor, the site’s beauty enhances the neighborhood (see the photos here). Whatever way we think of habitability, it seems clear that we must incorporate pleasure into our understanding of it. Few think of unpleasant places as good to live in; the pleasures provided by beautiful things in the built environment—buildings and parks alike—make it more habitable. But the real accomplishment of this site is not simply that it has improved the habitability of a neighborhood by adding a lovely amenity. More, it has rendered beautiful an element of the infrastructure of habitation, integrating two key human needs. In this respect it is a statement of the most profound kind of aspiration we can apply to our efforts to live as well as we can in the Anthropocene. In my view, appreciating the site in terms of the Anthropocene in fact deepens its beauty.

  1. I believe what I have in mind is in sympathy with the “Seeds of Good Anthropocenes” project, though the initiatives listed there are more about organizing actions, while my concern here is with a way of seeing things. 
  2. It was here that Whitney perfected the system of interchangeable parts that is a hallmark of the industrial revolution—though his energy source was not coal but water-power. The dam that created Lake Whitney was built in 1860 by Whitney’s son, to increase water power, but also creating the first public water supply for New Haven. (
  3. See McCluskey, Dorothy S. and Claire C. Bennitt. 1997. “Partnerships Protect Watersheds: The Case of the New Haven Water Company.” Land Lines, v. 9, n. 1, and Stowe, Stacey. 2005. “ Connecticut Town Helps Create an Architectural Anomaly: An Appealing Water Plant.” New York Times, Dec. 4, 2005. 
  4. See the 2007 RWA report, “The Land We Need for the Water We Use.” 

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