Cities have long been made through colonial and then modernist efforts to tame the unruly relations between land and water. In port cities as diverse as Philadelphia and Mumbai, engineers have drained wetlands and built river embankments and sea walls to keep waters at bay. These projects have produced particular kinds of ground for the development of industry, commerce and social life as well as particular kinds of water– deepened harbors for shipping vessels, buried creeks, forgotten wells, and waste sinks. While these projects have made urban life possible, they have also produced raced and classed geographies of inequality in the city.

Today, these stabilized (and not always innocuous) relations are being challenged by the rising waters of climate change.  As climate scientists project a future unlike times past, the increased propensity for severe storm surges and disrupted weather patterns have unsettled historic relations between land and water in cities. Climate events threaten industries, transportation infrastructures and marginalized residents settled in former wetlands, and they promise to exacerbate social inequalities and further squeeze non-human natures. In these uncertain and toxic times, how might we make space for social justice and non-human natures in and along rising urban waters? This expansive, collaborative project seeks to explore the futures of river and coastal cities in a time where the lines between land and water are muddied all around us.

We propose to conduct this research in the former wetlands of Philadelphia and Mumbai- two cities that have since been formed, extended and differentiated by historic relations with water.  In Philadelphia and Mumbai, drained wetlands that were occupied by marginal residents have been settled by the energy industries and port infrastructures. Their situation in and near water, scholars have shown, have been generative of “sacrificial landscapes” (Black). Communities have been subject to toxic harm by virtue of their raced, classed and geographic location. We ask: in what ways do ongoing urban processes (replete with concessions to energy companies, transportation corridors, and global capital) recapitulate and reorient histories of vulnerability and inequality in times of climate change? How are residents reconsidering their relationship with water in the city to articulate new ways to live more justly with relations of human and non-human difference in the city?

Through ethnographic and historical research with educators, students, planners, health professionals, artists and community members in Philadelphia and Mumbai, this project seeks to “make a difference,” to produce alternative visions of the future cities of Philadelphia and Mumbai. In Philadelphia, this builds on the momentum of PPEH’s collaboration with Bartram’s Garden and others on The WetLand Project as well as the Lower Schuylkill River Corps research seminar (in which both Anand and Wiggin participate). In Mumbai, research on these issues is being conducted by students and faculty at the School of Habitat Studies at the Tata Institute for Social Sciences. Taken together, Rising Waters will catalyze and consolidate a research collaborative on urban waters that can subsequently be scaled to other locations.

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