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  • The Fabric of Space: Water, Modernity, and the Urban Imagination by Matthew Gandy
  • Jamie Benidickson
The Fabric of Space: Water, Modernity, and the Urban Imagination. By Matthew Gandy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 2014.

This volume explores selected aspects of the water and wastewater infrastructure of six megacities with an emphasis on distinctive characteristics rather than systematic comparison. Modernity, particularly in its technological and social dimensions, serves to unite the essays thematically, with perspectives on nature and the environment as a background theme.

Part history, part critique, and sometimes travelogue, the collection takes us through the sewers of Paris, then, by way of the recreational landscapes of Berlin, to the malarial swamps of Lagos. Then en route to the severely challenged lawful and unlawful water conduits of Mumbai before delivering readers to the vanished Los Angeles River and a not so fictional London widely inundated by rising groundwater levels and surface flooding.

Within the narrative of the construction of 350 miles of Paris sewers by 1870, Gandy presents his more elaborate enterprise: “By tracing the history of water in urban space we can begin to develop a fuller understanding of changing relations between the body and urban form under the impetus of capitalist urbanization.” The Berlin story then illustrates the role of industrialization in promoting civic appreciation for nature’s contribution to urban well-being including, for example, opportunities for bathing and outdoor waterside recreation on the part of the growing workforce. Swamp draining in Nigeria—the removal of surface waters and disease carrying insects—represented a strategic colonial priority that simultaneously contributed to social ordering and the discipline of nature. Mumbai’s continuing struggle to achieve any semblance on or below the ground of its engineers’ ambitions for water supply calls into question technologically-driven urban futures. Yet efforts to pull back from the brink through projects of ecological restoration—such as those repeatedly proposed in parts of Los Angeles—are presented as equally facing severe obstacles. These might take the form of social discord or at least lack of universal [End Page 89] consent, or, profound water shortages such as California has experienced more dramatically since this book was written. The issues facing the city of London in connection with rising tides or increased flow along the Thames again suggest the difficulties of altering course to embrace ecological or nature-based responses to the imperatives of adaptation.

The six prominent illustrations of the modernization of urban water supply and management arrangements ultimately serve to anchor a cautionary observation about what can and cannot be accomplished: “water is ostensibly universal, as a metabolic component of urban life, yet it remains highly differentiated in its cultural and material appropriations… The fickle materialities of water serve to allude both technomodern attempts to control nature as well as increasingly sophisticated attempts to model socioecological systems.”

The environmental or ecological backdrop is often insightfully addressed (with the significant exception of biodiversity) even though the index slots valuable and provocative discussions of adaptation and resilience under climate change.

Jamie Benidickson
University of Ottawa, Canada


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pp. 89-90
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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