Dr. Adrian Parr is a philosopher and cultural critic that works at the intersection of environmental, social and political activism. She is a UNESCO Chair of Water and Human Settlements and Dean of the College of Architecture, Planning, and Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington. We spoke with Adrian about climate change, problems of representation, cooperative design and the impact the
A/E/C industry might have on sustainability.
DesignIntelligence (DI): How did you get to where you are today? Tell us about your path.
Adrian Parr (AP): For my master’s degree in philosophy, I focused on how trauma impacted the ability of Holocaust survivors to represent what they had gone through. Traumatic experience dramatically exposes the limits of representation. This research set the tone for further investigation into the problem of representation. There is always an excess or an inarticulable dimension that a given representation never fully captures. That led me to studying Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks for my doctoral thesis. Leonardo’s ability to bring art, science, urban design and engineering into conversation with one another was intriguing to me. In particular, I was especially excited by the manner in which his representational process involved cross-disciplinary collaborations, which in turn resulted in open-ended and provisional ideas and images. The notebooks were filled with anatomical, perspective, mechanical, and hydrological representations that carried within them emergent forces, traces of other ideas, and ghostly remains of previous works. The more I studied his drawings and notations, the more it seemed to me that the very act of trying to represent life in all its complexity necessarily resulted in fundamentally unrepresentable domains that indicated an emergent system, which in turn carried an important creative function for Leonardo. As such, the thesis went on to become a theory of creative production. That is when I first began to think about the ways in which we can’t neatly extract a problem from its context. I was intrigued by nascent properties and elements that inform and formulate a given problem. It was at this time that I turned my attention to the built environment, drawing on my previous work into trauma and the limits of representation to think about how communities deal with collective trauma and, more specifically, the invisible and silent dimension of representing shared trauma in built form. This prompted me to question how other kinds of events also incur a similar kind of traumatic energy that inflicts a wound on the landscape and — more broadly speaking — our environment. It was then that I found myself thinking about the relationship between the built environment, climate change and environmental degradation as a kind of trauma infusing the landscape. Additionally, I wanted to examine how human beings might collectively address some of these challenges.
DI: Was this drive toward representation one of the reasons that your work on environmental issues has involved film?
AP: Absolutely. The film project, called “The Intimate Realities of Water,” is a result of my UNESCO appointment. I spent four years in and out of the slums in Nairobi, Kenya, assessing the cultural appropriateness of water and sanitation facilities. These are simple functional structures that might be perfectly engineered and yet some people with no other sanitation option choose not to use them — either they are too expensive, people feel the spaces are unwelcoming or foreign, or they might be situated in areas where women don’t feel safe. We often use very large statistics to help explain why the United Nations comes up with certain policies. For example, UN-Habitat reports that 1 billion people, or one in eight, live in slum-like conditions. Two million tons of waste are deposited globally in waterways each day. Two people are added to the urban population of the world every second.
However, what statistics miss is how the numbers play out on the ground. For me, it was important to humanize that data. I quickly discovered that the surveys I was administering did not capture all the nuances of how water shapes all facets of everyday life in the slums. The idea to make a film was actually one that the women in the slums came up with together; I wanted them to be able to represent their own reality on their own terms, not on my terms or those of a standardized survey. A film allowed them to take control of how they were represented. In this sense, the research and the outcomes of it were a cooperative venture.
Data has the potential to be deeply affective, to dramatically change the conversation in policy and development circles. The filmic medium, which combines narrative, numbers, image, motion, time and sound, stimulates another kind of conversation around and perspective on big data, one that engages with the representational leftovers of what the data cannot capture.
DI: Why did you choose to focus your efforts on water as a resource among all the other aspects of sustainability?
AP: Water is the perfect thing to focus on if you’re interested in systems-thinking because it’s an environmental and social issue. It concerns problems of equity and health. It’s cultural. It’s also economic, such as the growing privatization of water resources and services. By focusing on water issues, you are able to engage with a systems approach to problem-solving.
DI: There are people out there who would consider your stance on environmental and social issues to be radical. Yet you often call for engaging with people who hold different views. How can we work across philosophical, economic, and political divides?
AP: I think it’s a misrepresentation to consider me radical. That said, I would like to see my work as being activist; I am deeply committed to making a contribution in bringing about change. I’m quite adamant that we need to be working from the inside — from the reformist position, trying to change the system from within. That is not a radical position to hold. But I also advocate, like a radical might, for revolutionizing forces that push from the outside. Rather than position myself as either on the inside or outside, as a reformer or radical, institutional or grassroots change, I share with Marx and other Marxists the view that the global system of endless capital accumulation functions by appropriating the limits presented to it by placing these in the service of further accumulation. Appropriation is the biggest challenge for transformative politics. I maintain that if politics is to destabilize business as usual and send it in a different direction, it must first and foremost incorporate a mechanism that staves off appropriation; otherwise, it will not be effective. It must therefore continually and nimbly jump between working inside and outside the system. You have to feel comfortable having conversations across multiple political divides. The minute you stop the conversation, everyone becomes entrenched in their ideological positions, which does not help the situation.
We also need to have inventive ways of responding to the problems surrounding environmental and climate justice. This gargantuan task requires successfully negotiating with a variety of perspectives. It will mean experimenting with new technologies, alternative forms of social organization, and new ways of building (cities are responsible for over 70% of global carbon dioxide emissions). How do we move beyond a human-centric representational framework to design more inclusive environments? How might a non-anthropocentric built environment work?
These are problems that require all kinds of entities to come together. They require creative combinations that involve the public sector cooperating with the private sector, young with old, humans and non-humans. The problem emerges when one entity becomes too dominant in that relationship and is driven purely by advancing profit margins at the expense of social accountability. That’s where the public sector needs to be stronger and willing to regulate when it’s required.
DI: What examples can you point to of successful approaches to the type of environmental challenges you work on?
AP: The international Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate Change and Energy is a wonderful initiative that assembles the power of localized action and engages different stakeholders (research institutions, private sector and government sector) for collective impact (for example, to reduce global carbon dioxide by 60 billion tons by 2050). More than 9,200 cities across the world have signed on to this initiative. The more urbanized the population becomes the more power city mayors will have in solving the problem of climate change. The green initiatives in Chicago are also a fantastic example. However, greening in the absence of equity, as I outline in my work, is mere window dressing.
I moved to the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex one year ago and was delighted to discover the many cities that make up the metroplex were proactively working to create a greener, friendlier, and more inclusive urban environment. Some examples include the Lewisville 2025 plan; Trinity Works in Fort Worth negotiating the conservation of 1,600 acres; Dallas participating in the international 100 Resilient Cities network sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation — these are all success stories. When I came to Texas, I had a stereotypical view of what Texas is: cowboys and ranchers with a gung-ho attitude to the environment that consists of seeking short-term gain whatever the cost. I certainly did not think there would be a strong culture of environmentalism. To my surprise and delight, in the Dallas-Fort Worth area there are lots of organizations and individuals who are extremely committed to making the city more livable and prepared in the face of climate change, to trying to lower the carbon footprint of the city and look after the waterways and the Trinity River system.
DI: What role do architects, designers, engineers, contractors and others that create the built environment play in bringing about positive change?
AP: Positive change can’t happen in isolation from the political sector because we also need innovative zoning and policy. In the U.S., density must replace the development model of endless sprawl. We need more efficient and extensive public transit linking neighborhoods and the downtown to other urban centers and rural towns, the incorporation of urban farming into urban green spaces, efforts to put blue and green infrastructure to work, investment in smart cities research, sufficient affordable and well-designed low-income housing, and the involvement of our youth in urban design and development.
It’s also going to require a cultural shift. People are going to have to be happier with less square footage and traveling less in their cars. We can create more public spaces that encourage the intermingling of different demographics, which is central to creating more friendly and welcoming cities. We can take into consideration the flourishing of other-than-human species in our urban designs. In Washington State, WSDOT is working on creating multiple fish passages where state highways traverse rivers and streams so that fish can continue to migrate and help keep the state’s waterways clean. This kind of out-of-the-box, trans-species approach to design and development is a fantastic step in the right direction. When considered together, not only do we have a solution that’s a greener urban design, we also have a healthier, more inclusive built environment.
DI: When you think about the right relationship between humans and our environment, what does that right relationship look like? What does success look like for us?
AP: It’s cooperative. Privatization is not a cooperative model. Putting new technologies to work simply for the sake of increasing a profit margin is not cooperative. Understanding water rights as a property right, in which you can have access to this particular stream but not that one, is not cooperative. Cooperation operates at different scales. It has to engage a variety of spatialities and temporalities. What I mean by that is we need to be able to bring into the discussion future generations. It’s no surprise young people around the world are at the forefront of climate change justice and politics. They are the future. It’s their future that is being ferociously wrecked the longer the current generation of adults drags their heels on realistically tackling the mounting problems associated with a changing global climate. We need to think trans-generationally. We also need to act trans-nationally, not from an isolationist and competitive position of our sovereign state interests. Lastly, we must adopt a trans-species framework. That demands that as a species we become more compassionate and committed to recognizing and changing our own weaknesses.
Adrian Parr is an internationally recognized environmental, political and cultural thinker and activist. She is the Dean of the College of Architecture, Planning, and Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Arlington in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex and she serves as a UNESCO water chair.