Hydrosocial Territories of the Anthropocene

Matthew Tucker
University of Minnesota

Fresh Water: Design Thinking for Inland Water Territories symposium
September, 2018 University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign
Paper prepared for the Fall 2018 Conference. 
Book Chapter (forthcoming) in 2019

Anthropocene, landscape architecture, hydrosocial, bluespace, hydrospatial territories


We are at the dawn of a new geologic epoch for the Earth, the Anthropocene. As initially noted by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer, human modification of the Earth’s system—its atmosphere, lithosphere, and hydrosphere—has proceeded to such an extent that humans have achieved geologic agency on a planetary scale. Since Crutzen and Stoermer’s canonical essay, a robust body of multi-disciplinary Anthropocene-based research has quickly emerged to articulate and substantiate geo-stratigraphic evidence of anthropological influence and integration with the heterogeneous dynamics of planetary systems. More recently, Anthropocene-based research has transcended geo-stratigraphic inquiries and broached larger epistemological and ontological concerns that further dismantle the entrenched human-environment binary. As a consequence, awareness of the anthropogenic transformation of the Earth’s systems marks not only a geo-stratigraphic epoch but a paradigm shift in human-environment relations. Drawing upon a diverse breadth of scholarship, this chapter examines the ongoing ontological and epistemological paradigm shift that now unfolds among water, humans, and landscape in the upper Midwest. In doing so, the chapter identifies timely and strategic opportunities for scholars and designers to re-conceptualize the hydrosocial landscape of the Anthropocene.


With the vast majority of the upper Midwest’s land cover transformed since the mid-1800’s, the region exemplifies the necessity and opportunity for Anthropocene-based hydrosocial design research.  The region’s transformation through physical, social and political instruments of colonial expansion mirrors the historical progression of the Anthropocene from the Industrial Revolution into the Great Acceleration of the mid-20th century. What was once a landscape interconnected through a mosaic of lakes, wetlands and rivers can now be understood as a landscape hyperobject of anthro-fluvial infrastructures and operations that extract, drain, detain and convey water. The landscape has become an Anthropocene artifact of hydrologic prosthesis, encoding and carrying our historic and current perceptions and policies about water. In these landscapes, the course and flow of water is governed not by climate and geomorphology, but also through the collective socio-cultural values, designed space, and political and economic instruments that collectively exert hydrologic agency.  These hydrosocial landscapes are territories comprised of hybrid geophysical processes, economic policies, technocratic controls and hydraulic infrastructures that now govern the absence and presence of water. Yet despite obvious evidence of human hydrologic agency, atavistic socio-cultural narratives persist about the water cycle, rivers, flooding and other “natural” or binary social constructions of water. Such narratives have and will continue to persist and obfuscate in the absence of re-imagined hydrosocial narratives that are inclusive of new spatial and infrastructural programs.


Recent scholarship from political ecology and other fields has emerged to critique the disproportionate inequities of current hydrologic regimes while also identifying alternative theories of hydrosocial futures.  However, while such theories are attentive to emergent socio/economic/political actors and the re-politicization of water control and governance, these rhetorical inquiries are frequently situated within their own entrenched ideologies of natural-social bifurcations, restorative green infrastructures and other environmental tropes largely incongruent with the nascent Anthropocene paradigm. In contrast, we propose that the emergent theories of posthuman environmentalism, planetary urbanization, novel ecosystems and others offer new opportunities to interrogate and conceptualize the hydrosocial territories of the Anthropocene. We believe such inquiries must seek to de-couple technocratic hydrologic regimes and re-contextualize existing hydrologic narratives- and landscapes- within the new paradigm of complex, hydro-social relations. Design agency is regained through the distinct capacity of landscape-based design inquiry to advance beyond rhetorical discourse and to speculate, articulate and spatialize re-imagined future conceptions of the hydrosocial landscape. We assert that to realize resilient and transformative hydrosocial futures, we must begin by re-examining the 20th-century water lexicon as an incommensurable technocratic instrument; rather, the lexicon must be reimagined from within the de novo hydrosocial networks of Anthropocene geographies. Through typological analysis, we introduce a postnatural lexicon of water systems consistent with the enmeshed and irreversible human hydrologic conditions of the Anthropocene. This nascent lexicon opens a critical examination of normative hydrologic practices in landscape architecture and environmental planning while introducing potential new modalities of critical hydrospatial practices.


In this regard, we conclude with a demonstration of three relevant projects from the upper Midwest that elucidate emerging hydrosocial approaches to landscape-based critical design inquiry and pedagogy. The first project examines a series of transdisciplinary University of Minnesota workshops that utilize the Anthropocene lexicon as a basis for critical inquiry into the hydrosocial systems of the urban landscape and to shift public perceptions of water infrastructure. “Culvertized: Waterways of the Anthropocene” (2015) and “Urban Headwaters: the Hydrosocial Infrastructure of the Anthropocene” (2017) were workshops convened between visiting artists-in-residence Buster Simpson (2015) and Shanai Matteson and Colin Kloecker (2017), University of Minnesota faculty, research staff, and graduate students in landscape architecture, architecture, studio arts and anthropology. The workshops and public exhibitions demonstrate how the lexicon and concepts of hydrosocial, bluespace, urban headwaters and others can be used as a discursive pedagogy to examine, document and re-situate ubiquitous stormwater infrastructure as an essential system of the hydrosocial landscape. The second project examines how the complexities of shifting demographics of rural areas, intergovernmental litigation, public health concerns and declining water quality from non-regulated agricultural pollution can open new considerations of hydrosocial territories. Specifically, the design proposal contemplates how the network of drainage districts and public landscapes of the upper Raccoon River watershed of north-central Iowa can be reimagined as new hydrosocial territories that address nutrient pollution, enhanced ecological connectivity, and multi-purpose recreation and energy generation. This speculative proposal is currently under development by the author. The third project demonstrates how the Anthropocene and concepts of the hydrosocial and urban headwaters provide a pedagogical basis for landscape architectural instruction and research. Two award-winning University of Minnesota graduate landscape architecture thesis projects are examined. The first project contemplates how the hydrosocial is translated to the reconceptualization of urban sewersheds, and provides essential new typologies for public open space and hydrosocial awareness. The second project contemplates how site-scale novel ecologies and hydrologies provide a precedent for the reconceptualization of novel landscape typologies, urban ruderal ecologies as new venues of open space and alternative methods of site construction.