Photograph of the rain reflections by Courtney Warren.

Will it stop raining?

It’s raining in San Francisco and I’m so happy that it finally is. The rain has been following me across the country a bit–Dallas, Austin, here in San Francisco again–and while it makes a few of the plane exchanges a bit difficult, I don’t mind the rain.

The twitter feeds and facebook notes are full of grumpy notes telling the rain to go away, but I can’t help but think how much we needed all this rain. The snow’s been down in Tahoe, the water reservoirs are drying up, and the soil in the ground has been parched. We need to make up for months of missed rain. A week of non-stop rain?

Perfect.

I remember when we were little, four kids cooped up in a small house and on the rainy days our parents would scoop us up, put us in boots and jackets and take us outside just to get our crazy energy out of the house. At the time, it seemed our mission and obligation was to destroy the entire house in the name of fort building, dress-up parties, epic game days, modeling dinosaurs, and never cleaning up after ourselves. With the advent of rain, our disasters ravaged the house. And so, outside we went–rain or shine.

Strapped into red rainslickers, plastic ties holding down over-sized boots on our feet, donations and hand-me-downs from older cousins littered across our little bodies, we were walked down the street in the pouring rain to watch the water move across the streets, down the gutters, into the creeks and streams. Our job, our mission, was to find all of the rain gutters that had overflowed. Sometimes piles of leaves would collect in patterns at the drain point, and we’d kick and sweep and splash them out, reveling in the power of water and our ability to clear a roadway. During the heavy rains, we’d go over to the creeks and the city-built channels and drainage ditches and peer our little heads over the barrier, watching the water level climb below us. Brown, churning, moving quickly, the concrete edges pushed the water down in efficiency, speed, roughness. My mom pointed out the measuring marks on the side of the channels, noting how high the rain was.

“Can we come back, mom?” I pleaded. “I want to see if it gets up to eight feet! That will be a lot, right!?”  

Yes, she laughed, that would be an extreme storm event.

The next day, on the way to school, I’d take a detour to the creek  and peer over the edge to see if the water was moving quicker or slower that day. I’d keep track and at the end of the day, announce importantly to the family:

“Water level’s down to four feet! It’s running out!” 

“Where does it come from? Where’s the water from?” I would ask.

She would point up the stream, up towards the hills of the Palo Alto Foothills, and talk about the watersheds sliding down the hillside, collecting over time. I tried to wrap my little brain around it: water falling on the hillsides, building up, rushing down, sheeting sideways over the streets, into the storm drains. Why did it move so fast? Why was there so much of it, right now, and not any later? And did they oceans keep it, or did it just make everything get higher and faster? How did the water get back up to the top?

Such puzzles for such a little brain.

Beyond the visible

Beyond the visible, there’s the invisible: the hidden tunnels and pipes below the ground, the only clue of their existence the small gap in the rain gutter on the side of the street, the water slipping away from the surface into the unknown. How do you know what goes on beneath the streets if no one ever shows you? Around the corner from our house, one of the storm pipes was notoriously poorly made, as it seemed the engineers must have arrived at the final connection, looked at each other and said, “Screw it, this one will run uphill,” and left it for dry. Every rainstorm would promote a giant watery backlog: and for us, then, in the child’s mind, it was the best adventure of all to see the street fill with water.  We stomped and splashed our feet through the giant, dirty puddles.

It takes a nudge, a spark to see what’s not seen, to think about what’s hidden beneath the surface. This rings true in psychology, in imaging, in branding, in marketing, in the people around us. It’s a question about peeling back the layers of what you see to figure out what’s actually going on.  The more you discover, the more you realize how much is happening beneath the surface, where only your imagination and investigation can take you.

Sometimes you need someone–like your mom–to watch you play and skip and invent new worlds inside of giant temporary street puddles, to gently point out to you the gutter and prompt the question to your 5-year old self: “Susan, Sarah, do you know where that goes?”

Incredulously, we’d think about it, stopped in the middle of a giant-puddle-SPLASH-event of our little feet’s superpowers. The water that was slowly disappearing—where DID it go?

“Well, mom, I don’t KNOW! Where does it go?” My wide-eyed little face said.

It was certainly confusing.

New Orleans, Lower Ninth Ward, 2007.

The invisibility of landscape

The invisibility of landscape, the way that it works, where the water goes, how we create worlds that work–these are the systems at play, often highly complex and largely invisible to the untrained (and even trained) eye. This is what I’ve been working on with the landscape urbanism project: telling the stories of landscape and architecture in ways that make sense. Understanding how the world works, how we got there, and what we can do differently and better with the resources and cities around us.

For the past few months two dear friends Nicholas Pevzner and Stephanie Carlisle have been putting together the third issue of the landscape urbanism journal.

Nicholas is a designer with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates in Brooklyn, the firm that is building the new Brooklyn Bridge Park. In his spare time, he teaches at Penn Design, and in his extra-spare time, we write together for Landscape Urbanism. Stephanie, a co-editor of this meaty, dense, critical and pertinent third installment, is a researcher at KieranTimberlake in Philadelphia and previously a graduate of Yale’s school of Architecture and Forestry. I’m amazed and inspired by their brilliance. In putting together our third issue, their collection of essays looks critically at how this world works, and whether or not what we’re doing—designing the land that we live on, working with the earth, creating new patterns for cities—matters.

It’s funny–long before this writing adventure together, it was actually yet another water-based adventure that made us cross paths.  The flooding and hurricanes of New Orleans in 2005 brought the three of us together where I first them on a trip to New Orleans to help build, re-build, and clean up. From painting churches to building compost bins to helping repair damaged pianos, our time and labor was used to rebuild after Katrina. One day I found myself elbow-deep in dishing out free food to people who had lost everything, and in the heat of the south, Nicholas and Stepahine and I stood on the back porches of the community shelter, cleaning dishes, scrubbing, cooking, and talking.

Seeing the hurricane-ridden landscape first-hand impressed upon me again the need for both systemic change as well as better long-term planning that includes disaster preparedness and values resources appropriately. We need to build cities and places to live that work, not just during the good times, but during stress events. Many of our cities and homes are built upon highly fragile systems that won’t withstand large social, economic, political, or environmental upheaval. It brings me back to this idea of the hidden, the invisible, the unseen that we still need to pay attention to, to recognize, to think about.

This is what planners and designers do.

They say that the things most prevalent and obvious in our lives are the things we overlook the most: people, ideas, health, jobs. What we already have. It’s only through dissonance, through tension, through uncertainty that we find out what we’re grateful for already having.

Landscape is so prevalent in our everyday, regular lives that it’s become invisible: something we all walk on top of, live within, and take from–and yet our culture seems to have no concept or appreciation for the value of the land, save for the economic pricing of development and the business opportunities in real estate. I fear, at times, that our concept of “design” and “planning” have strayed so far from meaning that we’ve found ourselves drawing fancy circles and triangles and talking in jargony-architecture-jibberish just because we’re afraid we might be found out: that maybe what we’re doing isn’t really doing anything. Yes. I’ll say it.

They say that the way people talk about you conveys their knowledge of a subject. Culturally, publicly, the way we see landscape is as small, isolated boxes and gardens, as green shrubbery tacked onto strangely-clustered office buildings, as oceans and villas and vistas. Is that a problem of public misperception or a problem of miscommunication? I’m starting to think it’s the latter: we desperately need designers who can write, who can tell stories, and who can describe what’s going on in the world in a way that makes sense. If you can’t explain yourself to someone else, it’s usually not because the person you’re talking to is an idiot. It’s because you’re not doing a good job telling the story.

I’m not done writing about this, and I’m not done thinking about this. I would love to be wrong: what I’m more afraid of is being indifferent. What’s the famous quote? “I’d rather struggle and try and fail, than live all of life with the timid, never having even tried.” Something like that.

And so, I’m standing outside in the weather, breathing it, living it, thankful for the rain and doing my own version of a rain dance, grateful for the weather that soaks us. My hands up and out, my boots are soaking in the rain, I’m watching new friends get drenched by torrential downpours, and I’m hoping that everywhere people are laughing, dreaming, and thinking about the beauty of the watery substance that makes our earth melt, fold, shift and shape.

I’m thankful for a blog that lets me explore ideas, ramble, talk. I’m grateful for writing, for storytelling, for a never-edning desire to learn. Let’s look for things unseen.

Laugh in the rain, stop, and stomp a puddle.

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