About Me

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London, United Kingdom
I am an engineering academic at University College London where I work on the sustainability of urban water systems. I am interested in the role of engineers and technology in sustainable cities.

Friday, 17 May 2013

With my clothes on

I am going to be in next month's issue of FHM (For Him Magazine). I am not a regular reader, but I am fairly certain that most of the women who usually feature in FHM don't have PhDs. Most of them don't even have many clothes.

Every now and then I receive media enquiries related to my work on water. Usually the journalist is just looking for a crash course in the topic - something beyond wikipedia, but nothing that will take up much of their time. I am mostly happy to oblige and occasionally I am interviewed and quoted in their final piece. 

A couple of weeks ago I received an email query about bottled water from Dan, a journalist at FHM. I gave a quick reply with some basic facts and wished him luck with his story. A reply came back asking if I would participate in a blind tasting of different types of bottled and tap water, to actually be part of the story. 

At this point I thought I should look up FHM. I had in my mind that they were 'For Him', but my familiarity with the range of available lads mags is fairly limited. The main feature of the June issue was 'The 100 Sexiest Women!' - a quick sample revealing none with PhDs, but one who had been enrolled in a media studies course for a term before her modelling career took off. Apparently, sexy women have large breasts, small waists, long hair, pouting lips, tanned skin and wear bikinis. Apart from hair colour, it is quite difficult to tell them apart... but I digress... FHM features lots of photographs of women, selected on the basis of their youth, 'beauty' and state of undress. It also includes some articles about stuff men like - video games, movies, football, sex and factertainment. Its representation of women is not as bad as others in the genre, but it clearly uses heterosexual objectification of women to sell magazines and advertising. On the upside, it has some very sensible advice about how to have heterosexual sex with real women, and some of the writing is genuinely funny (even this middle-aged, pale, short-haired, jeans and blazer clad, PhD qualified woman chuckled during her reconnaisance).

I emailed Dan, saying I would need some time to consider whether appearing in his publication was a good idea. His reply was polite, and his concern for his readers' education was touching. He reassured me that if I agreed to participate I could keep my clothes on, and said that FHM readers had as much right to know about their water as anyone.

Like all good social networkers with a moral dilemma I consulted Facebook. The results of my 'FHM Y/N?' poll were about as helpful as my 'Android or Apple?' consultation, that is not at all. My 'friends' seem to have almost entirely missed my feminism. Comments were almost exclusively along the lines of 'hell yeah!', and included 'do you get to be nekkid? ;)'. One faithful pal replied 'GOD NO!', and a couple of university types took an unhelpful Socratic line including 'you know the F doesn't stand for Feminist?', but in the end Facebook said 'yes'.

Like any decent person with a moral dilemma I consulted trusted colleagues and 'real' friends. People with much more media experience than me asked me to consider the need to speak to audiences beyond the usual 'people-like-us'. It is easy to reach the readers of the Guardian and Times, harder to communicate science and engineering to the great bikini-loving masses. Someone asked me to consider if one of my male colleagues would do it (the answer is probably not, but being a woman presented me with a different set of questions). Overhearing the other side of one of these phone conversations the officemates of one colleague said sending me to an interview with FHM sounded like a worthwhile feminist social experiment. Some other trusted women laughed and said 'why not?', basically echoing Facebook. 

I said yes.       

I emailed Dan my decision, asking for the chance to review any quotes and encouraging him to consult The Women's Room database of experts for future stories. Dan agreed that his publication could do more to balance its representation of women, and that I would be able to check what I had said before publication. 

A couple of days later I went to Dan's office for the blind water tasting. FHM consists of one corner of a large open plan office housing several publications owned by Bauer Media. Dan described it as a 'big boy's bedroom', and I took his word for it. They have a pool table in their coffee room, which made me jealous (we don't have a coffee room). I sipped water and made fact-laden jokes about it with Dan. He recorded our conversation. He was nice. It was fun. He sent me the quotes as agreed, and none of them seemed outlandish. 

The story appears in the July edition, which is out at the beginning of June. Don't buy it. It is a magazine full of scantily clad women. I would prefer not to support this kind of business model, but I can't escape the reality that it exists. Tits-n-arse sell magazines. I have very little power to change that. When faced with the opportunity to be presented as a woman with useful expertise, I figured it was worth taking a chance to at least try to even out the balance. The readers of FHM are not going to change their ideas about women by picking up a copy of Ms. magazine, so perhaps we have to take alternative representations of women to them. And afterall, they have as much right to know about their water as as the next person.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Water, bodies and landscapes

This is an extract from an essay written for Smout Allen's installation 'Surface Tension', exhibited at the Nevada Museum of Art, Reno, 2011.

Water is unique in providing a direct, material connection between bodies and landscapes in mundane urban experience. Every day we encounter water itself. The water we splash on our faces or flush down our toilets first thing in the morning provides a real, tangible connection with both the hidden landscape of urban infrastructure and the hydrological landscape that extends beyond the city. Water utilities are distinct in this regard. Our connections to landscape through energy or food are much further removed. We encounter electricity, not coal itself. We encounter meat and vegetables, not soil itself. When we wash, flush, drink, cook and clean, we are directly engaged with the one of most fundamental elements of life and landscape. Water as a connector to landscape is much celebrated in bottled water marketing, which reminds us that we are drinking in the Scottish Highlands or French Alps, and the same is true of the water that flows from our taps every day. Every morning in London I shower in the Cotswolds, the gentle limestone hills beyond Oxford. Visiting family in Western Australia I wash dishes in the Perth Hills. At a conference in Colorado I flush down the Rocky Mountains. 

Our physical and cultural needs for water provide fundamental connections between our bodies and the landscapes we inhabit. The particular form that this relationship has taken in modern cities reflects deep ambivalence to water. The aesthetic qualities of water are recognised in urban design and architecture through attention to coastal, riverside or lake vistas, the desirability of water front development, and the continued popularity of the fountain in various guises in urban design. Such design predominantly emphasises visual experiences of water, with occasional attention to its auditory qualities. Water is also recognised as a source of public pleasure and a medium of leisure in urban spaces such as beaches, swimming pools and ponds, and water playgrounds. Water provides a key point of interaction with non-human nature in cities with urban rivers and wetlands providing small patches of wildness and habitat for birds, turtles, fish, frogs, insects and water faring mammals. However, our most vital and personal daily connections with water in cities are invisible and private – sublimated and taboo in everyday discourse, buried beneath our streets and hidden from view in our buildings. We are rarely more than a few feet away from flowing water in our buildings and streets, yet are usually unconscious of this most significant urban water cycle. Visual and public experiences of water are celebrated, bodily and private needs for water are hidden.

This comes as no surprise given the dominance of mind over body, public over private, visible over invisible, reason over emotion, and culture over nature in western thought. Feminist scholars such as Val Plumwood have analysed this system of dualism to demonstrate the underlying philosophical structures which link the domination of masculine over feminine to wider patterns of oppression[i]. The feminine is associated with the body, emotion, nature, privacy and invisibility, while the masculine is celebrated along with the mind, reason, culture, public life and visibility. Water flows between these categories, appearing in public and private, as cultural product and natural environment, as object of rational planning and subject of bodily pleasure. However, it is our bodily and private needs for water that are most fundamental, and that are proving most problematic in designing future landscapes, buildings and urban spaces.

Although water itself flows from rivers and aquifers, through reservoirs, treatment works, pumps and pipes into our bathrooms and kitchens, and back again, our experience of water is disconnected from its hydrological and ecological context. Daily water habits are socially and culturally constructed, and technologically mediated. Technical experts trace the flows of water from landscape to bathroom and back, so that modern citizens don’t have to. Engineered water systems provide a buffer between personal demands for water and daily, seasonal and climatic changes in rainfall, groundwater and river flows. Freed from the daily struggle to find water modern citizens are able to engage in higher urban pursuits. However, the invisible engineering systems that deliver fresh water to cities are reaching their limits. The buffer between bodies and landscapes is being breached.   

Reweaving the ties between cities, bodies and landscapes requires new threads as well as new arrangements of existing systems, technologies and norms. Strategies for renegotiating urban water landscapes include: 1) confronting the demarcation of public and private which exempts bodily water practices from purposive critique and change; 2) interrogating associations between water and comfort, pleasure and purity, and proposing alternative technologies, practices and norms to meet these desires without using water; and 3) constructing local water cycles in buildings and neighbourhoods to relieve pressure on landscapes beyond the city. Examples of each of these strategies can be found in design and public discourse. During the 2005 drought in London Mayor Ken Livingston encouraged people to follow the ‘if it’s yellow let it mellow’ practice in toilet flushing, signifying an incursion of public debate into private, bodily water practice. Throughout the developing world waterless ecological sanitation systems are being implemented in pragmatic attempts to the Millennium Development Goal to half the number of people without access to sanitation, decoupling sanitation and water. The third proposition is evident in the growth of non-potable water supply systems based on a ‘fit-for-purpose’ principle using greywater, rainwater and recycled water for flushing toilets, watering gardens and washing clothes.

Water itself uniquely connects bodies and landscapes. In modern cities this connection is sublimated, hidden in pipes and sewers. As a result we have developed technologies and practices that consume water as if it was endless. Fresh water is a spatially constrained resource and many cities are now exceeding the hydrological capacity of their surrounding landscapes. Conventional engineering models of water provision are reaching their limits, reopening the space of possibilities for how water flows through cities and bodies. Propositions are emerging which reconfigure urban cultures and spaces to allow more hydrologically sensible relationships between cities and landscapes. It is imperative that these efforts acknowledge the centrality of bodies and bodily functions in these relationships, following water itself across boundaries of polite urban discourse.

[i] Plumwood V. (1993) Feminism and the mastery of nature London: Routledge.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Insh'Allah Democracy

This weekend Pakistanis voted for their national government. The last government was the first in the country's history to serve a full electoral term. The election and campaigning were marred with violence, but this did not deter a high turnout at the polls. Insh'Allah a new government will be formed quickly and will be able to deliver stable democracy for the next five years.

Beyond cricket and curry, Pakistan is not a country I would ever have expected to have much connection with. Yet two weeks ago I returned from my fourth visit. I first travelled to Pakistan in 1997 to visit a friend who was working as a volunteer in the remote Northern Areas. Since 2008 I have been working with colleagues at Lahore College for Women University on a couple of British Council funded projects. Our current project is working to develop curriculum and professional development courses about climate change.

Much has changed in Pakistan and in my life since my first visit. In 1997 I travelled alone on public transport, stayed in tumbledown hotels, hiked up mountains and wandered around local markets. In 1997 the major cities had reliable electricity supply. In 2008 I stayed in a five star hotel with armed guards on the gate, and the city was subject to load shedding power cuts. In 2013 the power cuts are worse than ever, but Lahore shows signs of investment in roads and construction, with new retail and housing developments springing up within and around the city.

When I travel to Lahore people always ask if I am worried about security. Having made the decision to participate in the project for good academic reasons, and signed the daunting risk assessment form, the answer is no, I don't worry. In fact, going to Lahore is relaxing. While I am there everything is taken care of, and I simply do as I am told. This is a very nice break from life in London. I stay in very comfortable local accommodation, a driver and security guard pick me up and take me to and from the college, and my hosts are very cautious about where we eat, shop and socialise. There are many more useful targets for terrorists than me, and beyond the militant extremists, Pakistanis are welcoming and respectful.

Lahore is a beautiful city with a rich culture and history. The weather in April is warm and sunny. The food is delicious. Colleagues and students at the university are hard working and enthusiastic to build stronger international links. Spending time in an almost exclusively female workplace is another welcome break from life in London. I always enjoy my visits and the work I do when I am there.

The new government will have a lot to do. The energy crisis will be one of their immediate concerns, but the list is long - security, corruption, taxation, the military, education, health care, regional and international relations... These are all complex issues for any government to deal with, but perhaps the most significant result of this weekend's election is the resounding affirmation of the Pakistani people's faith in democracy as the only way to deliver the changes that they so urgently need.