From Source to Spigot: Using Art to Illuminate Two Cities' Historical Water Supplies

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The card on this drinking fountain along Boston's Charles River shows how far it is from its water source. Photo via Linda Ciesielski.

One city has been drawing its water from springs, streams, and reservoirs in a nearby forest since 375 AD; the other displaced four towns and six villages to establish its water supply in the 1930s. Despite their many differences, water unites Istanbul and Boston -- as does residents' general lack of awareness about where it comes from, a situation that city-planning graduate student Linda Ciesielski set out to remedy with a public-art project she dubbed "Discrete Supply."As one of a dozen students from various departments enrolled in a public-art class at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) last spring, Ciesielski traveled to Istanbul with Professor Antoni Muntadas, a Spanish artist invited to participate in the city's 2010 European Capital of Culture events.

Istanbul and Boston, Connected By Water
"Instantly I saw that Istanbul and Boston share the physical traits of water running through them -- and I wanted to do something to get people thinking about water," says Ciesielski, whose interest in water resources brought her to grad school after working in landscape architecture and planning offices in the U.S. and Europe. "The two cities are also linked by unbelievable water sources -- one of antiquity and ingenuity, the other of distance and scale."

"For Boston, I couldn't get over [the fact] that the creation of the Quabbin Reservoir in the 1930s displaced four towns and six villages, and created a reservoir larger than the reservoir created by the Three Gorges Dam! Environmental Impact Statements certainly weren't around back then," Ciesielski says.

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This concept for a card to label Istanbul fountains is meant to promote awareness about the source of the city's drinking water. Image via Linda Ciesielski.

In Istanbul, water has been drawn since Roman times from the Belgrade Forest, an oasis of wooded green space at the northern end of the dense, sprawling city. Ancient aqueducts still loom over busy parts of the modern metropolis. "I was amazed by the longevity of the water supply from the Belgrade Forest -- talk about stewardship," Ciesielski says. "But now, urban encroachment seems to be a more pressing issue; deforestation and climatic stress from warmer temperatures are taxing the forests' health."

The topic of water is hardly a neglected one in Istanbul; protests over privatization at the 2009 World Water Forum were big news, and every year, residents speculate about whether there's been enough rain to fill the reservoirs, or if the summer will bring water cuts along with the heat. In the United States' wet northeast, Ciesielski says, water and access to it are more taken for granted: "I doubt people in Boston know much about where their water comes from, nor necessarily care, just as long as it keeps on coming."

Labeling Drinking Fountains
To promote better awareness of water supplies -- and the need to protect them -- in both cities, Ciesielski came up with the idea of creating visually compelling, informative takeaway cards to post on water fountains, showing just where that refreshing sip of H2O is coming from. In Boston, she installed a series of these works at public drinking fountains by the Charles River, nearby a popular running and biking path. A blue and white road-sign-style card labeled each location with its distance from the reservoir that provides its water: "Quabbin - 63 Miles - Feeds the Fountain," for example. The backs of the 4" x 6" cards provided additional details about the reservoir, its environment, and the demands being made on it. "Now Serving: 202,490,000 Gallons / Day ÷ 2,550,000 People = 79 Gallons for You Today," one read.

Her Istanbul signs, which remain solely a concept, are meant to be posted on or near some of the city's historical Ottoman fountains, still social gathering places in some areas. With text such as "2,500 Year Old Forests Face Modern Invasions" or "Now Serving: 2.6 Million - A Thirsty Future," they focus on Istanbul's rich water heritage and the present-day threats of urbanization, population growth, and deforestation.

"Awareness of a resource is the first step toward protection. I had fun with this project and these markers because I was playing with the unexpected; I think that's how you get people's attention, if only for a moment," Ciesielski says. "If sharing information about water or the environment becomes formulaic, no one will even look. I think that's the role of art in the environment -- to get people to see themselves or where they are from a different angle."