The future of urban waters

Students and faculty study the impact of rising sea levels from the banks of Philadelphia and Mumbai.

On a brisk day last December, students in the course Liquid Histories and Floating Archives walked along a stretch of the Schuylkill River, as they had done each week of the fall semester. On this particular day, they were applying sheets of paper to concrete walls, metal poles, and railings at Schuylkill Banks Park as part of a final project by urban studies major Lucy Corlett.

Rising Waters fellows in Mumbai in January
Rising Waters fellows in Mumbai in January (Photo credit: Photography Promotion Trust)

Along with a simple line drawing of the river, each paper contained the first and last stanzas of a poem called “Lines Written on Leaving Philadelphia,” composed in 1824 by the 19th-century Irish poet Thomas Moore. Corlett discovered the poem in an online archive documenting the history of Philadelphia’s watershed.

“A notable Irish poet from the 19th century lived for a time in Philadelphia near the Schuylkill River and wrote about it,” says Corlett, who used water-soluble paper and inks and wheat-paste glue so that the project would not leave permanent marks on the landscape. “So I thought, ‘How can I bring these archives out to the place that they’re about, and to the people who walk along the Schuylkill like Thomas Moore did?’”

The multi-disciplinary Liquid Histories course, taught by Bethany Wiggin, associate professor of German and founding director of the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities, examined how sea-level rise in a time of climate change is transforming urban environments.

“In the class we explored the way local knowledge shapes how we understand the global problem of sea-level rise from our vantage point in Philadelphia,” says Wiggin. “We read about our urban waterways, their history and future, and we walked alongside them to experience them and to have those encounters shape how we approached more analytic course materials.”

Liquid Histories was one part of a larger undertaking called Rising Waters: Philadelphia and Mumbai, an ethnographic and historical research project exploring river and coastal cities, led by Wiggin and Nikhil Anand, assistant professor of anthropology. Anand taught the first Rising Waters undergraduate course in spring 2018, and co-taught the second in Mumbai last fall at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences 

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