Water in Jail

Water in jail.

They call them “detention basins” for a reason.

When stormwater receiving areas are squeezed onto small, urban lots, standing water and steep-sided shorelines often become the design solution—-dictated by a project’s desired profit level or not. Property owners fearful about liability for unforeseen accidents will often erect fences around these basins, to eliminate all access and any worry.

The fenced-in basins in David Yocca’s striking photographs are symptomatic of a wider pattern. They occur at the confluence of nonexistent watershed planning and neglected neighborhoods, and point to an urban social sphere that’s just as disrupted as the local water regime. The fence wouldn’t be necessary at all if these urban landscapes had “eyes on the street,” adequate green space or recreational options, and the social cohesion that can channel youthful energy in constructive directions.

In other words, the compulsion to control hydrology rather than working with and benefiting from existing water regimes indicates a habitual response that also operates in the social arena. Control and discipline of people is also a costly approach, and it’s no substitute for actively repairing social or natural systems.

So far, the mutually reinforcing way in which social institutions shape cities and the built landscape influences social cohesion seems, in many cases, to have created a situation where the system on either side of the fence doesn’t work.

Robert Frost wrote that “good fences make good neighbors”-—yet even those responsible for the fence somehow know that too many people still see the body of water on the other side of the fence as a place they want to be.


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