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3.2.5 A relational approach to water

In this section, I explore three cases that are unified in their shared contribution to the emerging “Rights of Nature” movement[184], which has been influenced by indigenous people’s relational worldviews as an ontological model that seeks to safeguard better and respect ecosystems (Dawson et al., 2021). The analytical aim of the section is to investigate how these alternative approaches can be re-adopted and reappropriated into contemporary urban settings. Moreover, I highlight that there is a research gap for exploring the potential of these worldviews in Danish urban planning as an alternative approach that might include local representatives with the more-than-human actors in the decision-making process. This means that for cases like Vejle, there is scope for the LUDP disciplines to investigate how designing blue urban commons might be accomplished from a relational perspective that takes into account the marine realm as a legitimate and rightful resident/actor.


1. Māori world view – The river as a living entity

The reason we [the Whanganui Māori tribe] have taken this approach is … so that others can understand that from our perspective, treating the river as a living entity is the correct way to approach it, as an indivisible whole, instead of the traditional model for the last 100 years of treating it from a perspective of ownership and management... And therefore, rather than us being masters of the natural world, we are part of it. We want to live like that as our starting point. And that is not an anti-development or anti-economic use of the river but to begin with the view that it is a living being and then consider its future from that central belief.


Gerrard Albert, the lead negotiator for the Whanganui iwi
(Roy, 2017).

In 2017, the New Zealand government passed legislation (called “Te Awa  Tupua” - Whanganui River Claims Settlement Act) declaring that the Whanganui river and all its physical and metaphysical elements represent “an indivisible, living whole, and henceforth possesses all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person” (Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act 2017). This law reflects the Whanganui tribe’s worldview, values and traditions that consider the water as a living entity, a person, and their ancestor. This is because the “tribe regard themselves as part of the universe” in a familial relationship with the forests, mountains, rivers and the sea (Roy, 2017). They believe all things are holistically integrated living entities, even those that are outside human perception and beyond our physical and material world. Therefore, “the new legal status of the river means that if someone abused or harmed the river, the law now sees no difference between harming the tribe or the river because they are the same” (Roy, 2017). This interconnected relational thinking was also extended to grant a nearby forest (national park) the same legal status as well as a mountain, which also be granted legal personhood, thus emphasising the connection between water and land entities (Macpherson, 2022).

    Without a doubt, the move towards attributing legal status to nonhuman entities is contrary to the dominant instrumental way of engaging the water as a resource to own, degrade and exploit[1]. Although the Maori worldview is not a pure conservation approach (it also concerns human interests and rights), it departs from the premise that humans are inextricably enmeshed in nature, meaning that every compromise, negotiation and conflict stems from the effort to provide better ways to care for life-giving and life-sustaining properties of ecosystems (MacPherson 2021). Therefore, the “Rights of Nature” movement can be understood as an attempt to challenge the existing legal policy frameworks for more sustainable management of natural resources and the environment[2] (Morris and Ruru, 2010; Macpherson, 2022). Importantly, what mattered to the Wanganui tribe was not just the focus on legal rights. It also concerned the paradigm shift in the position of humans in the world based on responsibilities (Warne, n.d.). As such, the real benefits of this approach cannot be restricted to its litigious capacities (which do not solve the underlying source of the issues). Rather, the true potential of this trend lies in its capacity to enable communities to make decisions for the best interest of the river as guardians. It is the social impact and the resurgence of culture to connect people, place and nature in a relational way, which is applicable in other contexts (MacPherson, 2021).

    MacPherson (2021) sees potential in this framework for its transferability to other countries/contexts with direct implications for urban planning and coastal management (ibid.). He/she argues that the rights of nature movement can make an impact on these areas by prioritising the health of natural ecosystems rather than solely considering these in terms of their instrumental production capacities. Ultimately, this is because the relational model reflects basic principles of ecology, which are arguably universally applicable (e.g. everything is connected to something, and everything comes from somewhere and goes somewhere). In turn, this means that the model may be relatable in other contexts, such as Denmark, while also showcasing the potential for fostering a heightened appreciation of the environment that envelops us (ibid.).

    Furthermore, MacPherson (2021) argues that these concepts are even more needed in urban contexts like coastal waters, which continue to suffer from a lack of sensible use of traditional approaches to coastal management and marine spatial planning. Repeatedly, scientific findings have confirmed that it is difficult to draw a boundary around an ecosystem, as any ecosystem constitutes an interconnected whole in which humans are just one component of that system. In turn, this also sets this line of thinking aside from the one that is practised in normative nature protection areas, such as Natura2000. As MacPherson (2021) explains: “It is the urban coastal front, the areas of development where we need the better coexistence of people and ecosystems – to not ‘trash’ the areas we reside”.

    Lastly, recognising water bodies as living entities is a start of a new and innovative approach to coexisting with the environment, incorporating intrinsic values in a manner unknown in environmental law in most Western legal systems. While the relationships indigenous peoples have with the natural world and their views concerning its use often clash with the dominant capitalist worldviews, the importance here is that the act of giving rivers a legal status is beneficial not just for indigenous people but for everyone (including nonhumans) to create a mutually beneficial outcome for many generations to come. While it may seem difficult to implement these worldviews in places where such values of viewing nature as a family/person/living entity are absent (i.e. Denmark), the example of Whanganui may still inspire more creative and imaginative narratives to engage with the marine realm. Indeed, this has been shown to be the case in other countries such as Spain, where the legal personhood model of ecosystems was recently adopted in order to protect its saltwater coastal lagoon and its watershed, a first for Europe (Stokstad, 2022).  Locals and scientists signed a petition for the lagoon’s legal right to be restored from the current worsening eutrophication due to agricultural activities. Legal human guardians, including scientific experts, have been assigned to represent the lagoon’s best interest (Stokstad, 2022). This is a case showing signs of potential to be integrated into European sociocultural contexts to protect ecologically poor areas and seems applicable to Denmark, where there are similar problems with eutrophication from farming. Furthermore, this model could also be relevant in inspiring new narratives of getting citizens to care/co-exist better with the water bodies they live with.

2. Archipelagic thinking – Water as a connector


Archipelagos are figures of connections and solidarity between peoples, places and non-humans.… Archipelagos are an intersectional site of liquid and solid, land and ocean with uncertain edges that are constantly changing according to the tides. Archipelagos are not only geographic but human and thus cultural.


Rob Shields, Review: Contemporary Archipelagic Thinking
(Shields, 2020).

A major proponent of “Archipelagic Thinking” is the French Caribbean philosopher Édouard Glissant (1997a, 1997b, 2009) (Wiedorn, 2021). The term has a contextual reference to the Caribbean islands, an archipelago with many island-to-island relations and movements, and refers to a way to think differently about the often dualistic and static idea of borders, favouring a relational conception of water as a connector of the islands (Stephens and Miguel, 2020) instead. According to Pugh (2013, p. 10), “we live in a world of archipelagos, not static island forms” (see Figure 99 as an example). Simply put, to see the world through the eyes of the archipelago is to envision the water not as something that separates land from land but as a bridge that connects between parts, as a spatial interrelation in flux (Stratford et al., 2011). In many ways, this line of thinking reflects the current reality of a constantly changing world moving in an entanglement of dynamic assemblages and networks. Therefore, “[t]he concept of the archipelago deeply challenges how we think about the world and our relation to it” (Pugh, 2013, p.11). It de-territorialises static understandings of the land-to-sea divide to “such and such an assemblage”, which can influence and reveal fluid practices, representations, experiences, and affects that produce the dynamic form of an archipelago (ibid.).

    In the context of the climate crisis, Archipelagic Thinking offers a lens to engage the global repercussions that continuing SLR will cause. SLR will convert lands to islands, and current islands will go underwater in a continual process of re-territorialisation – a world in a process. Therefore, in the age of the Anthropocene, where change is complex and accelerated, the archipelagic model can help construct “archipelagic relations” that can avoid rhetorics of simplicity, searching instead for the “entanglement between and among” (Stratford et al., 2011, p. 124).  

Figure 99. Examples of archipelagos that erode away the notion that the world consists of islands, nation-states and continents but a world as archipelagos (Pugh, 2013). For instance, Denmark and Canada are archipelagos composed of hundreds, if not thousands, of “island-to-island” assemblages. Canada has the largest number of islands in the world (i.e. 52,455) and should be understood “not as a unitary land mass but as a series of multiple assemblages of coastal, oceanic and insular identities” (Stratford et al., 2011, p. 121). Denmark is another example where it can be conceived of as an archipelago, not just within its own 400 islands but its inter-relation to the world of archipelagos. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons and Timvasquez (2006), (n.d.).
(Extracted from Kumu S-O-T-A map – Archipelagic Thinking, The Caribbean islands node).  

In Berlin, Archipelagic Thinking was reappropriated as an urban design and planning concept by the dutch architect Rem Koolhas, who was rethinking the redevelopment of the city toward the end of the 1970s. Koolhas imagined the city as a network of distinct islands, each with an individual identity, floating within a green “ocean” instead of a densified city centre. He wanted to turn Berlin into a green archipelago by connecting all the interesting historical places with a collection of green parks (Hertweck and Marot, 2013; Khazaleh, 2014; Lohrmann, 2014). Thus, the concept was used to rethink the colonisation of the city by grey concrete and using the green spaces as the connecting binder that could enable new connections between already existing elements (Hertweck and Marot, 2013). While such practical uses may suggest the application of Archipelagic thinking as a kind of solution or an answer to a design issue, I argue that the true strength of this concept – as will be seen with the analysis below – lies in its ability inspire new forms of creation within the design disciplines. Much like the rights of nature movement addressed above, this framework offers a way to initiate a paradigm shift that can help practitioners and researchers work with water in relational terms rather than as separate entities[187].  

3. The sixth borough – Water as the connective tissue of NYC


Through this planning process, we have recognized that water has always, and will continue to shape our land. Our water is the connective tissue between our boroughs and is, in effect, our Sixth Borough.


Amanda M. Burden, Director, Department of City Planning Chair, New York City Planning Commission, Vision 2020 - New York City Comprehensive Waterfront Plan
(NYC Planning, 2011).

Exemplifying both the Rights of Nature and the concept of Archipelagic Thinking in an urban context is “Vision 2020 – New York City Comprehensive Waterfront Plan”, which was first introduced in 2011 to provide a framework[188] for waterfront development to transform the 840km of New York City (NYC) shoreline for the next ten years. It had a range of agendas and proposals, one of which was to name NYC’s waterfront and its coastal waters the “sixth borough” (borough meaning district in the USA) as an addition to the existing five land-based boroughs (NYC Planning, 2011) (see Figure 100). The act of naming the water as the sixth borough functioned as a metaphor that sought to invite an alternative way of thinking about the water as a continuation of the city (Ameel, 2019a). The significance of attaining a borough status would entail acquiring legal human representation (i.e. a borough president) and would grant the water-based borough access to the same regulations, protections and management as the land-based boroughs (ibid.). Attaining this legal status thus recognises the distinct agency of the water (Ameel, 2019b). Moreover, in Vision 2020, water, tides, and wetlands are acknowledged as powerful actors that transform the land into the future and appear to be a valuable entity for the city, which perform vital ecosystem services (NYC Planning, 2011; Ameel, 2019a).


Figure 100. Vision 2020 New York City Comprehensive Waterfront Plan. The map of the five land-based boroughs (i.e. The Bronx, Manhatten, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island) and the proposal to make the coastal water body the sixth borough. Image credit: Skye Duncan (NYC Planning, 2011) and reappropriated image from Azoulay (2022).
(Extracted from Kumu S-O-T-A map – The sixth borough, in New York City, USA node).     

However, as promising and innovative as Vision 2020 might seem, it is necessary to acknowledge how the proposal ultimately succumbed to the logic of capital and extraction, as it also described the water as a resource to be exploited  –  an object and resource that “New York can capitalize on”, as the proposal states (NYC Planning, 2011, p.86). As such, we here see how the water, again, is construed as a liquid space that can be subjected to an operation within the domain of production and control (Ameel, 2019a). Vision2020 views the water as “extraordinary physical assets that are ‘possessed’ by the city” (NYC Planning, 2011, p.6; Ameel, 2019a, p.7). What these descriptions signal is that the despite the efforts to innovate and alter our relationship with water, urban development models remain wedded to a particular vision of the water that needs to reflect the narrative of the growth of the city – i.e. as an “engine of economic growth for America and the world”, to quote the Mayor Bloomberg of NYC at that time (NYC Planning, 2011, p.1). Thus, it draws on an enduring idea of “the city as feeding on its natural surroundings to fuel and produce growth” (Ameel, 2019a, p.8).

    While Vision 2020 had sustainability and green transition themes embedded into the growth narrative, it unabashedly claimed that “the continued growth of New York City itself is a mitigation strategy for climate change” (NYC Planning, 2011, p.109) – a perspective which drew criticism from opponents (Ameel, 2019a).

Considering the story of The Sixth Borough in light of the studies and cases reviewed in this chapter, what is made visible is how the alternative perspectives and practices covered in the second half of this chapter struggles to overcome the current dominant overt instrumental relationships reviewed in the former half. Moreover, Vision 2020 is what a conventional planning document does: setting out how it will assign, manage, and develop the planning area for the benefit of its human citizens, albeit with a short-term outlook of profit maximisation, while the promise of ecological living, without the protection/restoration of the environment (Ameel, 2019a). Thus, it represents the catch-22 contemporary urban coastal development finds itself in. 

   That being said, Ameel (2019, p. 15) argues that there is still reason for optimism in such cases; even if the water of NYC is “relentlessly reclaimed, appropriated, redistributed, exploited and capitalised upon”, it still retains a level of its transformative power. The transformative power of water and its catastrophes make space for a renewed sense of the commons, and through these instabilities, they can open up the room to accept new ways of thinking and doing, which can take shape. Furthermore, there are indications in the plan that addresses the unrealised potential to enhance the “Blue Network” that can “connect people with the waterways – physically, visually, and culturally – and to stitch the Blue Network into the city’s urban fabric” (NYC Planning, 2011, p.86). As such, the important lesson here is to be wary of the dominant rhetorics and narratives and to be persistent in ensuring that nonhuman entities, such as the water, are represented properly and not side-lined to make way for other hidden agendas. Consequently, the different approaches explored in this section all speak to the importance surrounding representation, accessibility and ownership of the water (waterfront), and the intertidal as commons from which the citizen’s/resident’s conscious and proactive efforts can only shape a new order.


[184] For instance, nature-based solutions have been utilised by Indigenous People and Local Communities (IPLCs) across the world for centuries to protect their local environments (Raygorodetsky, 2018). Despite comprising 6% of the world’s population (ILO, 2019), IPLCs protect over 80% of biodiversity in areas that store at least 24% of the total carbon in global tropical forests (Rights and Resources Initiative, Woods Hole Research Center, and Landmark, 2016; Raygorodetsky, 2018; IUCN, 2019; Tauli-Corpuz et al., 2020).

[185] The Wanganui tribe cared for and depended on the Wanganui river for over 700 years. However, when the European settlers arrived in the mid-1800s, the Wanganui tribes' authority was undermined and relinquished. Since then, they have watched their river be degraded and exploited as a resource as the river was blown up by dynamites to create an easier passage for tourist boats, commercial fishing and the gravel on the river bed was extracted for constructing railways and roads, damaging the river bed and harming its marine life. The river’s mouth became a drain for a city’s wastewater and sewage. Furthermore, the river was diverted into a different catchment as part of a hydroelectric power initiative, depriving the river of its flow (Warne, n.d.).

[186] Macpherson (2022, p. 168) here considers environmental degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change alongside associated economic and social injustices trifecta of challenges in the Anthropocene. She argues for a new legal paradigm shift that better addresses the aforementioned issues in the Anthropocene.

[187] This is in reference to section 3.1 on the mechanical handling of water in the form of land reclamation and coastal protection and dualistic conception of nature in urban environments.

[188] Vision 2020 had two major components. A three-year action agenda containing 130 funded projects, including more than 20 ha of new waterfront parks, the creation of 14 new waterfront esplanades, and a new ferry service providing a framework for the City’s 840 km of shoreline for the next decade and beyond (NYC Planning, 2011).



Section 3.2.5 Footnote
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