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Team: Bene Wahlbrink, Eugenio Cappuccio, Julius Grambow
Collaboration: School of Commons (ZHdK Zürich)

Location: Berlin, London, Zurich

Type: Research/Exhibition

Year: 2022-2023

‘Water is the new oil’ has become a regular companion to illustrate the scale of problems surrounding global water supplies today. In privileged European urban environments in particular, water only regularly makes the headlines for economic or disaster-related aspects (‘privatisation’, ‘cost of sewers’, ‘flooding’). However, this is hugely deficient when water is central to approaching a multitude of other urban issues which are present.  

Based in Berlin, London and Zurich, we have spent the last year investigating issues connected to the spatial dimensions of water in cities. As part of the School of Commons LEARN-Lab* (Learning Environment And Research Nucleus) 2022, we wanted to conceptualise water as an urban common. Observing the relationships between water in cities and its public accessibility in an attempt to raise an awareness on the matter, we retraced how vast infrastructure networks, the decentralisation of power, privatisation and artificial shortages have formed residents’ experiences of water in the city. Simultaneously, we made contact with initiatives that have been attempting to link the regaining of the commons to several associated fields. Their work makes the fluidities, undercurrents, climactic effects, and life-giving moments apparent that are mostly neglected in urban water politics.

Together with the global community at School of Commons (‘looking outwards’) and with our expanded network in our three home cities (‘looking inwards’), we presented our findings in an exhibition in Zurich in Spring 2023. Here, our attempts to introduce water as urban commons in Berlin (‘as repair’), in London (‘as power’) and in Zurich (‘as brand’) are but a small first step to put the commons back into context. The findings were presented in an exhibition in May 2023 at Displays 8003 in Zurich.

*School of Commons is a community-based initiative dedicated to the study and development of self-organized knowledge, located at the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK).


Slides from the SOC Kitchen Session, March 2022

Water politics is a widely discussed and extremely prevalent topic throughout the world. From agriculture to energy, health to climate and transport to leisure, water plays a primary role in the functioning of inhabited environments, to which all living organisms have a basic right.
As Elinor Ostrom brought to light in the late eighties, Switzerland has one of the oldest precedents for the collective management of ‘common pool’ water resources, found in the Alpine village of Törbel where a system of equal rights and ownership of the village’s irrigation system ensures a sustainable use of this scarce, yet common good. With a shared responsibility to maintain it, the inhabitants of the village are empowered with a common interest to ensure its preservation through time.
Throughout the last two centuries, the increasing enclosure of water through privatisation and marketisation has led to global water inequality and water poverty for many around the world, threatening the notion that it is a shared wealth for all. Yet recently, as writer and activist David Bollier highlights, “commoners have begun to reclaim this common wealth in both a material and political sense”, trying to reassert a greater participatory control over these resources in communal life. 
Rather than occurring in opposition to capitalist tendencies where the state and market govern it, can individual water commoning instead be complementary to it? How might we share the task of commoning amongst everybody in the wake of the climate emergency?


Dymaxiom Projection mapping Survey Entries of Waterways around the world © PRC, 2023.


Several places globally demonstrate key examples of commoning practices that are improving local communities’ access to water, many undoubtedly forming exemplary case studies for exploring how we may reclaim our access to this ‘shared wealth’. We felt it was also as important to understand one’s own context as, even within wealthy cities perceived as being at the forefront of technological development, key themes can arise that help us to better understand the forces at play when dealing with the access to, and shared use of water. 
As a result, we turned to our three home cities – London, Zürich and Berlin – looking inwards as a starting point for understanding their individual relationship to their waterways. Water in each of these cities presents a multitude of social, geographical and political conditions that are often present across several different contexts. We chose to look at each city through specific lenses, selecting themes that we believe present a condition of duality; on one hand sparking growth and innovation yet also lead to seemingly problematic outcomes. By engaging with local initiatives and collaborating with other creative practitioners, we adopted an ethnographic approach of observation and documentation to bring to light these conditions. 
We then followed by looking outwards, which involved reaching out to the wider SoC and PRC networks to gain an understanding of the relationship that other people have to water in their home contexts, worldwide. We gathered qualitative data from over 60 participants, illustrating personal experiences from all over the globe and presented here as a collection of composite ‘postcards’. The locations are also mapped out on the Dymaxion projection of the globe – invented in 1943 by Buckminster Fuller, this map offers a less distorted projection of the world’s geographical continents. Through these findings we have attempted to bring to light the fundamental role that water plays within urban contexts, both as a human right and as a common good for collective social benefit. Can more individuals be empowered to engage in everyday forms of commoning to preserve our access to these places?








Twelve Case Studies © PRC, 2023.


With a population of over 440,000, Zürich is the largest city in Switzerland and is known above all for its high quality of life. Old postcards show how that waterside locations have been a special trademark of the city since early times. The city is blessed by a good water supply in part due to the lake and two rivers, as well as the elevated landscape that surrounds it.
The shorelines of the Lake Zürich, the rivers Limmat and Sihl – with the many cafes, bars and green areas – are among the most popular places in the city. For those not spending their time here, they will no doubt pass by one of the many fountains that are scattered throughout the city and provide people with clean drinking water.
The availability of drinking water in so many public places is an important factor for the quality of life and is part of the Zürich brand. Every day, around 280 employees work hard to ensure that people can use as much water as they want. Although a privilege, this results in high water consumption, with each person in Zürich using on average just under 160 liters of drinking water every day – amongst the highest in comparison to other European countries. 
The question of where and how water reaches households is hardly asked by anyone in Zürich, as the use and quality of water has become a matter of course for many. In February 2019, a referendum was had about whether private companies should be allowed to participate in the water supply – a decision that was narrowly rejected with a 55 percent majority. Opening up a public water supply in the canton of Zürich, at least partially, to private investors was seen by many citizens as a dramatic move, as this might not have guaranteed the holistic view of the water cycle that is enjoyed today. The cantonal council has since revised the law with a ban on privatization of the water supply. Drinking water in Zurich is thus to remain in public hands.
The selected examples show, places that have an intrinsic connection to the water supply. Behind each, there is a sophisticated system, that either enhances public life or supplies people with enough drinking water, even in an emergency. This is the case in most cities, but Zürich’s unique planning of water management can serve as a prime example for many cities, which this work aims to make visible.


In 2021, The Mayor of London identified key Opportunity Areas in the city that would drive urban growth and regeneration within the capital over the next 20-25 years. The majority of these areas centre on or border many of the capital’s water bodies, with 10,700 hectares of land providing 222,000 homes and 254,000 jobs to Londoners. 
This has given power to communities and local authorities to re-wild water reservoirs, rivers and canals that had been enclosed during the 20th century, offering once again opportunities for biodiversity to thrive, and giving back residents spaces for leisure and recreation. 
But power manifests itself in other ways too. The effects of the Thatcherite years are felt: a period that saw the privatisation of the country’s water services, and the redevelopment of one of the largest derelict dockland areas in Europe into an ‘enterprise zone’ where large swathes of public land were offered to businesses to set up shop through attractive tax breaks. 
Where opportunity arises from water to do public good in The Big Smoke, so does the possibility to profit from it. The duality that water as power holds is investigated through the camera lens at several sites across the city. 
On the one hand, there is power to provide public space and nature for some. Yet, this often leads to real estate speculation and its power to push aside the less fortunate. 
Can a city desperate to cling onto its legacy as financial capital of Europe find a way to reinvent itself at the forefront of sustainable de-urbanisation strategies, or will its growth driven by foreign investors continue to marginalise local residents to the fringes of the capital?


Against the backdrop of the museum island, Jan Rockfisch and his colleagues pull out another bike from the Spree and add it to the collection. Passing tourists watch them curiously. “They just keep getting more everyday”, Jan comments angrily as the group produces another dripping e-scooter. Beyond its water bodies as rubbish basins, the party boats, pink tubes connecting construction sites, yearly extreme heat events, and the packed lidos: is there a way to repair Berlin’s fractured public perception of water?
About one quarter of Berlin’s area lies within a water protection zone. Since the city’s drinking water supply is fully generated from its groundwater tables, it heavily relies on filtering water at the surface. Naturally, drinking water supply has become the senate’s main agenda, which neglects the many other aspects that water should have in the capital.
For centuries, the city had been supplied with coal, timber, goods, and energy coming from rivers, lakes, and forests in Brandenburg. For much of the 20th century, the Spree had been used as a liquid border dividing the city. The ‘wastelands’ of the former industries that emerged at its banks subsequently became home to the many cultures that put Berlin on the map for international investments. Now, as elsewhere, water ties transport and the transformation of economic capital together.
Over the last decade, Berlin-Brandenburg reported dry lakes, rivers, and green spaces surrounding them. Today, water tables have been falling to an alarming low due to decades of mismanagement and worsening climatic conditions. Regional efforts to secure water equity beyond aspects of drinking water are still undervalued; various building sites in Berlin are amongst the most prominent examples. 
Yet, there are alternatives everywhere, many of which had been conceived by architects and urban planners working together with non-experts and arts collectives. There is a long tradition in involving common interest in the material lifecycles of water. The projects shown here connect sites and local initiatives that present alternatives to the dominant conception of water as a necessity for liquidity. The access to water in Berlin is a means to repair the distorted image of what had once built the city. It can reappraise the fluid possibilities that Berlin-Brandenburg has to offer.

Exhibition opening at Displays8003, Zurich.


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©️ 2023 Panta Rhei Collaborative

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