Hydroimaginaries, or, How to Design a Climate Crisis

Research Project
Canada’s boreal region

2020 - ongoing

This project is part of the Politics of Building A Climate Crisis symposium at Cornell University’s faculty of Art, Architecture, and Planning (delayed due to COVID-19).
Canada’s boreal forests contain nearly 200 million acres of freshwater in countless lakes, rivers, and streams. This watery landscape also occupies a central position within ongoing debates surrounding decarbonization, climate change, and Indigenous rights. Yet in spite of its ecological and cultural significance, this region is rarely visited by Canada’s majority southern population. As a largely imagined geography, Canada’s boreal forests have served as the backdrop to countless built and unbuilt architectural designs that seek to harness water as a source of political, economic, and electrical power.

I term these fantasy landscapes hydroimaginaries, and use this concept to investigate the historical relationship between design and the spatial politics of environmental crisis. Specifically, I explore how landscape visualizations are mobilized to produce crises, which are then used to legitimize and justify designed interventions.

I explore these topics through three case studies from over the past 100 years: the Central British Columbia Development Project, the Mid-Canada Development Corridor, and the Boreal Corridor Boréale. These projects reveal the enduring power of landscape visualization as a political technology, and demonstrate design’s complicity in facilitating processes of spatial injustice. This project calls for renewed attention to the persistent desires and ideologies that implicate designers in the production and maintenance of hydroimaginary landscapes.

1. Profiles of Major Rivers. (1958). Atlas of Canada (ed. 3). Canada Department of Mines and Technical Surveys.
2. Profiles of Major Rivers. (1958). Atlas of Canada (ed. 3). Canada Department of Mines and Technical Surveys. ; Columbia River.
3. Van Nostrand, J. (2014). If we build it, they will stay. The Walrus [online]. Image by Chris Brackley. 
4. Mid-Canada Development Foundation Inc. (1971). Mid-Canada Development Corridor… A Concept. Toronto, ON: Maclean-Hunter Limited.