Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Natural Boundary / Political Boundary

I'm really glad that Strange Maps featured the interesting (albeit never realized) notion of John Wesley Powell's watershed-based approach to defining political boundaries in his 1890 'Map of the Arid Region of the United States'.  The concept reframes the Jeffersonian national grid, using drainage districts as "the essential units of government, either as states or as watershed commonwealths".

:: image via Strange Maps

Some further information: "Powell was convinced that only a small fraction of the American West was suitable for agriculture (3). His Report proposed irrigation systems fed by a multitude of small dams (instead of the few huge ones in operation today) and state borders based on watershed areas. The bulk of the arid regions should be reserved for conservation and low-intensity grazing. But other interests were at work; the railway companies lobbied for large-scale settlement and agricultural development."

:: image via Strange Maps

Just imagine the differing political geography of a West that is defined through natural boundaries of topography and hydrology, and what implications  While Powell's emphasis was on agriculture, imagine the different ways this would have allowed for looking at urbanization in the relatively dryland west that would have resulted through looking at availability of water.  Would Los Angeles and Phoenix be the same as they are today?

:: image via MIT

The concept obviously was a radically different approach to the orthagonally based, Jeffersonian approach in the late 18th Century, now continued to be managed by the Bureau of Land Management through the Public Land Survey System (a good resource of info as well from from National Atlas).

:: image via National Atlas
Some pertinent history, from the site:  "Originally proposed by Thomas Jefferson, the PLSS began shortly after the Revolutionary War, when the Federal government became responsible for large areas west of the thirteen original colonies. The government wished both to distribute land to Revolutionary War soldiers in reward for their service, as well as to sell land as a way of raising money for the nation. Before this could happen, the land needed to be surveyed.  The Land Ordinance of 1785 which provided for the systematic survey and monumentation of public domain lands, and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787which established a rectangular survey system designed to facilitate the transfer of Federal lands to private citizens, were the beginning of the PLSS."
The remnant of this being the rather 'straight-edge' development of political boundaries for delineating terrain that we live with today - the only diversions being for river edges that divide states, mostly expressed in the Montana/Idaho and somewhat less in the Washington/Oregon borders.

:: image via National Atlas

Drilling down into some of the smaller scale patterns, it's easy to see the disconnect between the political 'grid' and the underlying hydrology at work.  A map of Kent County Michigan (although not of the west) illustrates this point, with the clash of political delineation over the organic, dendritic patterning of hydrology on the landscape.

:: image via Wikipedia

Which maybe reads a bit different in a drier region, such as that of agricultural Kansas (where the use of fixed pivot irrigation is evident).

:: image via Wikiipedia

My favorite example of course, growing up in North Dakota where one is intimately connected to the Jeffersonian grid, is the use of the 6x6 mile township system dividing land into an individual square mile pattern to develop a road system that literally etches gravel pathways throughout every corner of the state (allowing a significant amount of public access to territory via ca, ostensibly for access to farmland).  It's virtually possible to zig-zag your way from one end of the state to another.  It's also interesting to note, even with a seemingly barren flat landscape, the subtle patterns of water (creeks and potholes) on the land (more on this later as I sat staring at Google Earth closeups for about an hour, mesmerized).

:: image via Google Maps

The grid of course, cannot stay pure (even in the topographically flat areas), and it's funny after miles of arrow straight country roads to encounter the grid shift (scene of many a lonely automotive faux pas on a snowy day).  These shifts, beyond the topographic, offer a more telling idea of the difficulties of a grid as a pure form on the larger landscape.

:: image via Google Maps

This idea, in a different scale, was inspirational for the conceptualizing of 'Neighborsheds' or neighborhood-based watersheds - that was the topic of my ASLA National Conference talk in 2006.  More on this soon, once I dig out the materials - something I've wanted to revisit.  Thanks to John Wesley Powell, although unsuccessful, in planting a seed of bioregional planning and boundary making, well before it was popular.


  1. It would also be interesting to see maps of watersheds overlaid on maps of aquifers and their contributing sheds (aquifersheds?).

    Is there any way to download your neighborshed presentation?

  2. Yeah, subsurface aquifers would be an interesting overlay (underlay?) to the overall picture of water resources...

    I'm digging up some of the old materials from the presentation - so will post something (and try to include a link as well...) It merely scratched the surface of the concept- so I've been thinking of expanding it as a methodology for defining larger 'fields' to work on ecological urbanism

  3. There's much to be improved in urban/suburban stormwater management. It's a bummer to see one(commercial)property after property spoiled by ugly detention and retention basins. And it's a bummer as an civil engineer to have to design those things and then explain to clients why half of their property will become a detention basin.

    An off-site, "neighborshed" detention/retention basin would be a much better alternative, providing new opportunities for multi-functional, neighborhood, nature parks and allowing the landscapes of commercial properties to be developed more attractively and productively. I supposed regions with the highest rainfall would then have the most parks. Retrofitting properties and neighborhoods (neighborsheds) could be interesting. Sorry, I'm probably abusing your neighborshed term and concept without knowing what it means.

    There's an interesting stormwater management article sitting on the Ped Shed blog that might be of interest. It comes from a NU perspective, but I don't think that point matters much.

  4. We must've been thinking the same things around the same time. Neighborsheds came out of our Open Space Seattle 2100 process too:

  5. nice work here. John Welsley Powell and his bad assery can't be talked about enough.

    i, too, am looking forward to the neighborhood-shed work.

    A question: do you (anyone) know of any authorities or agencies that focus on the planning an management of urban development based on the watershed (as opposed to geo-political boundaries)?

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  7. I've frequently heard that Los Angeles County is one of the only places in the United States where the political boundaries coincide with the watershed.
    The population there demands far more water than the watershed produces, so the point is moot. But it's an interesting idea that would simplify overlapping jurisdictional negotiations and tie development and urban form to ecological processes.


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