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City Water/City Life

April 25–August 2017 | This exhibit traces the development of water elements in three historic cities and their interaction with social and cultural milieus, inviting us to look afresh at how water continues to shape our urban environment.

As risks of inundation intensify with climate change, politicians and city planners are looking to land-water edges with renewed interest. Here in Washington, DC, for example, the Georgetown waterfront was recently transformed from a parking lot to a green urban park, while the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative (AWI), launched in 2000, aims to create a lively river edge and restore water quality in the Anacostia area.

Despite our present preoccupations, river systems are important not just for ecological but also for economic and cultural reasons. Drawing from the Dumbarton Oaks Rare Book Collection alongside contemporary images, City Water/City Life surveys how three cities—Amsterdam, Florence, and Paris—have made use of their waterfronts.

In all three examples, commercial activities initially pervaded the riverbanks. As these cities expanded, however, waterfronts assumed greater cultural significance, detectable by changes in architecture and sightlines. In our own time, new concerns and priorities such as flood-control, housing, and recreation have prompted new ideas for how to manage these land-water edges.

Together, these historical and contemporary perspectives reveal the ways riverfront uses can evolve, overlap, disappear, and reemerge over time in response to changing environmental and social values. Launched in conjunction with the DC Water Atlas created by Dumbarton Oaks Tyler Fellow John Davis, City Water/City Life is an invitation to look afresh at how water continues to shape our urban environment.

Programs in urban landscape studies at Dumbarton Oaks are supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation through their initiative in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities.

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