Friday, June 25, 2010

Distillation in the Desert: climate, the environment and how we build

Having been lucky enough to immerse myself in climatic biomes such as tropical forests, mountains, oceanfronts, prairies and temperate forests, it has only been since last week that I finally got to experience a very important one--the desert. Driving through northern New Mexico, I was struck by how such radical environmental conditions, with its extremely dry air and sunny skies, provoked an equally radical response by people in how they built a suitable man-made environment. Though humans have made deserts habitable since the dawn of time, the reason I consider the desert a radical environment is due to its distinct lack of what makes human life (or any life for that matter) possible: water. Without water, either in the air or on the ground, the whole equation to how we build changes dramatically.

It's useful to remember that though our bodies are made up mostly of water. We therefore must consume even more to stay healthy, it constitutes only a small fraction how we use this resource. Most of our water goes to irrigating our man-made landscapes either in the form of farms or private lawns. Still, our direct physical need for water comes first, and in extremelty arid climates like New Mexico, there is little or no irrigation to speak of. It makes one realize how much of the built environment relies on channeling water resources towards mostly leisurely ends. A fountain here, flowerbeds there, green lawns, shaded parks-- they all have the important function of softening the hard and coarse surfaces of urban life. We have a natural aversion to living in something completely manmade, as evidenced by the common complaint of some cities being nothing more than "concrete jungles". Greenery, ponds, and displays of flowing water all contribute to a intrinsically human need for calm and repose in a city, even if it is only intermittent. Though not as important drinking or flushing, this urban role for water is not completely wasteful, even as it requires lots of it.