Rising Waters

A multidisciplinary research project situated in the former wetlands of Philadelphia and Mumbai- two cities that have since been formed, extended and differentiated by historic relations with water.

Low water under footbridge.

(Image: Courtesy of Nikhil Anand)

Read Omnia Magazine's February 2019 article about the project here.

A new Penn Arts and Sciences program encourages faculty to explore innovative ways of applying their expertise and working with students to address societal challenges. The initiative, called “Making a Difference in Diverse Communities,” provides funding to support teams of faculty and students in multidisciplinary projects that combine coursework, research, and service to address issues of diversity and inequality at the local, national, and international level. Rising Waters is one of five featured inaugural projects.

Project Co-Directors

Project Description

Cities have long been made through colonial and then modernist efforts to tame the unruly relations between land and water. In port cities as diverse as Philadelphia and Mumbai, engineers have drained wetlands and built river embankments and sea walls to keep waters at bay. These projects have produced particular kinds of ground for the development of industry, commerce and social life as well as particular kinds of water– deepened harbors for shipping vessels, buried creeks, forgotten wells, and waste sinks. While these projects have made urban life possible, they have also produced raced and classed geographies of inequality in the city.

Today, these stabilized (and not always innocuous) relations are being challenged by the rising waters of climate change.  As climate scientists project a future unlike times past, the increased propensity for severe storm surges and disrupted weather patterns have unsettled historic relations between land and water in cities. Climate events threaten industries, transportation infrastructures and marginalized residents settled in former wetlands, and they promise to exacerbate social inequalities and further squeeze non-human natures. In these uncertain and toxic times, how might we make space for social justice and non-human natures in and along rising urban waters? This expansive, collaborative project seeks to explore the futures of river and coastal cities in a time where the lines between land and water are muddied all around us.

We propose to conduct this research in the former wetlands of Philadelphia and Mumbai- two cities that have since been formed, extended and differentiated by historic relations with water.  In Philadelphia and Mumbai, drained wetlands that were occupied by marginal residents have been settled by the energy industries and port infrastructures. Their situation in and near water, scholars have shown, have been generative of “sacrificial landscapes” (Black). Communities have been subject to toxic harm by virtue of their raced, classed and geographic location. We ask: in what ways do ongoing urban processes (replete with concessions to energy companies, transportation corridors, and global capital) recapitulate and reorient histories of vulnerability and inequality in times of climate change? How are residents reconsidering their relationship with water in the city to articulate new ways to live more justly with relations of human and non-human difference in the city?  

Through ethnographic and historical research with educators, students, planners, health professionals, artists and community members in Philadelphia and Mumbai, this project seeks to “make a difference,” to produce alternative visions of the future cities of Philadelphia and Mumbai. In Philadelphia, this builds on the momentum of PPEH’s collaboration with Bartram’s Garden and others on The WetLand Project as well as the Lower Schuylkill River Corps research seminar (in which both Anand and Wiggin participate). In Mumbai, it builds on Anand’s work on water infrastructure and formalizes personal collaborations with faculty and students at IIT (Bombay) and Tata Institute for Social Sciences.Taken together, Rising Waters will catalyze and consolidate a research collaborative on urban waters that can subsequently be scaled to other locations.


To conduct this research we propose to engage in a collaborative research and learning project together with (a) community members including activists, artists, as well as city agencies including Philadelphia’s Parks and Recreation, the Philadelphia Water Department and the Mumbai Hydraulic Engineering Department  (b) scholars of the urban environment in Mumbai and Philadelphia, and (c) Penn graduate and undergraduate students to be appointed as fellows for a two year period.


Year 1 (2017-2018): Training

  • In the first year we will work towards building a common research framework and epistemology, by collaboratively teaching one course open to undergraduate and graduate students. Project fellows, in years two and three, may be selected these courses.
  • Spring 2018 Undergraduate Seminar: Rising Waters, will focus on city specific case studies on the global histories and futures of urban water. This class will thus be interspersed with a lecture series drawing on researchers at Penn and beyond who study the ongoing histories of water in the city, particularly in times of climate change.  
  • March–April 2018 Application and Selection Process for Rising Waters Fellows, Student researchers will be awarded summer funding to participate in the June On-Water Intensive and then to work closely with PPEH Faculty to support the design of citizen science and public humanities projects exploring Philadelphia’s urban waters, with a focus on oral histories and living archives. Students successfully completing this summer internship have the opportunity to apply for a related Rising Waters project in the fall, culminating in Mumbai, India with a collaborative research exchange with peers at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.
  • Rising Waters Symposium, planned in conjunction with undergraduate seminars being taught at Penn, explores how rising urban waters are studied, known, and experienced. Experts include anthropologists, architects,  ecologists, engineers, geographers and planners, etc.
  • June 2018: June On-Water Intensive research seminar.
  • July 2018:  Select six Penn undergraduates, six Mumbai undergraduates and two Penn graduate fellows for a two-year period.

Year 2 (2018-2019): Research

  • Fall 2018 Undergraduate Seminar: Fluid Histories and Liquid Archives will consider how climate change will affect archives. We will consider how does ongoing climate change affect shifts in cultural memory? What historical materials float to the top? Working in partnership with archivists and archives housed at the Independence Seaport Museum, the Library Company of Philadelphia, and Bartram’s Garden, the seminar will train students to conduct archival and ethnographic research with sources and communities in the Philadelphia area today. What might a living archive look like? What might it do?
  • Fall 2018: Skype sessions: Philadelphia and Mumbai. Working in pairs, teams present research projects to transnational group. Students have an early opportunity to review and provide feedback.
  • Winter Break 2018-2019:  Penn Winter Institute, Mumbai. Fellows convene in Mumbai for ten days in early January.  Students receive mentoring and support to further research.  Key faculty from Penn and in Mumbai provide guest lectures and review projects.
  • Spring 2019: Graduate fellows mentor and support undergraduate research projects in both sites.  Students meet virtually over one day in  spring semester and share results.

Year 3 (2019-2020): Dissemination  

  • Students present research in local institutions: community centers, academic institutions, and urban research centers. City officials, planners, and city councilors are invited to events.  
  • This research is added to the open and expandable Digital River platforms (websites and apps), already in development and available at SchuylkillCorps.org.
  • The Co-PI’s will present this research and the research process at academic conferences in History, Anthropology, and Environmental Humanities.  They will also author an article in a refereed academic journal describing the results of the project.