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Living in our waterways

Updated: Feb 25

For as long as we have been working together as SPURSE we have been thinking about how to live in ways that entangle us deeper and make us more directly dependant on our immediate environment.

We have worked on urban foraging projects, urban landscaping, multi-species commons building, interior ecosystems research and other projects all as part of the idea of entangling us in ever richer ways with our immediate ecosystem.

For a number of years we have been obsessed with shany boats and the various vernacular traditions of squatting on our rivers, bays and estuaries. Shanty Boat dwellers found ways to live on, in and ultimately of the river systems in which they dropped anchor. In their practices we see potentials models for sustainable, off-the-grid, down-sized, ecologically restorative, commons based living. Anna and Harlan Hubbard's writings, which in many ways surpass Thoreau in their sustained engagement with a living-of-a-place, have pushed us to begin our own experiments.

We started researching and developing a number of ideas. And over the years we began to salvage abandoned boats that we found in the New Jersey Meadowlands -- stock piling hardware, anchors, and anything we could lay our hands on. After much research we even starting building a shanty boat a few years ago -- but without time, space or resources, we had to put the idea on hold. But the idea never died, and when we were invited to be design researchers in residence at the IMRC (University of Maine @ Orono) by Owen Smith, we immediately proposed revising this project.

Quite quickly, we realized that our idea of building a boat from scratch was beyond our time, skills and budget. And after further research we came to the conclusion that beginning with an existing hull was the best approach. We settled on an aluminium pontoon boat as the best beginning point.

Fast forward to the present: we secured a cheap pontoon boat, developed an initial design, and the project is underway!

Here is our initial proposal:

The Future Waters Shanty Boat is a project to catalyze a new form of ecological community using the concept of living-of-a-watershed-commons as a model to foster a multi-species environmental urbanism that stitches together currently disparate communities. Our planet is increasingly urban, with most of us living at the intersection of oceans and rivers in zones of astonishing pollution and remarkable ecological diversity. This convergence of forces has meant that while these zones are critical for discovering resilience in the face of global warming and sea level rise, few of us currently have any meaningful connection to the waters that will underpin our future. We believe that community evolves across species and systems and that this can only happen from a deep, direct re-entangling of people and places. Beginning in Orono Maine through a partnership with the University of Maine, the Future Waters Shanty Boat will initiate a study of the intensely polluted, bio-diverse and critically contested watersheds.

How will this happen?

Resurrecting a depression era river-boat typology — the “Shanty Boat” — we propose to work with students and regional community groups in and around Orono to design and build a hybrid of a future utopian canal boat + community hub + remediation research vessel + off the grid squatters cabin. The construction will take place at the University of Maine using reclaimed materials beginning in the fall of 2019. Once constructed, we will work with organizations such as the North Atlantic Marine Alliance, DEC, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater and Riverkeeper to embed into community life.

Our goal is both modest and far-reaching: to get early eco-adapters (families, community groups, individuals) to live with/on/of the river, from weekends to weeks at a time -- documenting and sharing their experiences, research and ideas. Working with these groups we will co-develop a set of transformative proposals to be shared regionally to catalyze larger initiatives. The building procedures, research, and watershed living methods will be collected and distributed as part of a global urban aquatic resilience open-source tool-kit. The issues we address will emerge out of the watershed community’s deep engagements with/of the ecosystem. We imagine a modern-day urban aquatic “Walden”/problem catalyzer that will provoke a type of interspecies commons/research forum for engaging watershed ecologies and proposing/testing new ways of being-of-an-ecosystem.

How can you collaborate?

We need you! We welcome all collaboration — anything from a donation of materials to a few hours of working together to a more sustained sharing of ideas and skills. If interested please be in touch:

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