Kiley Fellow Lecture: Seth Denizen, “Thinking Through Soil: Case Study from the Mezquital Valley”

Event Description:

Almost 200,000 acres of land in the fertile Mezquital Valley are irrigated with the untreated sewage of Mexico City. Every drop of rain, urban runoff, industrial effluent, and sewage in Mexico City is sent to the Mezquital Valley through a 60 kilometer pipe. Soils in this valley have been continuously irrigated with urban wastewater since 1901, longer than any other soil in the world. The capacity of these soils to produce conditions in which agriculture can be practiced safely and produce healthy crops depends on a complex negotiation between soil chemistry, farming practices, public policy, land management, and the urban design of Mexico City. Without this wastewater, the Mezquital Valley would be a desert, as it falls into the UN’s “drylands” climate category, where rates of evapotranspiration exceed precipitation. Currently, more than 40% of the Earth’s surface is classified as “drylands.” In the context of a warming planet, the world simply cannot afford for urban wastewater reuse to fail. Water is scarce, and food security is fragile. In this context, the question becomes: what would the city look like if it needed to produce a fertile agricultural soil from its waste? What would the farm look like if it better anticipated its material connection to the bodies of 20 million people and the effluent of urban life?


Seth Denizen is a researcher and design practitioner trained in landscape architecture and human geography. He has received design awards from the SOM Foundation, Urban Edge Awards, and Bauhaus Dessau Foundation (2013), while also publishing widely on art and design with the Asia Art Archive, LEAP International Art Magazine of Contemporary China, Volume, Fulcrum, among others. He is currently a member of the editorial board of Scapegoat Journal: Architecture/Landscape/Political Economy. Collaborations include scientific research on Hong Kong’s urban microbiome, as well as art exhibitions in the Blackwood Gallery (Toronto), The Kunsthal (Netherlands), and Para/Site Art Space (Hong Kong). After teaching Landscape Architecture at the University of Hong Kong and the University of Virginia, Seth recently completed a PhD in Geography at the University of California Berkeley. His doctoral research investigates the vertical geopolitics of urban soil in Mexico City, where he is working with geologists and soil scientists to characterize the material complexities and political forces that shape the distribution of geological risk in Mexico’s urban periphery.



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