Update: Betsy Damon's Living Water Gardens

10 years ago, YES! Magazine covered the story of the Living Water Garden, part of a citywide revitalization program in Chengdu, China. Has the promise of that story turned into reality?
Ashlee Green

10 Years Ago ...

YES! Magazine covered the story of artist Betsy Damon and landscape architect Margie Ruddick’s “Keepers of the Waters” project, the Living Water Garden, part of a citywide revitalization program in Chengdu, China.

The garden, built on a fish-shaped 5.9-acre plot of land on the Fu and Nan Rivers in 1998, serves as both an art project and a living water-treatment facility that uses vegetation, settling ponds, and aeration to clean polluted water. It purifies only 250 cubic meters of river water a day—its principal function is education and recreation. Damon was also working on Keepers of the Waters projects in Portland, Oregon, and Duluth, Minnesota.

Today ...

In Portland, students, parents, and teachers from the da Vinci Arts Middle School transformed an old tennis court into a water garden that cleans and absorbs all the runoff from the school’s 15,000 square feet of roof and pavement. In addition to reducing the amount of water that drains into the Willamette River, the project demonstrates technology that can manage stormwater even at the individual household level. The Duluth project remains in the planning stages.

Funding difficulties caused by a change in city administration resulted in faulty infrastructure at Chengdu’s Living Water Garden, and Damon left the project unfinished.

In the summer of 2009, however, Damon and her colleagues drew up an alternate blueprint for finishing the park, including transforming a stagnant, mosquito-ridden pool into a dynamic fountain. Construction is underway.

Damon’s latest project is a book and documentary on Tibetan water culture. “Most indigenous cultures knew their water sources and protected them,” Damon says. She is concerned that fresh water supplies in Tibet are imperiled by problems ranging from overuse by corporate bottling plants to the accumulation of plastic prayer offerings at sacred water sites.

Damon started a cleanup crew with a school of Tibetan monks and found the local river strewn with plastic bags, metal paint cans, and other debris. She hopes to hold village meetings and work with one Tibetan monastery at a time to create new educational hubs, spreading clean water knowledge to surrounding areas. “Wherever I go I try to get people to reconnect and make our water systems alive,” she says.

She is also continuing to work in the United States. Damon is now concentrating on the St. Lucie Watershed and the Indian River Lagoon near Stuart, Florida. Plastic trash and other pollutants are causing illness in manatees, dolphins, and even humans. Damon and her team of eight eco-activist artist apprentices are aiming for “plastic-free seas,” urging all businesses selling to boaters to eliminate plastic packaging.



  • : Witness the catastrophic effect of our disposable culture on some of the world’s most beautiful and symbolic creatures.


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