The Role of Water in Urban Planning

Several years ago, a distinguished international group of urban planners issued a joint position paper entitled, “Reinventing Planning: A New Governance Paradigm for Managing Human Settlements.” It addressed “the challenges of rapid urbanisation, the urbanisation of poverty and the hazards posed by climate change and natural disasters.”

What do they identify as the most important contributions that this reinvention can produce? First “Reduce vulnerability to natural disasters,” and second “Create environmentally-friendly cities.” Who are the experts most qualified to participate in that dialogue? I would offer that those of us in the water industry should be among them.

Have we been equally ambitious in reinventing our role in shaping the future of rapid urbanization worldwide? Will we remain leaders in lagging technologies – following the parade with brooms and shovels, cleaning up environmental damage and compensating for the impacts of economic development and climate change? There is clearly an opportunity for us to re-invent our role in the future of sustainable urban development. To help environmental decision-makers incorporate economic and social ends in their pursuit of environmental and public health protection. We cannot be accused of ignoring the environment. We may be guilty, however, of being isolated from the economic and social issues related to urbanization and land use.

If it is fair to say that virtually all the problems associated with water quantity and quality in urban watersheds are significantly impacted by land use, doesn’t it follow that we could have a huge influence on the future by directly engaging as a stakeholder in the planning and decision-making surrounding those land use decisions?

This would not put the environmental engineering community in charge. On the contrary, it would merely establish parity with the other drivers affecting land use. What would change if the aquatic ecosystem in the urban watershed served as the starting point for planning tomorrow’s cities? Those scientists, planners, engineers who have followed development with sophisticated plumbing would have to take into consideration many new issues that are currently handled by others.

Of course, the process isn’t linear and no one really leads in the complicated process of urbanization. And yet, if for a moment, the urban watershed came first and every other profession, institution, agency, and law was designed to protect its long-term integrity (while allowing for increasing population and economic growth) would we see more green roofs, porous pavement, solar energy, recycled water, rapid transit, and innovations in technology and conservation too numerous to quantify?

If there was ever a time to step forward and contribute to our understanding of what “sustainability” in urban infrastructure means, now is it. Again, this doesn’t mean “taking over” from the developers, architects and planners who have largely driven the form or our urban landscape – in those fortunate cases where planning is discernible. It means joining with them as leaders (not followers) in the creation of something brand new.