Modifying Our Urban DNA

In early May of this year, I had a chance to participate in the 2013 Global Meeting of the Habitat Partner University Initiative which was held at the Patel College of Global Sustainability of the University of South Florida in Tampa. I was asked to deliver the dinner keynote hosted by Dr. Kiran C. Patel. A copy of the entire address is available here. Some excerpts follow.

Redefining Relationships

We may all agree that because water is so central to the health, wellbeing, and sustainability of urban populations and their economies, the ways in which we manage it must be a primary consideration in urbanization and land-use planning. And yet, this is rarely the case.

Often our role as water planners and civil engineers is explicitly subordinated to the demands created by land-use, urban planning, and city design decisions. Like plumbers, we’re called upon to provide a reliable supply of potable water, take it away once it’s been used, keep property dry, and protect it from flooding. And the way we do it hasn’t changed much in the last 150 years. I will tell you that the propagation of this time-honored approach cannot keep up with the current pace of global urbanization. If you believe the industry’s self-assessment of our U.S. water infrastructure, we aren’t keeping up with the repair and replacement needs of the systems we already have.

Reinvention within the Water Sector

And if you asked “why?” – I would tell you that’s what you expect us to do. It’s built into the standards of professional practice, local ordinances and building codes, augmented by state and federal regulatory requirements that all together make it difficult to do anything else.

Why a radical change after so many accomplishments and public health successes? The answer is it cannot keep up with the world’s exponential population growth, the concentration of that growth in cities, and the exhaustion of readily available fresh water that can be abstracted from its sources without threatening the collapse of natural ecosystems. It has many shortcomings:

      • It can reach hundreds of kilometers to import water to the city – assuming withdrawals of increasing magnitude will not damage the ecosystems from which they are taken.
      • Because of these distances, it consumes large amounts of capital in its construction and large amounts of energy in lifting water over the terrain it crosses.
      • It requires large amounts of storage behind dams in order to balance the availability of the water and the timing of demands.
      • Once built, it is difficult to increase its capacity when population demands exceed available supplies – the marginal cost of additional supply is enormous.
      • It is highly vulnerable to both drought and flooding that can occur in the regions from which water is abstracted.
      • It uses potable water as the means of carriage for the human and industrial wastes it exports back to downstream receiving waters or the sea.
      • It inevitably competes for and wins the water that would have gone to agriculture and food production.
      • It treats all water to potable drinking water standards at massive centralized facilities – in spite of the fact that most water used in cities is not consumed by people.
      • It wastes to receiving waters a source of supply (used water) that we now have the technology to treat at any scale, to any quality needed.
      • It consumes additional energy in the treatment and recovery of the nutrients and resources flushed into the sanitation system; and finally
      • These highly expensive single-purpose systems are an “all-or-nothing” proposition. Both the water distribution network and sewer network either reach you or do not. And in many developing countries, they do not – nada.

And so it is that our belief that this age-old approach (with all its obvious flaws) is the only acceptable way of delivering water and sanitation inevitably dooms millions in the developing world to life in cities where their basic human needs will never be met.

Incorporation of Natural Systems and Functional Landscape

The next chapter in urban water management, being written here at the Patel College and elsewhere, adopts a radically different, holistic systems approach to the urban watershed. Striving to eliminate the focus on isolated linear components, it aspires to manage all of the elements of water supply, stormwater, and wastewater as an integrated closed loop – one water; and it aspires to address urban water needs at every scale and in every setting.

And we can do all of this because we now have the treatment technologies, green infrastructure designs, and smart sensors and monitoring to make it all happen in an efficient and cost-effective way. The changes that must occur are both physical – in terms of what our systems are intended to do; and institutional – in terms of who manages them, how they are paid for, and how the enabling governance reflected in ordinances, codes and regulations influence their development.

Cannot Become Part of Urban DNA without Broad Policy Changes

The successful reimagining of how the water cycle is introduced into tomorrow’s urban environment offers huge potential gains in the provision of water and sanitation to rapidly growing cities in the developing world, but it will require altering the DNA of how we currently manage water and develop water infrastructure in an urban setting.

As I have suggested we are very much locked into the infrastructure forms that have been successfully propagated through codes and ordinances. There are many good reasons for the intractable standards of performance and care that go into producing this infrastructure. Public health and public safety are at the top of the list. The success of our Progressive era forbearers in building in safeguards, codes, and ordinances that prevented creative shortcuts that might lead to loss of life and property must be honored. They erected a bureaucratic system for replicating the underlying networks that are the platform on which raw land is turned into cities.

That bureaucracy and its associated regulations must be reimagined as well. In fact, recent progress in places like New York City would suggest that we are being successful updating the building codes associated with vertical construction. We’ve made much less progress when it comes to the codes and ordinances associated with horizontal infrastructure. Both can be done however.

New Models as the Basis of Developing Future Infrastructure

Once we, in the realm of horizontal infrastructure, transition from independent, single-purpose centralized systems to a hybrid approach that relies on multi-purpose, smaller-scale distributed technologies sown into a green urban landscape — we open up the potential for more entrepreneurial solutions at the local level, more rapid and responsive deployment of services, and the ability to reduce risk incrementally at a faster pace, leaving populations in the developed and more importantly the developing world less vulnerable to the hazards of water borne disease, food shortages, and the predictable and unforeseen consequences of climate change and extreme events.