Cities of the Future

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.

LAX is Back!

Journalists and historians have reminded us that 2013 is the one-hundredth anniversary of the opening of New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. While there is much to talk about when telling the story of Grand Central, two themes frequently emerge. One is the engineering and construction story – a 10-year ordeal of building a vast new underground station in the heart of midtown Manhattan – what Sam Roberts describes in his new book as a “gargantuan undertaking.”

The other reflects on the significance of Grand Central Terminal as an iconic civic landmark, a gateway that provided the world an extraordinary public space to experience the urbanity of New York City. Kurt Schlichting, in his 2001 history, Grand Central Terminal: Railroads, Engineering, and the Architecture of New York City, sums up its social significance in the opening paragraph of his book:

“Few buildings capture the public imagination as does Grand Central Terminal . . . Standing in the heart of midtown Manhattan, the terminal serves as an urban crossroads. Thousands pass through the Grand Concourse every day. Commuters hurry by. Visitors pause in the city’s great public square. For millions, even those who have never visited the terminal, Grand Central remains a symbol of New York and its power, instantly recognizable for what it is and nearly as familiar as the soaring skyline of Manhattan Island.”

One hundred years from now, Grand Central Terminal will share its birthday celebrations with the new Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX set to open later this year. The parallels between the two landmarks struck me on a visit to the near-complete terminal last week, in the company of my long-time friend and colleague Roger Johnson. Roger is Los Angeles World Airport’s Deputy Executive Director for Airports Development and the Program Manager for its $7-billion capital program, which includes the $1.5-billion expansion of the Bradley Terminal as its prominent center piece.

From his office on the top floor of a mid-rise building at the west end of LAX, Roger has a panoramic view to the north, east, and south. It encompasses both the airport’s north and south runways; the myriad of taxiways, tank farms, hangers, utility buildings, and piped infrastructure located between the western edge of the airport and the central terminals; and directly to the east beyond the other infrastructure, the wave-like roof-line of the new Bradley Terminal building designed by architect Curtis Fentress. The Fentress Architects portfolio includes the Denver International Airport, as well as airport expansions for San Jose, Sacramento, Seattle-Tacoma, Raleigh-Durham, and the new Incheon International Airport in Seoul.

Viewing from this vantage point, and before driving to the terminal to inspect the construction, Roger talked about the vision for the rejuvenated LAX and the challenges of bringing it to life. The vast complexity of the program becomes clearer when you consider what’s going on around it. “In a typical year, LAX serves 65 million passengers, processes over 1.9 million tons of air cargo, and handles nearly 580,00 aircraft landings and takeoffs. It’s the seventh busiest airport in the world. We can’t interfere with those activities,” Roger emphasized.

That means rebuilding the physical infrastructure and buildings without interrupting the basic services and functions they currently provide; maintaining safe and uninterrupted airside operations while introducing nearly 5,000 construction workers, their equipment, and materials into the heart of the property; and minimizing the inconvenience and disruption on the landside operations where travelers, airline staff, security personnel, concessionaires, parking attendants, ground travel services, and thousands of others strive to provide a safe and smooth trip for paying passengers.

The logistics and communications skills needed to make this happen on time and on budget are awe-inspiring. Roger talks first about safety – above all else. At an active airport, the consequences of a lapse are unthinkable. Then he stresses transparency, consistency, and accountability in everything that gets done.

We talked a lot about avoiding the fate of many public-sector mega-projects that fail to meet their budgets or schedules, often in spectacular fashion. Here, Roger spends time describing the importance of “enabling projects” that stand between the design of new facilities and the commencement of their construction.

In the case of LAX, every square foot of property targeted for new facilities was or is already committed to essential (and occasionally abandoned) airport services. “All that infrastructure and associated facilities must be relocated before the process of deconstruction and demolition can proceed. If we don’t keep those enabling activities moving on schedule, an on-time delivery of new construction is impossible,” Roger insists.

Driving from location to location within the airport, Roger tells a story that reminds me of the complexity of an airport – an entire small “city” within its boundaries. Its own police force, fire department, medical staff, food services, retail establishments, and utility plants – all needing to be kept operational throughout the construction process.

It was at that point that Roger’s story reminded me of the logistical tour-de-force of constructing Grand Central Terminal, at the turn of the century. But it was inside the nearly finished Great Hall in the Bradley Terminal that another important parallel was obvious. This building will soon open as the new gateway to Los Angeles and Southern California for the rest of the world – and it promises to become one of the world’s great new civic places, a renewed symbol of the community, culture, and values of the citizenry that host it. It tells a story of promise and progress that incorporates advances in green building design, sustainable practices throughout, as well as eye-popping interactive media, and the grandeur of public space built-large. Roger tells that story with both intensity and passion for the mission at hand.

Before leaving, Roger took out his iPad and showed me a passage from Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum’s book, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World it Invented and How We Can Come Back.

“Our airports? Some of them would probably qualify as historic monuments. We would nominate both Los Angeles International and several terminals at John F. Kennedy in New York for this distinction. LAX’s dingy, cramped United Airlines domestic terminal feels like a faded 1970s movie star who once was considered hip but has had one too many face-lifts and simply can’t hide the wrinkles anymore. But in many ways, LAX, JFK, and Penn Station are us. We are the United States of Deferred Maintenance.”

Roger says he uses this quote frequently in presentations describing the City’s vision at LAX. “I want to change Friedman’s mind about LAX. We not only CAN come back. At LAX, we ARE back.” The pride and commitment reflected in Rogers’ words are inspired by a new architectural and civil engineering landmark about to be unveiled on the world stage. Iconic civic buildings and public places like Grand Central Station and LAX define who we are both to the world and to ourselves as citizens. Look for many articles and news reports on LA’s new gateway urban square when the expanded Tom Bradley International Terminal opens later this year.

Building a Sustainable Urban Future

Last December, the Singapore Economic Development Board partnered with The New Yorker magazine to publish another installment of its “Singapore Sessions” series. A PDF copy of the insert included in The New Yorker is available here. A complete transcript of the interview from which the published article was drawn follows:

Q: Do we accept that urbanisation is a necessary evil and all we can do is damage control?

I don’t accept the premise that urbanisation is an evil. I think it is absolutely necessary to economic development and improving the quality of life for growing populations. With respect to the urban infrastructure that we are involved with, we take a holistic view. We focus on water infrastructure, transportation, energy, waste management, building technologies, and urban ecology – all of the underlying structure and systems that are fundamental to a city’s health and prosperity. This underlying foundation of urban infrastructure is an essential contributor to a high quality of life and economic well being in a city.

The form of the city and the way in which we use land, water resources and energy has a great deal to do with the share of CO2 emissions attributable to cities. It is my belief that we can radically improve our performance with respect to all the infrastructure and do a great deal to reduce the green house gas emissions that come from urbanisation.

Long before we were aware of the impact of green house gas emissions and global warming, we struggled with issues of water and sanitation among rapidly urbanising populations. Frankly, if there’s one thing that can be done to improve the health and quality of life of a community it is to provide for sanitation and access to clean drinking water. That is the biggest leap forward a community can make.

We are dedicated to developing the tools and the understanding that will enable us to create significantly more efficient cities by approaching the planning of urban infrastructure in a different way. I am optimistic about our ability to come up with urban solutions that do a better job than we have done in the past.

We are developing new conceptual models of how we provide water, energy, and shelter more efficiently. There are many successful small-scale examples that show how we can radically improve the performance of the urban environment.

Q: What is green growth, and what is your vision of a future sustainable city?

When we use the term “green growth,” we are often talking about incorporating natural systems to do some of the work for us. Where in the past, we relied entirely on pipes or the electric grid, today we are also relying on vegetated swales to treat stormwater or wind turbines for energy. We are working on hybrid approaches to integrating landscape that performs valuable services. What serves as a park one day is designed to retain rainwater and treat it naturally during a storm event.

One of the other things that we are doing is “closing the loop” on the urban water cycle. What used to be separate systems designed to handle potable water, wastewater, and stormwater are now being viewed from an integrated perspective.

Since Roman times and before, cities have relied on rapid conveyance, piped systems to provide adequate water supply and convey urban drainage and waste products back to rivers and streams. These systems often put stress on the rural areas from which water is taken, as well as the receiving waters to which it is returned. So instead of taking this precious resource, using it once, and throwing it away, many cities are employing treatment technologies, at all scales, to recycle that water and use it again.

Singapore is a model for what can be done in this regard. Employing a combination of the latest technology integrated into natural “green” systems, a dense city like Singapore achieves water use efficiency that can handle increasing population, preserve public health, and create an environment that allows for economic development, education and a high quality of life. Singapore’s success convinces me that cities have the ability to meet the needs of growing populations if they put in place the physical infrastructure and governing institutions to build upon.

Q : What is the role of the Neysadurai Centre?

One of the challenges of having so many technology options, both green and traditional, is that they can be combined in so many different ways.

The traditional systems are well understood and accepted. But if we are going to combine the traditional approaches with some recycled water, or rainwater harvesting, or greywater systems the integration of these innovations can be difficult. Should we employ small-scale, large-scale, neighborhood-scale, building-scale solutions – or all of the above? We’ve got such a proliferation of new tools available to us, we need to be sure we a keeping up in our ability to efficiently integrate them into the built environment.

At the Neysadurai Centre, we are creating computer simulations of how various design alternatives are expected to perform. We take the plans of architects and engineers, translate them onto digital maps, incorporate different infrastructure solutions and technologies, and simulate how they will perform under expected conditions and use. These simulations keep track of hourly changes over periods on one year or more, comparing alternatives and searching for the most efficient solutions in a real world circumstances.

We want to develop the tools and the processes that will allow us to produce high-efficiency infrastructure solutions that save money, minimise green house gas emissions, and reduce waste – helping planners, architects and engineers design tomorrow’s cities.

Cities of the future will perform far more efficiently than they have in the past because we are integrating all this new technology, we are simulating how it performs, and we are finding approaches that will hopefully “leap frog” us forward in improving that the urban environment.

We see an interest in high-performing urban infrastructure almost everywhere, often driven by economics. There are developers who are excited about marketing products to both commercial and residential owners that have sustainability features built into them. There is a new ethic that is driving the migration of these approaches into cities all over the world. Many developers are really pushing the envelope and challenging themselves to see how small a “footprint” they can leave on the environment. We have the potential in dense urban environments like Singapore to house and provide for the health and well being of people with lower environmental consequences if we do it right. It’s not going to happen overnight because cities are organic. They are the result of a combination of economic forces, institutional forces, and everyday rules and regulations, like building codes, which shape their form and functions.

Q: How important is a public and private partnership?

The public sector and the private sector interact in cities all of the time. Ideally, public policies provide the incentives and the regulations to encourage the city to adapt to the future not simply replicate 19th century solutions. Almost everything seen in cities by way of infrastructure comes from 19th century models of how a city should work and what it should do.

Q: What are the differences between the urban environmental experience in Asia and that of the West? Would you agree that the sustainability issue was West-driven and now is Asia-driven? Why is this so?

Asia is where we’ve got to take on these challenges. Of course, 19th century paradigms were tremendously beneficial. The introduction of protected water supplies and water treatment in the 19th and early 20th centuries offered huge benefits to people who were dying of water-borne diseases like cholera. It is not that the systems we have don’t do great things for us, we should be as ambitious as our predecessors were in coming up with equally important, equally valuable breakthroughs that take advantage of new technologies and approaches.

One of the major differences between the West and Asia is the speed with which growth is occurring. The urgency is much greater and the scale of the infrastructure investment needed to keep up with it is also much greater. The scale and the pace of the growth in Asia is unprecedented.

Q: What advice would you give to planners of Asian cities?

I would encourage planners to have very high aspirations and challenge themselves to significantly improve the performance of the built environment in cities. There are always two paths. One is to do things the way they have always been done. In most cities, that’s the easiest way to go. Cities employ complex governance structures that have many responsible agencies providing needed approvals. If we take the conventional path, however, it likely will produce yesterday’s results.

The other path requires the courage to work with stakeholders on new design goals, taking advantage of the knowledge, the technologies, and the new approaches that are developing. Over time, if some communities have the courage to demonstrate real success with new solutions change will come. And I am not saying break the rules, instead develop new rules. And planners are one of the forces out there who can facilitate the process of creating tomorrow’s rules.

Q: Any other thoughts?

A city is a complex group of interests. When you get a group of people in a room from all different walks of life, all ages, backgrounds, occupations and incomes, of course it can be contentious. But I have generally found that when you ask people what they want from a city, what their goals are, they almost always share the same values. People want security, jobs, affordable housing, educational opportunities, mobility, safe water, open space, and a clean environment. What people expect of a livable city is generally quite similar. So what are people arguing about? They are typically arguing about how to do it. How do we accomplish it? Today we are more willing to accommodate the multiple interests of the citizens of the city, and we have more tools to accomplish that. I’ve been in a lot of contentious meetings as a planner of trying to reach consensus about what to do. They have usually ended peacefully because people’s goals are the same.

Finally, It is extremely important that planners have the benefit of overall good governance. The implementation of a plan, no matter how good it is, depends on good governance in the city where you work. And that’s been another aspect of Singapore that has made it a delightful place to work – not because people don’t have conflicts but because they are resolved in a transparent manner that is based on good public policy.

By definition, rapid urbanisation is always accompanied by significant investments. What we should think about is proving that there are better solutions for designing the built environment, while providing the institutional and economic incentives that steer cities towards those better outcomes.

Singapore Sessions is a trademark by Singapore Economic Development Board


Wellspring 2012 Tacoma

Last October, I was invited to address an enthusiastic group of stakeholders in the midst of launching Tacoma, Washington as a technology center for the water industry. While I have spent considerable time in Seattle over the years, this event was my first trip to Tacoma — a city whose history is as interesting as its aspirations. Located on the natural harbor of Commencement Bay, in the shelter of Puget Sound, Tacoma boomed in the late 19th century as the western terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad, a decision that shocked the Seattle establishment in its day. Today, it is the largest port in Washington state and a major gateway to the Pacific.  And while the city’s fortunes have experienced both highs and lows over the last century and a half, the 1990 establishment of the University of Washington Tacoma campus, in the midst of the historic downtown area, has lifted the prospects for future successes and emboldened the community to redefine its mission. Naturally, water continues to be a central theme in that story.

The Wellspring 2012 Conference was organized by the Economic Development Board of Tacoma-Pierce County and hosted at the University of Washington Tacoma, with the stated purpose of “sharing ideas to build a water economy” in the region. In fact, Tacoma has learned a great deal about the complex water quality issues created by a booming industrial waterfront in the midst of a natural ecosystem of immeasurable beauty and value. It is successfully transitioning its waterfront assets to new uses and purposes, and sees its experience and talent as a worthy example for the broader water industry. In fact, its newly opened Center for Urban Waters, housed in an impressive LEED Platinum facility, is tangible evidence of the serious commitment to water industry leadership that the community of Tacoma represents. Take a look at the Wellspring 2012 website, where other videos from that October conference are offered. As a closing aside, I was told after my presentation that there would be no editing of the videotapes. So my off-the-cuff promotion of CH2M HILL near the end of my keynote remains intact. Let’s keep that among us . . .

Photo: Tacoma Museum of Glass on the Thea Foss Waterway by Canadian architect Arthur Erickson