Urban Planning

City as Terrestrial Crustacean: Structural Engineering and Resilient Cities

On September 26, 2017, I was the featured speaker at a conference sponsored by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The topic was “The Role of Advanced Technologies in Structural Engineering for More Resilient Communities.” I was asked to address the question, “what are cities thinking about and expecting from technology and structural engineering regarding resilience?” Here’s and excerpt from my remarks. The entire address can be found here.

Tech Wksp – Paul Brown from The National Academies on Vimeo.

In response to your question, my short answer is: Cities need your help reinventing urban policies, decision-making, and governance for this new epoch we are entering — while you continue making the component parts of cities more durable, less energy-intensive, and smarter. Thinking at the highest level about how to drive rapid adaptation and agility into the ancient DNA of cities.

As engineers, architects, and builders we may be so attached to the idea that resilience is a design problem, we forget that cities are people, places, and processes that depend on the built environment but are not defined by it.

Cities evolve because of the collaboration and conflicts that exist among citizens, elected officials, local authorities, regulators, developers, businesses, and many other institutions – the long list of interests and stakeholders active in every community.

In a 2013 paper published in Science, Luís Bettencourt reported on his research to model relationships that might apply across all urban systems. He acknowledges the difficulties associated with simulating the behavior of urban systems right up front:

“Despite the increasing importance of cities in human societies, our ability to understand them scientifically and manage them in practice has remained limited. The greatest difficulties to any scientific approach to cities have resulted from their interdependent facets, as social, economic, infrastructural, and spatial complex systems that exist in similar but changing forms over a huge range of scales.”

Bettencourt concludes his paper with the following observation: “although the form of cities may resemble the vasculature of river systems or biological organisms, their primary function is as open-ended social reactors.”

When asked in an interview what the heck that meant, Bettencourt replied (referring the city), “it’s really its own new thing, for which we don’t have a strict analogy anywhere else in nature.”

Despite Bettencourt’s caution that there is no good analogy for a city found in nature, I’m going to fall back on one to make a simple point. Let’s imagine the city as a land-based crustacean — like a crab or a terrestrial lobster.

As cities, we nest in locations accessible to water and occasionally subject ourselves to the threat of drowning. We grow a complicated exoskeleton that adheres itself to solid surfaces, extending rigid linear arteries in all directions that transport food, water, and goods into the guts of the city, and then carry waste products away.

As engineers, architects, and builders, we have an important role on this “land lobster.” We oversee the exoskeleton, including pincer and crusher claw design, construction, operations, and maintenance. Of course, the living heart and body of the city is inside the exoskeleton. It has no observable shape other than its eyes, antennae, and shell. And the living city takes the exoskeleton entirely for granted — never really thinks about it.

Now what if our habitat changes radically, and we need to quickly become more flexible, agile, and shape-shifting like say an octopus? How can that possibly happen? Probably it needs to happen from the inside out, gradually over time. Progressive changes in the city’s DNA, rather than cosmetic surgery on its shell.

But that doesn’t mean that those of us assigned to the “shell engineering” have nothing to do but wait for evolution to takes its course. Assuming we know the new objectives of flexibility, agility, and rapid response to unexpected attacks, maybe we do research and development on adaptation itself, on how to re-engineer the periodic molting process to improve mobility for example.

We need to encourage the acceleration of our evolution as cities and embrace the challenge of needing systems that are multi-purpose, durable, flexible, regenerative, and possibly “anti-fragile” (to use a term coined by Nassim Taleb).

We could work on system components that comply with the Department of Defense’s elegant definition of system resilience:

“A resilient system is trusted and effective out of the box, can be used in a wide range of contexts, is easily adapted to many others through reconfiguration and/or replacement, and has a graceful and detectable degradation of function.”

The good news is we are not locked in a shell, and the shape-shifting capacity of our cities is remarkable, when they show the political will to do so.

Financing Green Infrastructure at VX2014

This year, I was lucky enough to be invited again to speak at the VerdeXchange Conference in Los Angeles. The panel I participated on was moderated by our former State Treasurer, Kathleen Brown, and included friends and colleagues Adel Hagekhalil (Assistant Director, City of Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation) and Jack Baylis (Commissioner, CA Fish and Game Commission). Entitled “Financing Water, Energy and Resilient Infrastructure Projects,” I had three points to make:

Large-scale capital investments in traditional gray infrastructure for water supply, stormwater management, and flood protection are increasingly risky and difficult to justify.

Why are traditional approaches to water supply, stormwater management, and flood protection more risky in today’s environment? The short answer is climate change. But to be more specific, for water resources engineers and planners, there’s a deeply embedded, underlying assumption that has collapsed; and should forever change the way we make water-related investment decisions.

In 2008 an article appeared in Science, authored by a distinguished panel of academics and practitioners. It was a very brief (2 page) paper with the provocative title, “Stationarity is Dead: Wither Water Management?” It starts by defining the meaning and significance of stationarity in water management:

“Stationarity — the idea that natural systems fluctuate within an unchanging envelope of variability — is a foundational concept that permeates training and practice in water-resource engineering.”

In fact, in the planning of large-scale hydraulic structures used for water supply, stormwater, flood control, hydropower generation, and all else, stationarity serves as a fundamental assumption in the estimates of precipitation, water supplies and flows, as well as informing estimates of costs and revenues. And yet, the authors argue that:

“In view of the magnitude and ubiquity of the hydroclimatic change apparently now under way . . . we assert that stationarity is dead and should no longer serve as a central, default assumption in water-resource risk assessment and planning.”

Could they be more blunt? So where does that leave us.

Financing for more resilient green infrastructure comprised of small-scale, decentralized water management investments is rapidly emerging in the marketplace, employing ESCO-like models.

This is the good news. It is easier to finance less risky small-scale green water infrastructure compared to the past. The best example is the City of Philadelphia, with its 25-year, $2.4-billion Green City, Clean Waters plan to eliminate the need to build centralized storage and treatment for urban stormwater runoff, in order to to protect water quality from Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) under the Clean Water Act. In short, rather than building the centralized storage, the City has committed to reinvent its urban landscape, reducing demands on the sewer system while increasing livability throughout the City — using their words, to “equip the City to function as a ‘Green Machine.’”

As part of the program, Philadelphia has implemented a stormwater utility charge based on both the imperviousness and size of every parcel of land in the city. Perhaps more importantly, it also established a credit system that reduces those charges for large non-residential and condominium properties that make investments in green infrastructure.

Philadelphia has created a market-based framework that promises to transform the urban landscape on a large scale and accelerated pace. What’s just as interesting is the establishment of new ventures like Green Path Partners (GPP) willing to finance and deliver deals similar to those created by ESCOs in the energy sector. Established by CH2M Hill and EKO Asset Management Partners, GPP and others allow for the aggregation and investment of funds for the deployment of micro-scale green technologies in the water space. It’s already happening.

Finally, this shift from gray to green isn’t prevented by a lack of financing. The obstacle is our collective ambivalence (and occasional inability) to raise and commit substantial ratepayer revenue for green infrastructure improvements.

In my view, the biggest institutional barrier to financing resilient green infrastructure is not a lack of innovation in financial markets or a lack of technologies. In fact, on the financing side, I’ve been told that members of my generation would be delighted to invest a portion of their savings in green infrastructure projects enhanced by the credit strength of private-sector service providers and governmental agencies — offering modest returns.

What is rare, is a decision by a city like Philadelphia to seriously invest the revenues from its stormwater utility into far reaching urban remodeling comprised of small-scale, decentralized, resilient green retrofits — definitively moving beyond traditional gray solutions, where those same revenues could have been spent. And while I witness enthusiasm for the concepts of more resilient green solutions, I don’t see many large-scale water management investment decisions leaning definitively in the direction that Philadelphia is headed.

If we fully recognized the increased risk and uncertainty in our forecasts of future hydrology, many states, counties, and municipalities might make the same choice Philadelphia has made — with the additional benefits of lower costs and improved livability thrown in. A new EPA report on the economics of green infrastructure in Lancaster, Pennsylvania documents those benefits.

The financing is there, what is needed are water management agencies willing to raise and invest rate-payer revenues to shift their capital programs towards properly maintaining the gray assets we have, and rebalancing our future portfolio towards decentralized, green, and resilient urban infrastructure.

Photo credit: Philadelphia Water Department, Green City, Clean Waters

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


Big Data and the Water Industry

IWA Congress Dublin 2012Last May, at the inaugural IWA World Congress on Water, Climate and Energy held at the impressive new Convention Centre in Dublin, I presented a keynote address on big data analytics and its impact on the water industry. Since then, I have received a number of requests for a transcript of the presentation:

Over the last several years, I have been introduced to a realm of science and technology that many of us in the water industry don’t know much about – and really should pay closer attention to. In fact, it is a field of new science that barely has a name. Let’s just call it “big data analytics;” and let’s focus on how it can make our cities “smarter.”

New Science without a Name

It’s interesting that when The Data Warehousing Institute (TDWI) surveyed data management professionals on this topic in May 2011, 7% of respondents hadn’t “seen or heard of anything resembling big data analytics” – they knew nothing about it. Most respondents (65%) didn’t have a name for it but generally understood its meaning. The remaining 28% (roughly a quarter) both understood the concept and had named it – most calling it “big data analytics” but including names as well, like “advanced” analytics, “discovery” analytics, or “exploratory” analytics.


And while twenty years ago, I/T professionals used to struggle with the cost of data storage and management, today the storage of massive amounts of data is virtually free, providing for increasingly sophisticated approaches to mining it, analyzing it, discovering relationships within it, and ultimately utilizing it to predict the behavior of the complex systems (and systems of systems) it represents. This is an emerging technology which will no doubt touch every aspect of our lives (and already has if you shop with a credit card or over the internet). But for our purposes it’s the management of . . . [Click to view the full PDF]

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.