Meeting of the Minds took a few moments to talk with Herrie Schalekamp about new working relationships between researchers and paratransit operators in South Africa and beyond. Herrie is the ACET Research Officer at the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Transport Studies. In addition to his research, teaching and consulting in the fields of paratransit and public transport reform he is involved in specialised educational programmes for paratransit operators and government officials. Herrie’s activities form part of a broader endeavour to investigate and contribute to improved public transport operations and regulation in Sub-Saharan African cities under ACET – the African Centre of Excellence for Studies in Public and Non-motorised Transport.
Urban Sustainability and the Fundamental Importance of Water
Really smart people are putting their heads together more frequently to discuss and find solutions to the enormously complex issue of urban sustainability and what the city of the future will look like. They have diverse backgrounds and often long and impressive resumes that can be daunting. I have spent virtually my whole career with one organization called the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) and am retiring after several decades leading it – so the primary lens through which I see urban sustainability is water management. I have thought that perhaps my background biases me to the fundamental importance of water among the various infrastructure sectors but I have come to believe it not a bias but a reality.
People are made mostly of water, without it we simply cannot live. Without efficient water management and sanitation there is illness and disease – we see this more in under-developed countries but we must never let down our guard here at home either. And with climate change there is either too much water or too little water – both of which are causing catastrophes of a different nature and sometimes of different severity in urban and rural areas from coast to coast. With population growth, there are more mouths to feed and with more mouths to feed there is more pollution from agriculture, industry and households challenging our ability to control water pollution. Yet, a reliable, clean water supply is also critical to all manufacturing/industrial processes and to virtually every business and service imaginable – without sound water management there is no cloud computing, no restaurants, no electricity, oil or gas, etc. You get the point!
In short urban growth and sustainability depends more on water than arguably any other resource or commodity. And yet, all too often, water investment and long-term planning at the local, state and federal level can be an afterthought. NACWA has led an effort called the Water Resources Utility of the Future (UOTF) initiative. Its objective is to spotlight the unparalleled and innovative work clean water utilities are doing at the local level to not only contain growing pollution challenges, but to also create local jobs, spur economic growth, improve the environment and drive sustainable innovation. Utilities are creating energy from the wastewater treatment process to help drive us toward energy independence. They are pulling phosphorus from the waste stream, creating an endlessly reusable fertilizer as phosphorus nears dangerous shortages internationally. They are planting trees, building wetlands, green roofs, bioswales and other natural processes to keep water in place, rebuild groundwater supplies, create green space that adds to the quality of life while also improving the environment and water quality. They are using advanced technology to reuse and recycle wastewater as a key method to battle the drought and ensure sufficient water supply for agricultural use, manufacturing, and energy production.
I hope you will listen to the public clean water agencies’ stories or even visit your local utility. You will find them to be eye-opening in terms of the technologies they employ and the near-heroic efforts the public stewards who run them are making on behalf of urban renewal and sustainability. We must tout their efforts and underscore the imperative need to value water more highly as we piece together the complex puzzle of urban sustainability. We have come to rely on these water systems without taking full responsibility for the huge investment it will take to upgrade, maintain and expand them. When developing a plan for urban sustainability a starting place should be the following question: What could be accomplished without daily, reliable clean and safe water? The answer, of course, is nothing.
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Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology
Brownfields are sites that are vacant or underutilized due to environmental contamination, real or imagined. There are brownfields of some kind in virtually every city and town in the U.S., usually related to a gas station, dry cleaner, auto repair shop, car dealership or some other ubiquitous local business that once benefited the community it now burdens with environmental hazards or old buildings.
In addressing this issue, technology has not been effectively deployed to promote redevelopment of these sites and catalyze community revitalization. We find that the question around the use of technology and data in advancing the redevelopment of brownfields is twofold:
How can current and future technology advancements be applied to upgrade existing brownfield modeling tools? And then, how can those modeling tools be used to accelerate transformative, sustainable, and smart redevelopment and community revitalization?
Across the country, urban parks are enjoying a renaissance. Dozens of new parks are being built or restored and cities are being creative about how and where they are located. Space under highways, on old rail infrastructure, reclaimed industrial waterfronts or even landfills are all in play as development pressure on urban land grows along with outdoor recreation needs.
These innovative parks are helping cities face common challenges, from demographic shifts, to global competitiveness to changing climate conditions. Mayors and other city officials are taking a fresh look at parks to improve overall community health and sense of place, strengthen local economies by attracting new investments and creating jobs, help manage storm water run-off, improve air quality, and much more. When we think of city parks holistically, accounting for their full role in communities, they become some of the smartest investments we can make.