Urban Sustainability and the Fundamental Importance of Water
Who will you meet?
Cities are innovating, companies are pivoting, and start-ups are growing. Like you, every urban practitioner has a remarkable story of insight and challenge from the past year.
Meet these peers and discuss the future of cities in the new Meeting of the Minds Executive Cohort Program. Replace boring virtual summits with facilitated, online, small-group discussions where you can make real connections with extraordinary, like-minded people.
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.
Leave your comment below, or reply to others.
Please note that this comment section is for thoughtful, on-topic discussions. Admin approval is required for all comments. Your comment may be edited if it contains grammatical errors. Low effort, self-promotional, or impolite comments will be deleted.
Read more from MeetingoftheMinds.org
Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology
Housing that is affordable to low-income residents is often substandard and suffering from deferred maintenance, exposing residents to poor air quality and high energy bills. This situation can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory health issues, and siphon scarce dollars from higher value items like more nutritious food, health care, or education. Providing safe, decent, affordable, and healthy housing is one way to address historic inequities in community investment. Engaging with affordable housing and other types of community benefit projects is an important first step toward fully integrating equity into the green building process. In creating a framework for going deeper on equity, our new book, the Blueprint for Affordable Housing (Island Press 2020), starts with the Convention on Human Rights and the fundamental right to housing.
Since the Great Recession of 2008, the housing wealth gap has expanded to include not just Black and Brown Americans, but younger White Americans as well. Millennials and Generation Z Whites are now joining their Black and Brown peers in facing untenable housing precarity and blocked access to wealth. With wages stuck at 1980 levels and housing prices at least double (in inflation adjusted terms) what they were 40 years ago, many younger Americans, most with college degrees, are giving up on buying a home and even struggle to rent apartments suitable for raising a family.
What makes it hard for policy people and citizens to accept this truth is that we have not seen this problem in a very long time. Back in the 1920s of course, but not really since then. But this is actually an old problem that has come back to haunt us; a problem first articulated by Adam Smith in the 1700s.
More than ever, urban transit services are in need of sustainable and affordable solutions to better serve all members of our diverse communities, not least among them, those that are traditionally car-dependent. New mobility technologies can be a potential resource for local transit agencies to augment multi-modal connectivity across existing transit infrastructures.
We envision a new decentralized and distributed model that provides multi-modal access through nimble and flexible multi-modal Transit Districts, rather than through traditional, centralized, and often too expensive Multi-modal Transit Hubs. Working in collaboration with existing agencies, new micro-mobility technologies could provide greater and seamless access to existing transit infrastructure, while maximizing the potential of the public realm, creating an experience that many could enjoy beyond just catching the next bus or finding a scooter. So how would we go about it?