Thirsty? The Nature of Urban Water

New York consume a staggering 5 billion liters of water a day. That's just a little over a thousand liters for each of the city's 8.5 million inhabitants. And for all that, they pay 7c a litre. That's half the price in Atlanta and below the U.S. national average for water bills. How one of the world's most expensive cities has preserved some of the cheapest (and cleanest) water is a perfect example of what happens when you care for, and properly manage, the nature of our cities.

The first season of BBC's Nature Inc. profiles (streaming below or MP4 download) the way the city has protected its water at the source, and saved billions of dollars.

Nature Saves: NYC
90% of New York's water comes from the Catskill mountains, which are almost 200 km from the city. There rainfall is filtered through forest, mosses, topsoil, and porous rock, purifying the water naturally. The water is of such good quality that the city has gotten a waiver from US EPA filtration requirements.

The city spends $US 100 million a year working with communities, industries and farms in the region to keep the watershed clean. The alternative, building a treatment facility to deal with water quality problems after the fact, would cost between $10 and 12 billion dollars to build and $100 million a year to run. That's $10billion that the city can spend on providing other services.

Treatment Costs: Vancouver, BC
The program moves on to Quito, Equador, to look at a city where a similar system is crumbling under the pressure of poorly managed development. But it's not only cities in the developing world that are having trouble. Take Vancouver, for example. There, a similarly protected watershed supplies 70% of the regions drinking water. Unlike the Catskills, Metro Vancouver's closed watershed policy means that there are no communities or industries in the watershed. What there has been though, is logging.

Since the 1950s, the valuable old growth timber in the area has attracted logging companies that have received rights to log trees within the catchment. Access roads and clearcuts have drastically increased landslides, which in turn have decreased the quality of the water.

No one would argue that people should be allowed to bulldoze parts of a municipal water treatment plant. But we consistently undervalue the services that we get from nature. The result is that Vancouver is now in the process of building a costly and problematic $CDN820 million dollar treatment facility. There is a slightly dated (see the great 1990s hair styles!) but interesting three part documentary that covers the economic and political conflicts that have shaped the watershed (see below).

Cities, whether we realize it or not, are always dependant on a web of intersecting ecological systems and the services that they provide. Recognizing and making the most of those connections is going to be a key principle for sucessful urban centers as we move forward. New York's watershed is an example of how well that can work. Vancouver's experiences show how difficult it can be.

The really interesting question is: what are our cities going to look like as we get better at valuing, preserving and enhancing the natural systems that make them tick?


Reburbia Contest @ Inhabitat

I just got an e-mail from the team at Inhabitat on their new "Reburbia" contest. The aim, in brief, is to get some creative ideas flowing on what we can do with suburban areas that have been hit hard by the economic, financial and environmental crises. Sounds like a great idea. Right about now we need as many positive new ideas as we can get. I've reposted the full call, exclamation marks and all, after the jump!

With the current housing crisis, the sub-prime mortgage meltdown, increasing carbon emissions and rising energy costs, the future of suburbia looks bleak. It is obvious that a change in the American landscape is necessary, which is why Inhabitat has teamed up with Dwell Magazine to launch the REBURBIA design contest.

We know our readers are a smart and innovative bunch, and this is why we are turning to YOU to come up with YOUR vision for a brighter, more sustainable future for the American suburban landscape. Show us how you would re-invent the suburbs. What would a McMansion become if it weren’t a single-family dwelling? How could a vacant big box store be retrofitted for agriculture?

Winners receive fame (being showcased in Dwell Magazine, &, and fortune ($1000 cash prize!)

Want to learn more? Visit to enter!


Inkanyiso Sustainable Systems Team: Providing Access to Renewable Energy

[All this week World Changing has been running a series of Attention Philanthropy pieces aimed at attracting attention to worthy projects, individuals, and resources. You can check out the full series here. I've reposted my nomination below.]

South Africa is in the midst of a crippling electricity crisis. It is also a major GHG emitter, thanks to its total dependence on coal-fired power plants. Lack of access to affordable and reliable energy is a key component of the conditions that keep millions of South Africans in poverty. Richard Pocock and the team he is part of at Inkanyiso Sustainable Systems provide crucial support to municipalities, companies and communities to help them deal with these challenges.

Their projects range from solar hot water heaters, bio-digester and solar cookers, to local renewable energy, grey water and community agricultural systems. Their approach is geared toward creating appropriate combinations of these technologies to provide integrated solutions to a community's energy and water needs. At the same time, they build local technical and installation capacity by working with contractors and community members previously marginalized by Apartheid.

South Africa is a country with the potential to be a model for the ways in which environmental sustainability can also help improve economic success and quality of life. Inkanyiso Sustainable Systems is a fantastic example of a local organization helping to provide the expertise, information and dedication that it will take to make that happen.

Inkanyiso Sustainable Systems
1st Floor, Morningside Chambers
510 Windermere Road, Morningside
Durban, 4001, kwaZulu Natal, South Africa
Tel : 031 312 3044 Fax : 031 312 3077

Street Farming : Urban Ag. Milwaukee, USA

Elizabeth Royte wrote an an excellent profile of Will Allen, genius urban gardner and food activits in the New York Times a few days ago. It's a great read, rich with Allen's charisma. By the time you're done reading, you'll be looking for a spot to plant some tomatoes too.

Cultivating two acres of land in working class Milwaukee, Allen's Growing Power farm grows food for 10,000 people and creates 300,000 pounds of fertile compost each year. At the same time it helps deal with the challenges low- and middle-income communities have in accessing quality food.

Royte does a good job of discussing some of the broader economic issues around urban agriculture, and nicely distances it from the "yuppy gardening" image that it may have gained in some circles. Some excerpts below, but well worth reading in full.

--"With seeds planted at quadruple density and nearly every inch of space maximized to generate exceptional bounty, Growing Power is an agricultural Mumbai, a supercity of upward-thrusting tendrils and duct-taped infrastructure. Allen pointed to five tiers of planters brimming with salad greens. “We’re growing in 25,000 pots,” he said. Ducking his 6-foot-7 frame under one of them, he pussyfooted down a leaf-crammed aisle. “We grow a thousand trays of sprouts a week; every square foot brings in $30.” He headed toward the in-ground fish tanks stocked with tens of thousands of tilapia and perch. Pumps send the dirty fish water up into beds of watercress, which filter pollutants and trickle the cleaner water back down to the fish — a symbiotic system called aquaponics. The watercress sells for $16 a pound; the fish fetch $6 apiece."

--"If inside the greenhouse was Eden, outdoors was, as Allen explained on a drive through the neighborhood, “a food desert.” Scanning the liquor stores in the strip malls, he noted: “From the housing project, it’s more than three miles to the Pick’n Save. That’s a long way to go for groceries if you don’t have a car or can’t carry stuff. And the quality of the produce can be poor.” Fast-food joints and convenience stores selling highly processed, high-calorie foods, on the other hand, were locally abundant. “It’s a form of redlining,” Allen said. “We’ve got to change the system so everyone has safe, equitable access to healthy food.”

--''Allen was a genius at selling. [...] He could push his greens into corporate cafeterias, persuade the governor to help finance the construction of an anaerobic digester, wheedle new composting sites from urban landlords, persuade Milwaukee’s school board to buy his produce for its public schools and charm the blind into growing sprouts. (“I was cutting sprouts in the dark one night,” Allen said, “and I realized you don’t need sight to do this.”)

Last year, he took in six million pounds of spoiled food, which would otherwise rot in landfills and generate methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Every four months, he creates another 100,000 pounds of compost, of which he uses a quarter and sells the rest.

Uncannily, Allen makes such efforts sound simple — fun even. When he mentions that animal waste attracts soldier flies, whose larvae make terrific fish and chicken feed, a dozen people start imagining that growing grubs in buckets of manure might be a good project for them too. “Will has a way of persuading people to do things,” Robert Pierce, a farmer in Madison, Wis., told me. “There’s a spirit in how he says things; you want to be part of his community.

--No, Growing Power isn’t self-sufficient. But neither is industrial agriculture, which relies on price supports and government subsidies. Moreover, industrial farming incurs costs that are paid by society as a whole: the health costs of eating highly processed foods, for example, or water pollution. Nor can Growing Power be compared to other small farms, because it provides so many intangible social benefits to those it reaches. “It’s not operated as a farm,” said Ian Marvy, executive director of Brooklyn’s Added Value farm, which shares many of Growing Power’s core values but produces less food. “It has a social, ecological and economic bottom line.” That said, Marvy says that anyone can replicate Allen’s technical systems — the worm composting and aquaponics — for relatively little money.

Allen is also the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Genius grant. Here is the video interview that the foundation has postedalong with his profile.


Loosing Control: Sassen on Urban Sustainability

Public participation and ecosystem services have both been gaining recognition over the past two decades as key ingredients for a healthy livable city. One is about wetlands, water catchments and biodiversity, the other is about civic processes and political systems. Though one may seem pretty distant from the other, Saskia Sassen's talk (see my earlier post) at URS 2009 last week provides a brief sketch of their interrelations, and the implications this could have for our urban future. There is more here than can fit into one blog post. But for those who are interested, here is a ten cent summary, with some of my thoughts woven in along the way.

Sassen made two key points:

· the need to understand and manage cities as complex natural systems and

· the possibility that the social and political interactions particular to cities (civic culture) may be able to resolve some of the many conflicts that arise when you start trying to address climate change in any serious way.

The "Nature" of the City
Sassen opened her talk by pointing out that planners and environmental scientists have little common ground across which to communicate. Urbanists and ecologists don't often mix. As a result, cities are a perfect example of our tendency to replace natural systems with commodified human-made proxies. Systems that some try to generate profits from – and others (I'd add) get saddled with having to maintain. Seeing cities along these lines – as huge machines-for-living-in – hides from sight all the different natural processes that they depend on.

Part of the advantage of linking urban and environmental specialist would be the chance to develop a clearer understanding how cities really work. (From a climate change point of view, shifts and failures in these natural systems are going to cause real problems for many cities – doubly so if we aren't aware enough to prepare for them.)

Delegating to Nature
But beyond that, there is something more exciting and challenging: better understanding the "nature" of the city would give us an opportunity to start identifying processes and infrastructure that could be better served if they were transfered from human-made to natural systems. Sassen refers to this as "delegating back to nature" processes that can best be handled by complex ecological systems as opposed to built infrastructure.

For Sassen, this intentional re-integration of natural systems into the functioning of our cities is linked to acknowledging that total control, by central planners for example, is impossible. Letting go of the pursuit of control lets us see that natural systems can do many things far better than man-made approximations. Examples like natural rainwater remediation and flood control, though not in her presentation, get you from the philosophical to the applied.

The Civic
Although it is not clear from her presentation, I think it is the idea of letting go of the illusion of total control that brings us to her discussion of civic culture. She asserted that historically cities have played a mediating role, acting as a space where competing groups and priorities can come to productive compromises. Healthy municipal politics and civic movements can resolve conflicts that, when dealt with at the national level, often result in conflict and violence (I would love some examples of this if anyone has them). While this may have been waining recently, she argued that climate change – like the civil rights movement in the U.S. – might invigorate the civics of the city. That's an exciting picture.

Town hall meetings, community consultations, city visioning exercises, and other forms of municipally led public participation are all intentional attempts to harness some of the beneficial aspects of the civic. Although Sassen does not discuss them, they are relevant here precisely because they are an attempt to do the civic, while still holding on to control. Instead of facilitating real citizen participation they diffuse it.

Though not always, municipally run processes often absorb the energy of the most active citizens into bureaucratic processes that amount to little more than a report. How a municipality could encourage civic participation around sustainability, while distributing real power and control is an interesting question. If we are going to "delegate back to nature" what does it mean to "delegate back to citizens"?

Comments on my earlier post, and conversations around the symposium gave Sassen a mixed reception. In some ways, she herself didn't go far enough to building bridges with other disciplines. But Sassen's ideas resonated strongly with other presentations during the four days of the symposium. Presentations covered everything from massive restoration of coastal wetlands for flood protection around New Orleans, to linked bioswail storm water and urban agriculture systems, and Dutch style flood water management systems. Built into all of them was some aspect of "delegating" back to nature.



This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.