Flying Car Not Included: Getting Real About Urban Sustainability

I've got a short opinion piece running in the new March/April edition of Water Canada magazine.

Water infrastructure is a favourite of mine. It tends not to be as glamorous as energy or transportation, but those pipes buried under our streets can be the building blocks for some truly amazing projects. All the more so because that potential is so hidden from view.  The piece also gave me a chance to rant a little bit about far-fetched eye-candy projects that get announced with a lot of fanfare, but little follow through.

You can read the PDF of the published piece here (.pdf).  I've posted a slightly longer version after the jump.

Flying Car Not Included:  Getting Real About Urban Sustainability in Water Canada, March/April.

You've seen them, those elegantly rendered computer images of the hyper sustainable cities of tomorrow.  They've always bothered me. Wrapped up in them is the idea that deep urban sustainability – the kind that makes profound changes in infrastructure design an operations – exist only in some  Jetsons-land of the future. Sustainability becomes liked flying cars: always tomorrow, never today. As if to prove that point, developers for two of the most high-profile proposals for hyper-green cities, Dongtan City in China and Abu Dhabi's Masdar City, have backed away from many of their projects most ambitious goals. 

But over the time I've spent working on urban sustainability, I've seen something very different: cities that are building deep green infrastructure right into the fabric of their streets. And often, water systems are a nexus for important innovations that bring to light many of the  opportunities that lie hidden just under our feet.

Hot Sh@!t
If you are reading this in Canada, you don't have to go far to find an example of what I'm talking about. The strangest announcement in the lead up to Vancouver's 2010 Olympics was that the Athletes' Village was going to be heated with sewage. Or with heat recovered from sewage, to be precise. It turns out though, the city was on the money. After almost a year of operation the heat pump system, which is co-located with a sewage pumping station, is running so well that it is now charging clients less than they would pay if they were heating with electricity bought from BC Hydro, while generating 64% fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Operating costs are down by 40% and the system still has capacity for an addition 4.4 million sq.ft. of future development. 

Sewage isn't any hotter in Vancouver than in Montreal, or Minneapolis. The difference is that they are one of the few cities to look at that heat as a resource. All in all, there are only 4 of these systems operating worldwide (two more in Oslo, and one in Tokyo). But if municipalities can make a profit while still charging consumers less than they pay for electricity, I'd guess that number is going to grow.

Big Pipes + Little Gardens
Travel down the coast, and you can see another innovative project in action. Portland (OR) is in the final stages of a $1.4 billion dollar expansion of it's storm water system (affectionately known as the East Side “Big Pipe”).  And while it is big (22 feet in diameter and close to 10km long) it's smaller than it might have been. Rather than meet all future demand with pipes and pumps, the city has rolled out a “green streets” program that has built small wetland-like vegetated swails into the city's streets.

900 have sprouted up around the city, with another 500 slated to be installed over the next 4 years. In total 35% of storm water in the combined sewer area will be dealt with through “green” non-standard approaches, increasing to a projected 43% in 2040.  This eco-structure system is also significantly cheaper than further expanding the combined sewer overflow system. 

Many cities have experimented with these kinds of engineered natural systems.  They look nice, increase water quality, provide species habitat, and reduce the urban heat island effect. What's not to like? What sets Portland apart is it's decision to build them up from an interesting experiment to an integral, and cost-effective, part of its storm water system.

The Water Electric
Another innovative water infrastructure project was playing out on the sidelines of last year's World Cup in South Africa. While most people where riveted on the soccer, I went there for the sewage. The coastal city of Durban, whose elegant stadium made headlines, is also in the process of building hydro and micro-hydro generation turbines directly into its freshwater pipes.  These will harness excess pressure that is generated in the system as water descends into the city from an inland reservoir.  They will yield enough power for between 10 000 and 30 000 low-cost houses (7 – 22 megawatts) depending on the roll out. Targeting another usually overlooked opportunity, the Water Department is also looking into ways to generate bio-diesel from algae grown on its settling ponds.

Think Smart, Build Different
We are standing at an interesting juncture.  Around the world, in cities old and new, a period of massive infrastructure investment is beginning. At the same time, a changing climate will place new and unpredictable demands on our cities, and the systems that keep them running. We have an opportunity to build systems that will not just “get the old job done”, but truly serve our changing needs during the rest of this century.

Often the biggest challenge isn't technology, or money, but mindsets. It isn't always easy to reassess how we do business, or to see the opportunities and synergies that are hiding, sometimes in plain sight. But thinking that innovative green design and infrastructure is something for the future, is one of the most dangerous mistakes we can make. Tangible projects around the world give us a taste of what can be done when we move from fantasy into reality and get real about urban sustainability.


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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.