What better place to be thinking of critical water shortages than in the parched Sonoran Desert? In November, the sprawling Phoenix Convention Center hosted a record crowd of more than 27,000 for Greenbuild 2009. Home-town boosters made proud sounds about their efforts to save water (xeriscaping, installing low-flow showers, capturing runoff), but the region’s sprawling land-use patterns conspire against the kind of systematic solution where every scale and detail is seriously reconsidered.
Several speakers at the conference addressed the issue passionately. Peter H. Gleick, cofounder of the Pacific Institute, told his large audience that we desperately need to rethink everything about how we use water. (Ask yourself this: What can you do without it? Not just your immediate drinking, eating, and cleansing needs but the water that grows veggies, fruits, and grain; supplies cows and other livestock; and produces the many things you and I hoard.) He reminded us that Florida is battling Georgia, the Colorado River no longer reaches its delta, and all over the world, farmers are fighting with cities. In addition to the Western United States, there are serious water shortages in the historically arid lands of North Africa and the Persian Gulf. And what used to be called the “five-hundred-year floods” now could come every seven years, if the Mississippi River is any indication. Fortunately, some brilliant solutions are being proposed.
That was the message of a panel I moderated, “Comparing Global Patterns of Low-Carbon Development,” with principals of AECOM and the founder of a public-private growth partnership, who are planning whole new cities in China, Australia, and Arizona. Tightly configured, multiuse, service-rich settlements with nearby work, entertainment, shopping, and transit opportunities were on the agenda that morning. But the most significant lesson came from Australia, where Tony Wong, of AECOM Sydney and Melbourne, works. The seven-year drought there has been well chronicled. Farms once rich in rice, citrus, and sheep are disappearing, along with the traditional livelihoods they support. In cities, rationing is forcing people to collect water in buckets from showers and washing machines to keep their greenery alive.
At a time of global and local shortages, Wong proposes developing an entirely new understanding of how cities work, with planners, architects, designers, their enlightened clients, and governments leading the way. The urban settlement he’s designing comes with a public-education program. It argues that cities should be thought of “as water-catchment places where storm-water runoff is a significant resource” and where dead water is treasured and methods of managing it are devised. (Recycling technologies, he reminded us, have come a long way in the past ten years.) In Wong’s vision, sewers become a heat source; underground streams (which, in many cities, have been sealed with asphalt) are freed up, their shallows and banks planted with local flora to capture and cleanse runoff; and cisterns store seasonal rainfall, to be tapped during the dry months.
Clearly, these new cities present design opportunities at every turn. Urban creeks, for instance, can be created to have safe water to play in, in some designated spots, thus poetically connecting children and adults to their primary resource while teaching them about nature’s processes. For me, the design detail that most graphically expresses this massive rethinking of human settlement is the humble dual-tap system (one for drinking water, one for nonpotable recycled water). This familiar product now requires designers to think not just about function and safety but about how the device communicates a big idea: the two-tap system reminds users of their complex relationship with water, at the personal level, where societal change is most likely to occur.