Water and the Living City

Water and civilization are fundamentally intertwined. The world’s cities, great and small, have developed alongside the waterways that meet our drinking needs, irrigate our crops, transport our goods, and power our industries. Sadly, dependence has not bred respect. Our cities have been unkind to the rivers, streams, lakes and bays they border, and as we settle into the 21st century, we face a water crisis of epic proportions.

 Water is our most intimate resource (on a very fundamental level, we are water) and we are only too aware of the consequences of consuming water that has been contaminated by viruses or bacteria. We don’t need to look to the distant past for reminders: more than one billion people worldwide  currently lack access to clean drinking water, and water-borne illnesses kill over two million people each year.

 Unfortunately, developed countries have transformed fears about these very real sanitation concerns into complex and counterproductive phobias. As a result, we have constructed incredibly elaborate, energy-intensive systems that not only allow us ready access to potable water from our taps but also insist that we use this most precious resource to flush our toilets. These systems, born of our desire for purity, have substantially degraded our fresh water supplies.

The EPA estimates that at least 40,000 times each year, combined sewage-overflows lead to the direct release of untreated sewage into the United States’ waterways. Even when the systems work as intended, water released from sewage treatment plants is extremely high in nitrogen, leading to low dissolved oxygen downstream and stressing marine life. Increasing amounts of antibiotics, steroids, antidepressants and other medications are also flowing out of our treatment facilities, leading to disturbing trends such as “feminized” male fish.  Rainwater running down our streets and sidewalks collects mind-boggling levels of lead, cadmium, mercury, arsenic and other toxins and delivers them directly to our rivers and streams.

sewageSewage outflow dumping into a large water body. 

Our water infrastructure, flawed at the best of times, is now on the brink of collapse. The United States alone is faced with spending $330 billion dollars over the next two decades, simply to keep our existing tap water systems functioning.

 Now is the perfect moment to ask ourselves if there isn’t a better way to manage our water systems. 

 Is it possible to completely redefine our relationship with water? To satisfy our thirst without compromising our aquifers or harming our marine life? To eradicate water-borne diseases using ecologically sound processes? To craft solutions capable of addressing water crises in developed and developing countries alike?

 In many ways, the answer rests on our ability to reframe our relationship to water and to address deep cultural beliefs about purity and danger.

 The Living City Design Competition calls on the world’s most ambitious designers to create an inspiring but realistic vision for the future of civilization. Competition teams will conceptually retrofit existing cities, demonstrating how real communities might transform their relationship with the resources that sustain them.  These re-imagined cities must achieve each Imperative of the Living Building Challenge, the built environment’s most rigorous performance standard.

 To be certified under the Living Building Challenge, a project must capture and treat all of its own water onsite using ecologically sound processes. It must also ensure that 100% of storm water and building discharge feeds the project’s internal water demands or is released onto adjacent sites for management through gradual surface flow, groundwater recharge, agricultural use or adjacent building needs.

WetlandsWetlands serve many functions – they clean our water; provide habitat for animals and feed our senses

 To achieve these water requirements, Living City Competition teams will not need to search for prototype technologies. We have what we need to ensure adequate supplies of clean water and to begin the long process of healing our damaged waterways. Composting toilets, constructed wetlands, Living Machines, membrane bioreactors, and other products are all readily available. Techniques for low impact development have also taken great leaps in recent years, as landscape architects, civil engineers, and others have begun to re-invent urban hydrology.

 Yet large scale uptake of decentralized water treatment strategies will never happen while our phobias control our sense of what is possible.  Competition teams will need to dig deep into cultural anxieties around water. They will need to hone their skills as designers and tap into the human love of beauty and our deep-seated need to connect with the natural world. They will need to ask themselves uncomfortable questions about their own fears and answer them honestly.

 And then they will need to create a vision for an urban water system that gives much more than it takes.

Last month, Jason F. McLennan and Sarah Costello wrote about getting to net zero.

Categories: Cities