file under: Government, Integrated Resources Management, Sustainability, Water

Sustainable Water Infrastructure in Tomorrow's Cities


Those on the front line of urban infrastructure management—municipal government and utility leaders—face a critical challenge of ensuring that cities and their water resources are ecologically sustainable and able to provide clean water for all beneficial uses. To do so, we must tap new ways of thinking about and responding to this challenge. Five areas in particular merit discussion:

If there was ever a time to step forward and contribute to our understanding of what "sustainability" in urban infrastructure means, it is now. 

Increasing the Social and Economic Benefits of Environmental Infrastructure

Reliability and compliance are the minimum expectation. We need to do more. Every project needs to be viewed as a multi-purpose, multi-benefit opportunity. We push the triple bottom line when addressing industry—challenging corporations to focus on the environmental, social, and economic returns they produce. We must expect the same for from public projects. For example, must ensure that the billions of dollars that will be spent on controlling combined sewer overflows will do more than simply hollow-out caverns underground. Triple bottom line performance should be expected from every institution in our society.

Improving Collaboration among Agencies and Jurisdictions

Every day, we are addressing the convergence of urban utility functions. The most obvious example is the overlap and, in some cases, consolidation of water, wastewater, and stormwater utilities. But convergence goes beyond that. The desire for sustainability in every aspect of urban development heightens the environmental and energy aspects of all urban infrastructure—particularly in buildings and transportation systems. We need better inter-jurisdictional collaboration that facilitates integrated planning efforts, improved system modeling capabilities, and a sustained commitment to joint project planning, implementation, monitoring, and accountability.

In a similar vein, we are seeing the erosion of governmental borders and legal property lines in favor of the softer natural transitions that define the boundaries of topography and ecosystems. Looking for watershed-based approaches in densely urbanized, multi-jurisdictional settings introduces conflicts and incongruities in the way individual stakeholders literally "see the world." We need to recognize and address the inherent conflicts that exist between "bright-line" legal borders and the borderless continuum of natural systems.

Making the Transition from Fast-Conveyance to Closed-Loop Systems

Almost everywhere, we are attempting to transition from "fast-conveyance" systems to more closed-loop, self-sufficient systems. The increased demands for water reclamation and reuse create concerns about water quality and public health protection, while at the same time offering increased sustainability and greater independence from over-committed sources of supply.

Introducing Public Stakeholders into Technical Decision-Making

We are seeing a more diverse group of community stakeholders participating in the public decision-making process and becoming increasingly well informed about complex technical issues and choices. The public setting is populated by increasing numbers of activists and interest groups demanding to see how their concerns are likely to be affected by future infrastructure investments. We need structured, documented, and transparent decision-making combined with improved communication, simulation, and visualization tools for productive public stakeholder dialogue.

Preparing for Extreme Events

In spite of the politics, we are seeing the wide acceptance that something is changing with the weather. In most cases the discussion has evolved from "is it real?" to "what are we going to do about it?" That reality has led to a much greater emphasis on planning for and adapting to extreme events. What are the implications on our engineered systems? We need to rise to the occasion—not necessarily with bigger and bolder structural solutions (although these are no doubt part of the answer), but with fundamental re-thinking of the relationships between human settlements and natural ecosystems—a challenge beyond any we have undertaken to date.

If there was ever a time to step forward and contribute to our understanding of what "sustainability" in urban infrastructure means, it is now. The engineers, developers, architects, and planner—who have largely driven the form of our urban landscape—must lead the creation of something brand new. Together, we should challenge ourselves to be bold in vision and tireless in our search for innovation.

Paul Brown, Executive Vice President for Global Market Development, has more than 30 years of experience in planning and implementing integrated resource plans and sustainable solutions for growth and economic development.

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