Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Snopacolypse and its Urban Planning Implications.

The snopacolypse that has hit the majority of North America has brought my mind to the subject of water management. As the literally thousands upon thousands of miles have been immersed with heaps of snows, it's funny how rarely people think, "Where does it all go?" That's where the topic of urban planning and water management comes into affect.

Water management is the systematic approach to collecting, managing and disposing of stormwater in an efficient, timely manner that is sustainable into the future. (Or, at least that's my definition of it). We have our civil engineers to deeply offer our gratitude to for designing streets and sewer systems that effectively collect and dispose of the water in such an effortless way that it doesn't even cross our minds. We gripe about all of this snow, but imagine what it was like 100 years ago! The mud and sludge remained for months at a time. It took the planners, engineers and architects to coordinate a comprehensive plan in order to effectively tackle the elements. My hats off to them.

All of that say, a fantastic piece from urban re:vision magazine shows the variety of water uses and stormwater management practices. It features highlights of Chicago, San Francisco, Portland and Orange County to specifically how they are planning to keep up with the increase in water demand.

In Portland, Oregon, rows of sedge plantings and aspen trees sit on what used to be an asphalt parking lot. In Las Vegas, homeowners trade their lawns for vast wads of cash. Birds flying over Chicago see fields of sedum on rooftops, and wastewater in Orange County is transformed into water that’s as clean as what comes out of the tap. The common thread to all of these examples? A desire to better manage water.

A new report released last fall by consulting firm McKinsey & Company declares that by 2030, the world’s water demands will have increased by 40%. Add to that the fact of rising seas, droughts, and shrinking water sheds, and cities across the country are starting to respond with some particularly innovative solutions tailor-made to their varied water needs.

Other cities are taking their green above street level. Chicago is perhaps the recognized leader in this area, with a green roof grant initiative program since 2005 of up to $5,000, a city hall topped with crabapple trees and honeysuckle vines included among its 20,000 plants, and more than 600 green roofs totaling 7 million square feet throughout the city. Seattle, Portland, Toronto, and New York are all ramping up their own green roof programs, offering tax incentives, code requirements, and building allowances through their various cities. At the same time, tree planting has become another popular move towards soaking up rainwater naturally—as well as beautifying streets. New York City recently launched MillionTreesNYC , an initiative that plans to put a million trees throughout the city’s five boroughs over the next decade, and Portland gives “treebates” and free trees through their city program , hoping to line streets with the waving branches of native alder, fir, maple, and madrone.

As Benjamin Franklin once wrote, “When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.” It would be disastrous if we let ourselves get to that point. Perhaps if we follow these cities’ leads and look to the future, we will understand the value of water before it’s both literally and proverbially too late.
The full article is much grander in scope, and it really reminds us how we often take simple things like clean air and access to clean water for granted. It's incredibly myopic, and incredibly typical, of us in the west to complain about the most ridiculous things such as cold coffee or a line for the ATM. We frequently forget that 2 billion people on this planet do not have access to clean drinking water, nor do they ever even have the hope for an education or for a better future. We should all remember that next time we open our mouths and begin to complain.