Nature-based disruption

March 22, 2018

 World Water Day

World Water Day is celebrated today, and this year’s theme is Nature for Water and explores nature-based solutions to the urban water challenges we face in the 21st century.

Nature-based solutions take advantage of the natural functions and services provided by trees, plants, wetlands and microbes. The application of nature-based solutions is called green infrastructure which can provide similar benefits to conventional, human-built “grey infrastructure”.

Grey infrastructure includes the pipes, pumps, ditches, and detention ponds that have been engineered to manage stormwater in our cities.

Examples of green infrastructure include creating a rain garden to control water pollution, rather than a stormwater retention pond, or capturing rainwater with a green roof, rather increasing the size of a stormwater sewer.

Waterloo and Wilfred Laurier graduate students organize an annual conference to celebrate World Water Day. I am speaking on a panel that has been asked an interesting question: 

Green infrastructure: if we know it works, then why aren't our cities being built green?

Green infrastructure is part of a much larger conversation about urban water cycles and how we make them more sustainable. This requires an integrated view of our municipal water systems when they have been built in three silos: water, wastewater and stormwater. The sharp lines between these three silos have been entrenched in our municipal bureaucracies, although the lines have started to soften, in recent years.

The principles and approaches that promote a sustainable urban water cycle are well-established, for instance, reducing water consumption, fixing leaks, improving the treatment of wastewater, capturing and storing rainwater, and increasing groundwater infiltration. Very rarely is this an issue of lacking technology. 

So, why is it so hard to implement green infrastructure?

Simply put, sustainability is monumentally disruptive to the status quo and a system that is inherently unsustainable. My own experience promoting water conservation and efficiency as a newly-elected city councillor many years ago taught me how tenacious and sometimes vicious the status quo can be. It really doesn't care if it works. 

In my community, when we needed more water, we dug a new well. That was our practice, and it served us well for many years. With public funds, our city engineers built an efficient and reliable system to deliver clean water to every home and business. Managing demand, through conservation and efficiency, asked our city engineers to think beyond their pipes and pumps and include toilets and washing machines in the management practices. Engaging people was far messier and unpredictable than engineering infrastructure, so they resisted for many years. Today, that resistance seems rather silly, but it was very real at the time.

Municipal infrastructure assets deliver a service. That is why they exist. Pumps and pipes deliver municipal water service to the ratepayers. Green infrastructure assets also deliver services that bring a range of social, ecological and economic benefits. Think about what this is asking of our engineers, and even our financial departments. A water-sensitive city will not only include the value of municipal pumps and pipes on their balance sheet. They will also consider the value of natural assets, accounting for the contribution of ecosystem services as well. If that isn’t disruptive, I don’t know what it.