Four ways to rethink water in the suburbs


Source: Center for Neighborhood Technology.


“We’ve been focused mostly on the world above ground, and water has been something….the engineers deal with, that it’s not our ‘design world’ problem,’” explains Georgia Tech Professor and suburban retrofit expert Ellen Dunham-Jones. “What’s actually exciting these days is [that] a lot of us as designers are beginning to recognize the opportunities.”

This excitement comes at a key time: in 2016, the World Economic Forum prioritized the water crisis over cyberattacks, financial instability, and food shortages as the global economy’s most important issue.

“We have built a world of pipes just assuming it is a smart way to deal with water, and yet that system adds to problems with water,” says Dunham-Jones. Current infrastructure just transports water, not allowing it to infiltrate or replenish the groundwater supply that suburbs rely on. As suburban retrofit solutions gain popularity, adequate strategies are needed to deal with suburban water infrastructure while accommodating growth and increasing community sustainability and resilience.

Dunham-Jones outlines four challenges with current water infrastructure:

Age and inefficiency. One of the most troubling and inefficient aspects of current water management infrastructure is what Dunham-Jones calls the Water-Energy Nexus: approximately half of  energy use is to distribute, disseminate, and treat water, and approximately half of our water is used to cool power plants and produce energy. As water infrastructure ages, it becomes ever more inefficient, especially when it relies on centralized regional systems made up of long leaking pipes and culverts, failing septic systems, and ugly, wasteful retention ponds.

Water quality. Runoff from impervious surfaces and water from eroded and contaminated creeks is dirty and becomes dirtier when flowing through poor pipes and culverts. Combined sewer systems can also cause pollution problems when the water collected exceeds the treatment plant capacity and overflows.

Scarcity. Drained wetlands and aquifers can contribute to droughts,  impacted further aggravated by contaminated water sources that lead to wasteful uses of water.

Overabundance. Conversely, inadequate sewer capacity  and rising sea levels contribute to flooding problems caused by increased runoff from rainstorms.

The good news is that there are strategies and techniques to confront these challenges.

Restructuring water infrastructure around districts, instead of regions, and implementing green building and development methods can reduce both water and energy use.

Filtering and limiting runoff, separating sanitary and stormwater treatment methods and plants, daylighting culverted creeks, reconstructing wetlands, and constructing more greenways and park networks can help improve water quality.

A lack of water can be handled by recycling and capturing water for reuse, conserving the amount of water spent, and building and integrating groundwater replenishment infrastructure with existing infrastructure.

Problems with having too much water can be combated by constructing more pervious (porous) surfaces to allow water to be absorbed into the ground, regreening floodplains, and constructing ‘blue’ buildings and infrastructure that are able to use water efficiently.

Current water management infrastructure presents many problems that keep suburbs from being as sustainable and resilient as they need to be to thrive, says Dunham-Jones. Fortunately, many governments and private organizations are already taking steps to make water a friend instead of a foe. From the work of Portland-based Depave to replace paved surfaces with green space, to Southern California’s regional plan for its water, from the the award-winning independent vision for Long Island Radically Rezoned to Chicago’s Green Alley program and Uptown Normal Circle in Normal, Illinois, ideas and applications that suit the suburbs are everywhere.