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Building Cities With Sustainability in Mind

• April 12, 2011 • 4:00 AM

Municipal waste — from poop to heat — can be a valuable resource that could run our cities more cheaply and sustainably, says a hands-on Canadian ecologist.

A leading ecologist says if we want to build sustainable cities, we need to start with our money on our minds, and our minds in the gutter.

William Patrick Lucey, an aquatic ecologist and special adviser to the British Columbia government on water policy, says little has changed in the way we have built cities in the 2,000 years since the Roman empire.

Aside from some notable improvements in sanitation, and perhaps civility, our infrastructure still follows the Roman model; centralized water works, all-weather roadways with engineered drainage, and municipal sewers to whisk away our excesses. This comes at a steep, and recurring, cost.

According to a December Congressional Research Service report, the United States alone is looking at estimates ranging from around $480 billion to $1.2 trillion in water infrastructure needs over the next few decades. Lucey says there is not enough money on Earth to achieve even a tolerable standard of service for the rest of the world — unless we change our approach.

The World Health Organization’s Millennium Report (PDF here)  says 60 percent of the Earth’s natural ecosystems are impaired due to human activity, and unable to perform their normal ecological function.

Lucey notes that with China on a building tear, with 300 million people expected to move from the countryside to the cities in the next 15 years, they are constructing the equivalent of the entire built-up structure of California every 365 days. India has adopted a similar program to accommodate that country’s swiftly urbanizing population.

“It’s not sustainable,” he says. “I don’t even know if it’s technically possible.”

But, Lucey, who helped design of some of the highest-rated LEED  building projects in North America, says there is a sustainable alternative, dubbed “integrated resource management.”

Small pockets of sustainability at the neighborhood level are leading the way. They are modeled, not after Rome, but after nature. Mimicking nature, proponents of IRM believe, can prove sustainable, and profitable. “It’s time to shift from cost-based infrastructure,” Lucey says, “to revenue-based infrastructure.”

In a healthy natural ecosystem, every resource gets recycled in perpetuity, through every level of organism in the food chain, from the bottom to the top and back again. A sustainable city would function the same way, and by capitalizing on the byproducts of urban living in a closed-loop system, the infrastructure of such a city would generate revenue rather than expense. It could even turn a profit.

One of the keys to realizing this revenue will be figuring out the value of each of the resources in the loop, including those we usually think of as waste products, and then planning infrastructure to maximize long-term returns from their repeated use.

While it might be relatively simple to arrive at a monetary value for commodities such as nutrients collected from storm runoff, or phosphorus reclaimed from urine, setting a price for intangible or abstract resources such as biodiversity could prove contentious beyond belief.

Kimberly Brewer believes the market already provides clues to the value of even these arcane resources. The associate director with Tetra Tech International,  an engineering consulting firm with numerous municipal clients worldwide, cites research showing consumers tend to spend more on items purchased in shopping areas with naturalistic landscaping.

She says IRM sustainable infrastructure often has the same natural appeal, featuring rain gardens, urban forestry and engineered wetlands. The higher prices shoppers are willingly to pay for items bought in districts with pleasant surroundings could be interpreted as the value of ecological benefits the amenities offer, such as promoting biodiversity, absorbing greenhouse gases or reducing the heat island effect.

Lucey says there is an even more direct approach. To assess the value of urban IRM projects, he recycled the U.S. Forest Service’s modeling tool for ecosystem management, which he calls “quite powerful.” He has adapted it to track resources and value as it flows through an urban system.

Although Lucey believes that, in the long term, necessity and the profit motive will drive a transformation in urban infrastructure, he emphasizes that in order to be “truly sustainable,” infrastructure projects must satisfy three requirements: They must be economically productive, environmentally neutral and socially responsible. He refers to these criteria as the “triple bottom line,” and he says these values are the essence of the IRM concept.

Lucey says IRM made all the difference at Dockside Green, a new development venture in Victoria, British Columbia. He advised the design team through an IRM process and says, “That site would never have been profitable using the traditional design process.”

Planners, using the IRM approach, considered every aspect of the locale as a potential resource, including the mildly contaminated rubble left over from its past as an industrial site. Customarily, that rubble would have been considered an impediment to a residential project, to be trucked to a landfill, racking up prohibitive transport and disposal fees.

Instead, Dockside’s designers regarded the rubble as a resource that they retained on site, and plowed beneath the surface to form the contours of a sparkling new and “very natural” looking man-made stream. The stream has no headwaters, but rather recycles water from properties at the complex, and serves as habitat for indigenous plants and animals. Plus, Lucey says, it also “significantly enhances the market value of the homes” with a creek-side overlook.

An IRM approach can also take into account some obscure resources. Lucey says the background biological activity in decomposing sewage elevates its temperature just enough to allow the warmth to be harvested via heat pump. By locating a bank of heat pumps along the sewer line that traverses the former Olympic Athletes’ Village in Vancouver, neighborhood energy utilities provide the primary household heat source for Southeast False Creek development, an ultra-modern urban development expected to eventually house 15,000 people.

(Southeast False Creek is “in the news for all sorts of reasons” relating to sustainable development and innovative public space use, ranging from habitat restoration to emphasizing walkability to using green roofs.)

Lucey envisions a future wherein large-scale centralized wastewater treatment plants, currently funded at taxpayer and ratepayer expense, can be replaced with neighborhood-scale water treatment, situated, financed and engineered to correspond to local priorities. Such priorities might be nutrient harvesting in communities with ties to agriculture, water reuse or thermal recovery from waste where climate is a local concern. Fine-tuned to their circumstances, Lucey says these operations, would, by their nature, generate money.

Although they may require higher initial investment than traditional infrastructure systems, Lucey says, “There are no technical barriers” to building this self-financing sustainable infrastructure.

“It can all be accomplished using proven off-the-shelf components,” but he says to close the loop, and the deal, it’s going to be a matter of taking the time to think through what’s really best for our wallets.

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David Richardson
David Richardson began his journalism career operating a video news service in Washington, D.C., that covered federal agencies and Congress. His film production work has since ranged from postings at the White House to rural villages of Botswana, documenting community-centered HIV prevention programs. He holds a B.A. degree in government from Dartmouth College. He now writes on science, the environment and policy from Baltimore, Md., where he's had some success growing organic produce in a small backyard garden.

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