The past is not even past – Distributed urban water infrastructures

by Misha Lepetic

“Any energy not recycled becomes some form of pollution” – Andy Lipkis

Much as the 20th century taught us that central planning failed our nations, the 21st century will teach us that central planning will fail our cities.

It is commo6a00d8345191c869e200e5507df5368834-800winly known that sometime in the last few years, we have passed the milestone, with half of the world’s population now residing in cities. Somewhat less known is the projection that 60% of all people will do so by 2030 – that is a rate of almost 180,000 persons moving into cities every day. This is a trend of such immensity that it is basically irreversible, and yet city governments (as well as their state-level counterparts) are ill-equipped to handle it from just about any point of view. Specifically, urban growth will mostly occur within the context of peripheral, unplanned environments, where physical, social and legal infrastructure is present in only the most arbitrary, self-organizing fashion. When coupled with the increasing frequency of extreme weather events that is the true consequence of climate change, the resilience of cities themselves is called into question.

As an example of such events, consider the catastrophic monsoon that visited Mumbai beginning July 26. In the course of the first 24 hours of rainfall, nearly a meter of water descended on the city, almost double the previous 1974 record. More importantly, the sewage system at that time was only capable of handling a flow of 25mm of water per hour. Over a thousand lives were lost, and the city was brought to a complete standstill for days. The costs exacted from an outdated infrastructure, ineffective bureaucracy and massive growth in population density were high indeed.

Much as commentators in the United States have done following the experience of New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina, it is easy to consider symptomatic solutions: if city planning agencies were funded better, they could deploy more powerful infrastructure that would have effectively prevented levee failure. However, weather events several standard deviations beyond what is anticipated only compromise the implicitly conservative planning process. These processes use probabilities generated from past experience, hence the terms ‘100-year flood’ (ie, a 1% chance of such a flood happening any given year), which nevertheless seem to be coming along every few years. The estimated cost of centrally planning for and upgrading an urban infrastructure for a putative ‘1000-year’ flood is so prohibitive and seemingly distant that our psychological biases pull us – and our policymakers – toward such magical thinking as “We’ll just have to take our chances” or “Well, probably not in my lifetime.” And yet, Hurricane Katrina followed almost exactly a month after the Mumbai floods.

This is not to say there is causality, or even correlation, between these two black-swan weather events. Geography, size, density and economic wealth clearly show New Orleans and Mumbai to be radically different cities. What is relevant is the common failure of centrally planned urban infrastructure, from both the policy and technological perspectives.

As another way of approaching the problem, let us consider Los Angeles, whose past approach to critics of its infrastructure has been particularly dramatic (ok, I couldn’t resist that one). But a fascinating talk by Andy Lipkis, of LA-based nonprofit Tree People, provides hints of how the old may be made new. In a city that is two-thirds paved, tremendous resources are committed to moving water from where it should not be, to where we expect it to be. By regarding the tree as the basic unit of sustainability, Lipkis’s organization takes a systems view. A mature California oak, by his calculation, can store 57,000 gallons of runoff in the ground beneath its 100’ diameter. In essence, it functions as a micro-watershed, filtering and releasing water back to the table gradually and therefore largely ameliorating the effects of a flash flood caused by as much as one foot of rainfall. By the same principle, local, distributed cisterns function as small catchment areas that obviate the need for vast, expensive and disruptive public works projects that put pressure on municipal bond issuance that is already strained.

A large obstaMumbai_deluge_TPE_20060109cle that Lipkis had to address was the city’s bureaucratic infrastructure – a series of departments and agencies that each holds a piece of the puzzle that a tree, on its own, solves in a systemic and conclusive fashion. The consequences of engineering specialization and bureaucratic factionalism can be elegantly illustrated with one fact: more electricity is consumed by Los Angeles in delivering water than any other activity, and yet vast resources are devoted to getting water out of the city when it shows up in an unanticipated form, eg, as a rainstorm.

However, as any entrepreneur will tell you, having a good idea and being able to execute on it are never the same thing. The “siloization” of decisionmaking made it very easy for each stakeholder to disregard the group’s proposals, regardless of the engineering elegance that existed on paper. Lipkis’s coup-de-grace was to bring together representatives of all these groups and hold a four-day design charrette, the results of which then formed the basis of five demonstration projects that have helped to ignite the popularity of this kind of local, distributed approach.

Los Angeles, however, is not unique in this regard:

“Currently, there is a plethora of authorities and agencies responsible for different aspects of urban life in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region. In some cases their responsibilities are overlapping, or uncertain. There is no clear accountability, and often no clear command structure for resolution of conflicts between authorities. There are far too many authorities, and too many of these see themselves as answerable to no one else in the city, and as a law unto themselves.” (ENVIS, p29)

Free-market proponents might contend that increasing prosperity will bypass these antediluvian bureaucracies entirely, and that the resulting developments, which usually take the form of exclusive, fully-serviced gated communities, will provide their own infrastructures. As a gentle riposte, let me volunteer a recent discussion of new architecture projects in India real estate development at the New York’s Center for Architecture, where Meghan MacDermott of the architectural firm Robert A.M. Stern and Associates made a striking observation. Her group is responsible for developing the master plan for Gurgaon Center City, the centerpiece development of a rapidly growing satellite city of Delhi.

In discussing some of the architectural features of a vast and modern complex, she emphasized the inclusion of features like localized stormwater collection, which would be considered especially “green” in a Western context. Interestingly, this is not as a result of conscientiousness on the part of the architects, or progressive urban planning standards, but simply necessitated by the fact that there is no centralized sewage and rainwater discharge system. It bears mentioning that this is in a city with the 3rd-highest per capita income in India. (Furthermore, during the Q&A at the same discussion, it was asked whether architects are using technologies and practices that are locally appropriate. The frank and honest answer from the architects on the panel was that developers are hiring world-class talent, and those developers expect them to bring those technologies and practices to the design sites – not local ones. Obviously, a flash flood doesn’t care who is the architect.)

In the case of Mumbai, it is too late for such gated communities to lead by design example (although the residents of Gurgaon, after realizing how badly their designers have failed them, have had the temerity to come together and work to address their community’s infrastructure failings). For although Los Angeles has its share of poverty, it would be disingenuous to compare it to Mumbai, where, at the time of the 2005 floods, more than half of its population lived in slums – a total of 6.9 million people (ENVIS, p11).

So while Andy Lipkis’s science may be indisputable and his approach laudable, putting him on the next plane to run a Mumbai-wide design charrette will probably not get us very far. So please allow me to make a naïve suggestion:

Any vision of the development of Mumbai could be realized only when the city planning adopts a people centric approach to planning. This precisely means how participation of people in the decentralized governance and planning could be increased as mandated by the 74th Amendment to the Constitution by working towards replacing ‘top-down’ with localized initiatives moving ‘bottom-up’. It must be admitted that there is no alternative to the participatory process of planning and consensus-based collaboration amongst various units of the governance (Phatak and Patel 2005). Thus, the functioning of the local governance and the development strategies that begin at the neighborhood remains critical in city planning which requires both the detection of the sources of misgovernance and the knowledge of the sources of corruption along with the means to fight them. (Chattopadhyay, et al. p20)

I am glad that someone wrote those words for me, since the idea seems at once patently obvious and yet hopelessly idealistic. But I would not cite them if I did not think they were justified, at least in the Indian context.

Chand-Baori-stepwell18As a precondition to being a long-lived and prosperous civilization, India has developed and refined its water conservation practices over a long period of time. A vast tradition of water architecture, most dramatically represented in the form of step wells (such as Chand Baori, pictured here and at the beginning of this essay) and stepped ponds, stored water when it was scarce and discharged it safely when it was not needed, preferably to another place where it could be better used. Even in the Golden Desert of Rajasthan, Anupam Mishram discusses how residents built and maintained intricate local infrastructures that would preserve the few precious inches of annual rainfall that fell on this region of Rajasthan – and at the same time how more recent centralized planning efforts by the government have become overrun by either water hyacinths or sand.

What is really interesting, however, is the fact that these structures were built and maintained by the same communities whose survival depended on them, and that they have remained largely invisible. In her magnificent monograph “Water Architecture in South Asia”, Julia Hegewald writes:

“A final reason for the lack of attention paid to water architecture by Western art-historians and also by the Archaeological Survey of India, may be the fact that water structures are usually not defunct places, but living places still used by people. This means that the responsibility for looking after them lies with the local communities or temples, and their conversion into fenced sites with international attention, as in the case of the [excavated] Rāṇī Vāv at Patan, would not have been welcomed at other sites.” (Hegewald, p5)

And yet, “the abandonment of villages and the congestion of modern cities has led to every available urban space, be it a park or a large water reservoir, being used for new buildings” (p215). In this sense, development in Indian cities is following the same path as that of Los Angeles. One need only wonder for a moment what will happen when true car culture comes to India. But who can bemoan anyone’s desire to have a tap in their flat or courtyard? That is not what is at stake here, as so much of effective development revolves around unburdening people – and especially women – from hours of strenuous of work that keep them locked into a subsistence mode.

Nevertheless, this is where all the pieces come together. It is these structures that continue to have much to teach us about the possibilities of effective, localized water infrastructure, much like Lipkis’s trees and parks. Moreover, India’s indigenous water architectures introduce a crucial and familiar element of empowerment into the urban dialogue – they provide opportunities for regeneration of the social fabric through the communal maintenance of water infrastructure. On a formal level, this provides employment to some. On an informal level, it creates defined anchoring points for communities that, planned or not, have developed with astonishing speed and density and are rooted fast. In fact, combining the knowledge that Lipkis’s group has gained with that of the traditional Indian architectures would make the design and development of distributed architectures that much more powerful. If the residents of Gurgaon and Los Angeles have the recognition of awareness to engage their own urban infrastructures, there is no reason to expect that the poor of Mumbai and countless other cities would not jump at the opportunity, were it only presented to them. It is unfortunate that this depends upon the willingness of city governments to recognize their own citizens as legitimate voices, but that is another matter for another time.

Special thanks to SomDev Vasudeva of Columbia University for his illuminating introduction to Julia Hegewald’s work.