What lessons can Citizen Jane share for today’s battle for the city?

Citizen Jane

Image via Dogwoof.com

A version of this post also appeared in Commotion, the journal of Urbanistas.

A few months ago, I saw the documentary Citizen Jane: Battle for the City at the ICA with fellow members of Urbanistas London.

The film was well produced and the use of archival footage and audio was a fun and enlightening way to revisit Jane Jacobs’ work. But, it didn’t dig very deep into the hows, whys and ‘what nows’ of how we think about planning and urban form today in light of the lessons from Jacobs. If you’re new to urbanism, it’s a good crash course on two of history’s most famous planning adversaries, but for those who know the philosophies, it didn’t offer much extra.

The film depicts a battle specific to an era. The 1960s were not only a time in which planners held a lot of power, but government did in general. Much as the political landscape has changed since the 1960s in both the US and UK, so has the role of government and planners within it. Planners no longer have as large of a role in shaping cities. In fact, major infrastructure decisions tend to be done not by planners, but by politicians, special bodies, or worse yet, lobbyists and investors.

As the end of this review from Oliver Wainwright at The Guardian points out, there are many problems with painting Jacobs and Moses as black and white, good versus evil. What ultimately is the film’s message? Central planners no longer exist in the US or UK, and many of Jacobs’ philosophies are codified in planning, design and landscape architecture best practice (e.g. eyes on the street/passive surveillance, people scale and mixed-use design) today. The ills of urban renewal still happen, but rarely triggered by planners, rather by cash-strapped local governments fighting for economic investment.

What is the Moses equivalent we should be looking out for today? The final images of sterile, cheap, closely-spaced tower blocks in China suggest we’re meant to ensure that the lessons are passed on to more recently urbanising cities. That’s important, but nothing about the film suggests planners and designers in China are the intended audience.

Could the ‘smart city’ and ‘big data’ movements be today’s version of urban renewal–where society’s ills and the ‘problems’ of modern life can be solved by sensors, data and algorithms? Rather than leaving control of the city to the technocrats of old, we are meant to leave control to the technology itself. As with central planning, there can be good done with these types of strategies, but as soon as we act like they are a cure-all and stop considering the human side of cities, there are (perhaps unintended) negative consequences.

By focussing on the battles of the 60s without a clear translation for today, the film missed an opportunity to call out the mistakes we may be repeating. It was comforting storytelling and a good refresher, but it failed to note that today’s Citizen Janes are up against a system more complex than just one Moses.


Engagement is a two-way street: Strategies for utilities to help people help the environment


A version of this post originally appeared in the KLH Sustainability blog.

Last month, I presented at the International Water Association’s Efficient Water 2017 conference. The quality of the content and people at the conference was incredibly high, better than many other events I’ve attended recently. A large part of this is due to the fact that the water sector is finally moving beyond the engineering details of pipe, pumps and membranes and into the reality of the role of people in sustainable water management. There were conversations on policy and regulations, development, behaviour change, customer engagement, demographics, incentives and market mechanisms, retrofits, strategic planning, university collaboration, home visits, apps for data sharing, certification, taxes, real estate transactions—and that only covers the sessions I was able to attend!

The positive and dynamic energy of the conference is tainted in my memory, however, by a statement one presenter made. I won’t call him or his company out specifically (though, he was white, male and works for a water utility), but what he said was a jarring reminder of how many in the industry still act, even if thinking among industry leaders has matured. He said (and I paraphrase), “I hate the word engagement. I don’t care about engagement. I just care about education.”

That may sound innocuous enough on the surface—semantics, even. But it does illustrate a fundamental problem with the way professionals (and this isn’t specific to water) all too often show disdain, for customers, the public and people in general.

So, what’s the difference between education and engagement?

Education in this context flows in one direction. It’s the all-knowing utility/city/property owner teaching the customer/public/resident about facts. Often, the theory is that X (climate change, water scarcity, waste, etc.) would be better if only people were educated about it. That’s not entirely incorrect, but it ignores the fact that people aren’t stupid and there are many reasons for why people make the decisions they make, a lack of information is only one part of it.

Engagement, on the other hand, is two-way. It acknowledges that people aren’t passive, that they don’t necessarily respond to being told what to do, and they often offer lessons for professionals to learn, too.

Engagement, on the other hand, is two-way. It acknowledges that people aren’t passive, that they don’t necessarily respond to being told what to do as though they are children and they often offer lessons for professionals to learn, too.

The beauty of this conference was that it showed with many examples the multi-dimensional nature of, and multiple avenues for, engagement and why it matters.

Many of the sessions were about tools to help people make their own decisions, going beyond simply educating them about the problem or what to do. One panel brought together representatives from the US Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense, Australia’s Smart Approved Watermark, the EU’s Water Label and the UK’s Waterwise Checkmark to discuss water efficiency labelling programmes and how they can all do more to improve uptake and consumer choice. Northumbrian and Thames Water described their home visit programmes H2ecoEvery Drop Counts and Smarter Home Visits, which involve in-person, in-home water use assessments and tailored solutions for water efficiency. While the programmes already provide good outcomes, most are continuing to do more to improve the way they engage. A few speakers presented on DAIAD, an open source technology system that measures your shower water use and provides real time information to your phone to help adjust your water use.

The DAIAD technology and the rise of smart meters has shown that data can be collected on more than just water quality or utility-scale water usage, it is also being collected at the micro-scale in ways that can teach the industry more about behaviours and demographics.

An example of this came from multiple speakers who talked about how improved meters and data collection have allowed utilities and researchers to analyse water use patterns and develop new ways of classifying users. These more detailed ways of segregating users reflect how people act and respond differently due to demographics, type of dwelling, location and even what time they get up in the morning. Having this information helps utilities and water advocates understand the different actions, attitudes and approach of different types of people and how that impacts on water use (and beyond). They can then better tailor engagement to help different water users.

Too often, professionals make assumptions about other people’s behaviours based on their own, which in industries that are not particularly diverse, mean the assumptions are often wrong. With better quality engagement, we can understand water users better for the benefit of the industry, the user and the environment. Success happens when we work with people to make changes, not when we summarily tell them to make a change.

Thank you from afar

MarshallYoungAlumSignI was honored by my high school last month to receive the Marshall School Distinguished Young Alumni Award. Alas, I wasn’t able to make it to the ceremony, but my amazing filmmaker sister, Allison, was kind enough to create a thank you video for me to send to the ceremony instead!

You can watch the video here:

Thanks again to the Marshall School alumni office (and whomever nominated me) for the honor!


Making time for big thinking

Green Sky Thinking @ Buro HappoldThis post originally appeared in KLH Sustainability’s blog.

It’s easy to get caught up in the details of our daily jobs and the problems immediately at hand, but thinking sustainably often means thinking holistically, which means finding the time and space to step back and look at the big picture. Green Sky Thinking Week, a week of events organised by Open-City in London highlighting innovative practice on how we ‘design in’ sustainability, provided a great opportunity to think outside our usual projects.

I attended Engineering the Futurehosted by BuroHappold Engineering—a sort of science fair for engineering professionals. Some of BuroHappold’s young engineers were given time and resources to put toward creative problem solving on an issue outside their daily work load. The event was a showcase of the preliminary work they were able to experiment with, to address some of London’s most pressing questions. Topics included:

  • Using real-time data to optimise the design of NHS waiting rooms
  • Ways of expanding the evidence base for supporting public use of parks
  • Developing a model for comparing multiple interrelated variables in sustainable building design
  • Modular building design for interior design, and
  • Many more.

The event was a chance for young engineers (who usually work as part of a larger team) to develop their own innovative ideas and get public exposure. The projects were great conversation starters and the format of the event allowed us to talk to each of the 10 project teams in small groups, to gain insight into their approaches and provide feedback on how to improve them.

One of the biggest things I noticed was that – perhaps due to the limited time they were able to devote to the projects – some of the groups did not seem to fully incorporate social factors—a critical part of designing sustainably—into their projects, such as how the method of data collection may not capture an even sample of London’s demographics, or how much personal space people in NHS waiting rooms might need, or the role of property prices and amenities as neighbourhood attractiveness parameters.

While the projects were only side projects (with clear limitations), the work they produced and the event as a whole was a great way to try applying creativity in problem solving and get conversations started. The event ended with attendees voting for what we thought were the most promising ideas. The theme of the projects that rose to the top was resource efficiency—one of KLH’s top priorities and something we are always working on to continue to creatively address.

Integrating People, Not Just Parts, at Ecobuild 2015


This post originally appeared in KLH Sustainability’s blog.

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend a day of Ecobuild, billed as the world’s biggest event for sustainable design, construction and the built environment. I’d heard mixed reviews of it before I went, some saying that what had started as a grassroots movement had turned into a run-of-the-mill trade show. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that the running theme through the sessions I attended was a focus not on parts, but on people. So often the focus is on the technological innovations required to develop sustainably, but it’s critically important to invest in the people part of the people-profit-planet triple-bottom line, which was emphasised throughout the panels.

Many of the sessions highlighted the performance gap (the disconnect between the way sustainable buildings are designed and how they operate) and the role that early interaction and communication with occupants plays in reducing that gap. Developments are more successful from a technical, environmental and social standpoint if people are an integral part of the design process rather than having design solutions imposed on them.

Chris Twinn, chairing the The missing link: Engaging and empowering residents to optimise building performance session, indicated that we shouldn’t be thinking in terms of “educating” people, but rather, we should be “working with” them.

The road from technological innovation to user integration can be like a game of Chinese whispers (that’s “telephone” in the US), attempting to relay product instructions from inventor to supplier, to designer, to developer, to sales team, to property manager, to occupant. This results in lack of confidence about products, scepticism about policies promoting them and fundamentally poor sustainability outcomes.

To counteract this, promising, people-focused solutions suggested at Ecobuild included:

  • developing better user integration into products;
  • improving behaviour change messaging by appealing to emotion and value instead of only economics;
  • integrating intuitive feedback loops into smart systems instead of hiding efficiency behind a black box;
  • communicating to audiences through local community leaders through spheres of influence;
  • developing programs that train local representatives to be able to explain, troubleshoot and repair smart systems; and
  • end-user focused approaches that measure comfort, wellbeing, health and other factors that people looking for homes and businesses care about.
Successfully integrating people throughout the process of sustainable development takes work. Unlike pipes, valves, computers and other complicated, but engineer-able solutions, humans are complex. Remembering that humans are a key aspect of successful sustainability means adapting practices and systems to fit how people think, how we act and what we value.


Engineers build more questions than answers with the Natural Grid

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to head to the first in a new lecture series run by the Thames Estuary Partnership. The lecture was called The Natural Grid and it was given by David Weight and Andrew Cripps from AECOM about an engineering idea they’ve worked on to address concerns about water scarcity in southern England, including London.

The basic premise of what they called the “AECOM canal” (perhaps not the most modest name) is a canal that runs north-south across the UK to transport water from Scotland in the north, which is not facing water scarcity (and is in fact having more trouble with flooding), to the Midlands and London south. Using GIS and contour maps, they have found routes for the canal that would be able to follow the contours of the land to travel by gravity, eliminating the need for energy-wasting pumps. The source of the water would come from Kielder Water, a reservoir that was built for industry that never came, so has excess water capacity.

The speakers gave a laundry list of benefits. The canal could provide flood relief by lowering the water levels to accept stormwater. All the way along the canal would be built a utility chamber so energy and broadband/data would have a right-of-way across the country. It would provide clean water for the agricultural Midlands and the ever growing population of London. There would be ecosystem benefits. There’s a chance that it could be used for marginal freight, like moving waste. There could be new or improved towns with waterfront access. More about the proposal can be found in their report The Case for the Natural Grid.

It’s certainly an interesting idea. And as London Mayor Boris Johnson made clear in the an article in The Telegraph in 2011 that inspired the AECOM team, at an elementary level, it makes sense–take water from somewhere where there’s a lot and move it to where there isn’t enough. As they said at the lecture, it’s not new technology, we’ve been building canals and aqueducts for centuries. But, also as they said at the lecture, it’s not the technology in question, it’s those pesky details like politics and funding (I’m paraphrasing, but that’s basically what they said).

But for me, the issue is that when proposing a grand idea, it’s your responsibility to think through the details. This isn’t the Roman or Victorian age when you could just build whatever you want wherever. There are major social, environmental, legal and political implications that must be considered and to treat them as details to be sorted out later seems rather irresponsible. Coming from Chicago, I am all to familiar with the long-term fallout of major engineering decisions. The reversal of the Chicago river was a major accomplishment 100 years ago and vastly improved water quality and public health for the city. But the multi-million dollar proposals to deal with invasive species transfer, the changing politics that have led to higher water quality standards and Illinois’ exemption to the international Great Lakes Compact & Agreement, not to mention stormwater management, water allocation and downstream water quality implications.

Hindsight is always twenty-twenty, though. And I do believe that the public dialogue that comes from debating proposals such as this generally benefit us as a society (more people talking about water!). I’m not necessarily against an idea like this, I just think there need to be more questions answered, lessons learned from other places and projects and honesty about what it actually can and can’t do before it can be seriously considered. So, in the spirit of public dialogue (and, well, if regulatory agencies and politicians are actually discussing it), the following are just a few questions that came to mind as I listed to the lecture. Thanks to the Thames Estuary Partnership for providing a forum for discussion!

  • How would they handle land acquisition throughout the length of the proposed canal? It’s one thing to use GIS data to pick ideal routes based on contours and land use type, but it’s another to deal with actual landowners. Particularly if this happened to be a private enterprise without ability to seize land.
  • What are the implications for existing wildlife and ecosystems? What happens to wetlands, habitats, migration paths, etc. that the canal would cut through? Would there be plants along or aquatic wildlife in the canal?
  • What about invasive species? Like the Chicago Area Waterway System, would it become a superhighway for invasive species? Unfortunately, the answer they gave was a fairly dismissive “invasive species are coming anyway, this might just make the come faster.”
  • How would long-term maintenance be handled? Infrastructure maintenance is already a major problem everywhere. Again, their answer was fairly dismissive, stating that existing canals had maintenance problems because they were made with clay and this would be part concrete, part bitumen.
  • Which raises the question, if the canal is that channelized with hardscape, what ecosystem benefits does it really have?
  • What about management of the system? They talked about the ability for the water level in the canal to be lowered to allow space to handle flood waters. In Chicago, the waterway system is managed entirely by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (as I described in a past blog post). Would there be one entity to manage it, if so who, and if not then how?
  • Which begs the question, who would own/govern the system overall? Water in the UK is no longer nationalized, so the national government doesn’t really have the power to do it. Would it be a partnership between private water utilities? Would it be a private entity that bought and sold water between water utilities? Would it involve a public private partnership?
  • On a related note, who owns the water at the reservoir that would be the headwaters for the canal? Presumably that’s owned by a private water company. How would that transfer be handled?
  • How would it help towards stormwater management? If the canal itself is elevated for safety reasons, how would flood waters be redirected into it?
  • What are the implications for the Thames Estuary? The event was put on by the Thames Estuary Partnership, presumably not as tacit support for it, more for public interest, but the speakers didn’t explain how it may or may not affect the estuary.
  • What are the water quality implications from potential freight or waste traffic? What about from raising the water temperature due to cooling adjacent energy cables?
  • And, of course, the biggest question, who would pay for construction and long-term operations? And depending on who does, if there is any public money involved, what is the cost effectiveness compared to other ways of addressing water scarcity, such as demand reduction, reducing leakage, wastewater and local stormwater reuse and even desalination?