The Sustainability Narrative in Post-Brexit UK

This post originally appeared in the KLH Sustainability blog.

A month and a half after the historic EU referendum, you still can’t get through too many conversations without discussion of the implications of Brexit. The discussion, both hopeful and cynical, ranges from everyday life to national policy to the built environment industry. Staying in the EU or not, the UK government still has responsibilities to address climate change, the environment and sustainable development. The question remains how seriously we take that responsibility, particularly without the oversight (or constraint) of the EU. The answer, unfortunately, is not clear.

With all the changes in government, delays in triggering Article 50 and lack of strategic vision for a post-EU UK, certainty and commitment are two of the key things needed from the government to reassure the sustainable built environment sector. As expected, the construction industry is feeling a slowdown and anticipating “continued hiatus in private project starts” across sectors. Cities are particularly impacted by the funding and trade implications of Brexit.

The post-Brexit changes to government, particularly the dissolution of the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and embedding of those activities into the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) remind me of a similar shift in the City of Chicago a few years ago. At the time, the city had a Department of Environment (DOE), but in 2011 it was shut down in favour of a cross-department Chief Sustainability Officer. The stated intent was to integrate environment and sustainability issues into all departments, rather than in a silo. The result was mixed. Some departments, particularly those that received the most staff from the DOE diaspora did quite well—the Department of Transportation’s sustainable strategy became an exemplar program. But many other environmental initiatives that didn’t easily fall into the existing remit of other departments, such as waste and recycling, became weaker or fell through the cracks.

The shuffling of DECC into BEIS will be similar. Those initiatives that overlap well with existing business narratives and Greg Clark’s priorities, such as energy efficiency initiatives and decarbonising heavy industry, may continue as usual or even get a boost. Other topics potentially seen as conflicting with business growth may not.

With DECC out and Andrea Leadsom in to lead Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, climate change and environmental policies may end up at the “bottom of the government’s in tray.” There are many specific questions about the UK’s role on climate change, particularly in light of the Paris Agreement, that remain unanswered.

Evidence from the previous conservative government doesn’t provide a clear signal of their priorities. Recent policies like the Modern Slavery Act and the release of the fifth carbon budget are positive signs of the UK’s commitment to global sustainability. However, the withdrawal of Code for Sustainable Homes and the Zero Carbon standard, the dismantling of the Green Deal and UK poor performance against EU air and water quality targets indicate lack of commitment locally.

Out of the EU, there is even more at risk. Access to the EU skilled architecture and construction labour force and sustainable materials such as glulam timber could be more difficult. Long-term funding for research and for major infrastructure projects could slow to a trickle. Policies and projects within the UK already in the pipeline could be halted.

Whatever the approach, clear declarations need to be made about the driving forces behind policy change. An elected government comes with a plan and a mandate, but where does the accountability come from for this government? What is their strategy for addressing sustainability and the built environment? With the systematic defunding of Whitehall and local governments, who will be left to do the tedious, but crucial work of filling in the gaps left by removing EU legislation?

No strategy is a bad strategy

Indecision on whether to keep or change policy can lead to more risk and cost, stifling forward movement, shifting resources and creating confusion. The built environment, inherently risk-averse, ends up planning in parallel for stricter policy when direction is unclear. Withdrawal of policy without suitable replacement leaves outdated standards and conflicting requirements.

The industry needs a firm commitment as to the direction the EU disentanglement will go. Good or bad, it will allow the industry to focus our attention. In the meantime, the government should commit to hold all existing legislation and EU policies until suitable replacements have been evidenced, as they’ve started by guaranteeing EU funding that extends beyond the UK’s exit.

There is the potential for the UK to be a global leader in climate change and sustainability. Within the industry, though, we can’t be naïve and wait for it all to fall into place or remain the same. We have the opportunity to retain the best of EU policies and to improve on the rest. It could be an opportunity to radically change the way the UK does business and create a more progressive, sustainable, resilient, smart, economically viable and equitable place.

Until there is more leadership, we will have to fight battles on multiple fronts. We can’t only envision our dream scenarios, we simultaneously need to identify and lobby for what needs protecting. Frustratingly, this could mean less money, time and attention for innovation, new research and collaboration.

We need to be nimble enough to frame sustainability and the built environment within the narrative that dismissed experts. We need to pick our heads up out of our projects and engage with politicians, civil servants and perhaps most importantly local communities. Without the EU to oversee, we all have a responsibility to keep the UK on the right track.

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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!

 

Room for more action in the London Sustainable Drainage Action Plan

This post originally appeared in the KLH Sustainability blog.

Sustainable drainage systems, or SuDS, are nothing new. The conventional method of managing stormwater is to transport collect and transport rainwater off site as quickly as possible via hard infrastructure systems. The rainwater is either discharged into the nearest receiving waters or sewage treatment plant, in the case of combined drainage systems.

SuDS, meanwhile, mimic natural systems to slow down, treat and use the water before or instead of sending it into sewers or directly to open water bodies. These systems can have additional benefits beyond managing quantities of water, including biodiversity enhancement, water treatment, reduced air pollution, amenity creation, reduction of the urban heat island effect and more.

Thanks to the multitude of benefits, SuDS are being used increasingly around the world. But in the face of increasing storm intensity, and an overburdened sewer system, how does London start incorporating these systems more quickly and reliably? This past October, the Greater London Authority released their London Sustainable Drainage Action Plan (LSDAP) for consultation. KLH Sustainability submitted comments on the plan, some of our observations are discussed below.

The vision set out in the plan is that: “By 2040, London will manage its rainwater sustainably to reduce flood risk and improve water security, maximising the benefits for people, the environment and the economy.” It outlines actions and a timeframe divided by sector to begin integrating SuDS into business as usual. The plan does a great job covering realistic and necessary actions that should be 100% achievable in the given time frame. However, as a plan, it is not very ambitious and is really only the first step towards making sustainable drainage part of the mainstream.

The key to implementing more sustainable practices is investment. In a very pragmatic way, the current plan relies on existing processes and funding streams as entry points to incorporate SuDS in to planned maintenance, replacement work and planned new projects. This is very important as it is the cheapest and easiest way to ensure this planned work is implemented correctly.

To move beyond incremental changes, there needs to be commitment to new sources of financial support and partnering. The LSDAP mentions Thames Water’s twenty4twenty £20m funding programme, which helps to identify other relevant parties interested in SUDs investment. Many programmes in the US have been successful in the increased implementation of SUDs through the use of demonstration projects, partnerships and incentives funded by central government, increased water management fees or partnership with the private sector.

Additional investment is also required to enforce the adoption of flood-related planning policies by local authorities.  This leads to the second key observation: a lack of support to implement new and existing planning policies.

Last spring, SuDS were written into the National Planning Policy Framework, requiring most development to incorporate SuDS. At that time, the capacity within local authority was raised as a barrier to enforcement and it is not yet clear if the new London Action Plan has resolved this resource issue. The LSDAP should highlight how local authorities will be supported, whether through funding, expertise or enforcement. The LSDAP should use the forthcoming Sustainable Drainage Opportunity Model to identify high-risk geographic areas that are in particularly need of robust drainage requirements and enforcement.

There are additional aspects that could be included in the LSDAP, including:

The LSDAP target is “to achieve a 1% reduction in surface water flows in the sewer network each year for 25 years, resulting in a 25% reduction in flows by 2040.” The final piece of the puzzle is for the LSDAP to identify what financial benefits could be accrued through the delivery of that target using wide-spread, small-scale SuDS solutions rather than relying on expensive, single-purpose hard infrastructure solutions to handle storm flows. By articulating the long-term value of SuDS adoption across London, the LSDAP can demonstrate how sustainable drainage scheme can really contribute to a world-class, sustainable city.

Hands on design: sustainable LEGO homes

I was recently back in Chicago for the holidays and while searching for something warm to do downtown with my family, I took them to see the city model and exhibition at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Before we could make our way from that to the Chicago Biennial, we stumbled into one of CAF’s LEGO Build Workshops and before you know it, three+ hours had past and we were all creating architectural masterpieces.

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My sister built a bright, airy modern school building. Her partner built a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired party house. My partner built the tallest skyscraper he could (earning envious stares from nearby children). What did I build? Ultra-realist me built three UK-style terraced houses.

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But wait, there’s more! They were not just any terraced houses, they were sustainable terraced houses! Perhaps I’d spent too many hours focused on my work project the week before, but I decided to bring back a little bit of London to Chicago.

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Features you’ll find in these sustainable terraced houses:

  • Simple building form, resulting in improved fabric energy efficiency
  • Front and back gardens, providing ample private outdoor space

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  • Shallow plot with dual or triple aspects, meaning lots of daylight
  • Space for waste, recyclables and food waste/compost bins

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  • Rain barrels/water butts collecting water for use in the back gardens for the middle and one of the end terraces

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  • A greywater recycling system on the other end terrace
  • Shared roof terrace with biodiverse roof elements (ok…there were no landscaping legos, so pretend there are plants & log piles and substrates for holding water and whatnot)

Obviously I don’t win any points for originality, but for my structured mind, it was a nice creative outlet and who doesn’t like to play with Legos?

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Go big or go home: new and challenging projects to keep busy

EWS modelHappy holidays and happy new year! I’ve really not spent as much time on this blog as I’d like to (believe me, I have so many posts waiting in the wings until I have a few minutes to catch my breath!), but largely it’s because I’ve jumped head first into several new projects.

You may have seen in KLH Sustainability’s Christmas message, but the main project I’m working on is the redevelopment of the London Olympic Park! The stars aligned and I was at the right place at the right time saying the right things about the right skills and talking to the right person to get to work on this exciting project. The project is to create out of what was part of the former park lands and prior to that, derelict industrial lands, into a massive (though…from an American urban perspective, arguably not large enough) residential/mixed-use development. The two new neighbourhoods, one in the area surrounding the former media center/new Here East building and the other south of the Copper Box Arena and west of the Olympic Stadium, will have 1500 new homes and lots of commercial/non-residential development.

There’s a ton happening with the development to make it more inclusive and sustainable:

  • housing will be mixed-tenure (social rent, affordable rent, shared ownership, private rent & for sale);
  • commercial space is hoping to attract small, independent businesses;
  • all the housing is being built to Lifetime Homes standard and a significant percentage are having additional accessibility modifications made to them;
  • multi-ethnic considerations are being taken into account, including allowing for provision of BAME-oriented bathroom fittings and kitchen layouts (more on that acronym in another post…);
  • significant thought put into public realm, placemaking, context-sensitive design and more;
  • “smart city” innovation considerations and integration with the park and beyond (more on the whole smart cities concept in another post…);
  • and of course, what I’m spending a huge chunk of my life on, more ambitious sustainability aspirations than you can shake a stick at, including but not at all limited to zero carbon homes, Code for Sustainable Homes Level 4+, BREEAM Excellent and so so so so so so much more. I’d love to go into more detail, but the perils of working in the private sector (as I am painfully learning) is that you really can’t be as open as you want to be…at least, not without approval, so more details will have to wait.

The project is still in planning and going through consultation. I’m really excited to be working on this project and wanted to share a bit of what’s been keeping me away from being as active outside of work as I’d like to be.

Read more about the project on the KLH website.

In addition to this project, I’m also working on the final stage of the Olympic Stadium Transformation (is anyone interested in massive numbers of seats from the stadium???), some smaller sustainability projects, just became a qualified Code for Sustainable Homes assessor (and the future Home Quality Mark), recently presented at the International Water Association (IWA) World Water Congress, kicking off a project with my IWA Specialist Group on digital engagement and water and been trying to get increasingly more active with Urbanistas London, several UK water groups, some local community groups in my home neighbourhood and more!

I don’t really do new year’s resolutions, but I do hope this year to be able to spend more time on here exploring new ideas and projects. Thanks for following!

Does London really care about cyclists?

A hopeful message posted by woman-run bicycle accessory shop Po Campo.

A hopeful message posted by woman-run bicycle accessory shop Po Campo.

Who has a right to the road? With all the news lately about air pollution, roads overcrowded with buses and cyclist deaths, it’s clear not everyone does in London.

I desperately want to cycle in this city. As I expounded on profusely a couple years ago as a new regular rider, there are so many benefits to cycling and I miss them dearly. When I lived in Chicago, bike share was my primary mode of transportation–for commuting, for socialising, for errands, spontaneously and in any season. I do not by any means consider myself a hardcore cyclist, nor is Chicago any sort of cycling utopia a la Copenhagen or Amsterdam. But Chicago has gone through considerable investment to make the city cycle friendly for more people; and it’s their investment in physically protected bike lanes and inexpensive, well-managed bike share that propelled me into being a committed rider. And the beauty of these types of cycle infrastructure is that they’re not reserved for only the hardcore lycra-clad road cyclists (MAMIL-middle aged man in lycra, as they’re called in Norway) or the hipster fixie set, they’re meant for me and all the other regular people out there who just want a faster, cheaper, healthier way to get around.

But then I moved to London. Between the lack of a straightforward street grid and absolutely no space on narrow roads for legitimate cycle lanes (let alone protected ones), I was already wary. But so many people here cycle. All my colleagues do. Full lanes of streets on my commute are filled with cyclists. Mayor Boris Johnson is an avid cyclist and he and Transport for London recently unveiled plans for new “cycle superhighways.” But then there are near weekly headlines of cyclists dying under the wheels of lorries. Friends warn you to practice your commute on weekends (so much for spontaneous travel). You see daily others having near misses in front of you.

According to the London Evening Standard, 82% of women killed while cycling in London since 2009 have been by lorries.

A few weeks ago, the London Evening Standard featured a front page article trying to make sense of why most of this year’s cyclist deaths have been women and most of them have been at the hands of lorry drivers. The article states that “every woman who has died on a bike in the capital since August 2011 was hit by a truck — 16 in total.” It’s a startling statistic. Those women could have been me. In fact, I’m even more at risk, as most of them were seasoned London cyclists. Despite other commonalities such as the fact that most happened at major roundabouts and bridge approaches or that many of the lorry drivers were driving with violations, the article chose to focus on what the women cyclists were doing wrong. This level of victim blaming is not only wrong, but irresponsible.

It may be true that women cyclists may tend to be slower, more tentative or follow rules, all of which may make it easier for vehicle drivers to kill them, but a system that not only penalises, but kills people who follow rules or cycle conservatively is not a system that supports cycling, or frankly, people. There are different types of cyclists, just as there are different kinds of vehicle drivers. You wouldn’t expect a football mom in a minivan or pensioner in a station wagon to be able to navigate race car tracks and obstacle courses, nor should you. When you send your teenage child out to drive as a learner driver, you don’t expect them to die because they’re new or your grandmother to die because she drives slowly, why is that the expectation for cyclists? And does that mean children, slow riders, people who can’t afford fast cycles, new riders, tourists and other regular, rule abiding people like I am aren’t meant to be on the road? Because that’s what it feels like.

Research shows that when cyclists don’t wear helmets, cars tend to give them more space. This isn’t an argument not to wear helmets, but perhaps the London cyclist culture of aggressive, rule-breaking puts car drivers not in the mindset of sharing the road with vulnerable users, but instead competing for the road against equals. This might work for the subset of people willing to and physically capable of aggressive cycling, but leaves out the rest of us regular people. And if as a society we want to promote low carbon, sustainable modes of transport (which we must, for air pollution, climate change and other reasons), then building a cycle network for that small percentage won’t work.

Addressing Stormwater from the Comfort of my Back Yard

Rain garden turtle_ACrisostomo

I recently moved house and now that I have a garden, I’ve been thinking about the right way to manage the garden to do what’s best for local stormwater management by helping keep rainwater out of the sewer system and either saving it to water plants or letting it soak slowly into the ground. Of course, I do this type of thing for a living, but what about for people who don’t think about it everyday? How do people get information on how to do what’s right on their properties? Or when local governments or water utilities need private property owners’ help, how do they get people interested at all?

Last month, I had the honour of presenting some of the findings of the research I led in the US on just this question at the International Water Association’s Water Efficiency conference. The conference was a chance for industry leaders from around the world to discuss leading research on everything from water rates, water efficiency and drought to smart technology, water reuse and behaviour change.

As with most things having to do with behaviour change, successfully changing the way people manage their land to help improve the greater environment can take a lot of effort. The research I did was on how to encourage adoption of small-scale stormwater techniques, such as sustainable urban drainage systems (SuDS), on private properties, found that more work and investment in the fundamentals of behaviour change, programme management and building relationships is needed to get the scale of private property participation we need to address flooding and sewer overflows more broadly.

When local agencies want to involve private property owners in being part of stormwater solutions, they can generally resort to requirements or encourage voluntary measures. Much like the UK’s forthcoming standards for SuDS, requirements tend to focus only on new construction and large developments, whereas voluntary measures can reach retrofitting of existing properties and individual parcels. These programmes can include financial incentives, such as grant programmes, cost-share, discounts, and fee credits, as well as non-financial programmes, such as giveaways and award programmes.

The research looked at programmes across the US and Canada that use voluntary methods to encourage property owners to install SuDS on existing properties, and assessed these types of programmes by comparing their effectiveness, identifying the variables that affected success and ultimately establishing more nuanced ways of approaching private property stormwater solutions.

When it comes to working with local communities on becoming part of the stormwater solution, four key lessons rose to the top. These had less to do with specifics of the technology of SuDS or complicated financial mechanisms and more on how to better engage communities.

First, there have to be clear goals behind the programme and they need to inform the approach to communicating with potential participants. For example, if counting the number of litres of water kept out of the sewer system is most important, then more work has to go into making private actions predictable, reliable, and consistent over time with clear design guidelines or performance-based requirements, long-term monitoring, maintenance, and inspections. If the goal is about education and awareness, those technical aspects may be less important and focus should be on reaching a broad audience with consistent information and developing strong communications tools like signage, educational literature and informational events.

Second, successful programmes include a personal, customized approach, which ideally comes through one-on-one interactions with property owners. Properties and conditions are different, so solutions can’t be one-size-fits-all and people don’t always know which solution is best for their property. Working together with property owners improves awareness of the problems and potential solutions, increases participation, encourages a sense of ownership and leads to stronger projects. A common way to do this is through property or site assessments, which allow for bespoke recommendations that can be more cost-effective, tailored to level of interest and knowledge and more professional applications, making for more successful projects. In some cases, this is all property owners need to go ahead and invest on their own, allowing programmes to focus financial assistance on those who don’t have the means.

Working individually with property owners takes a lot of people power, which local agencies may not have. The third key lesson has to do with partnering to spread impact. Partners can add capacity by specializing in particular topics, geographic areas, or parts of the process chain. They often have the advantage of being able to build local relationships, focus more on property owner goals rather than regulatory mandates, can be more flexible and less bureaucratic and have more freedom to experiment with innovative techniques. These partners can range from neighbourhood groups and local charities with established local relationships to social enterprises or environmental charities with expertise to private contractors or landscape designers with established businesses to even creating new jobs.

Finally, it’s important to learn from mistakes and improve programmes along the way. Successful programmes understand there isn’t one answer and use formal and informal feedback to improve. Few programmes do extensive data collection or program evaluation, but even informal feedback is helpful and those that listened to feedback, addressed problems and made changes got better outcomes.

For my garden, as a renter, I’ll probably end up with a water butt to save water for use on the plants. But for the rest of London’s gardens, advocates for SuDS, particularly as an alternative or supplement to costly hard infrastructure, can use the lessons from this research in the US to cost out and plan for approaches to scaling up local SuDS adoption and management.

Though SuDS technology is not quite ready to be sold as out of the box systems the way water efficient fixtures are, there is an opportunity to learn more from water and energy efficiency to more effectively address behaviour change in stormwater. To help people help the broader environment, we need to invest in the social side of stormwater management, including efforts on behaviour change, programme design and evaluation and improved outreach and communications.

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.

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?