Is Suburbia Fading?
Three trends, with two seemingly contradictory, seem to be converging when it comes to people and cities:
More people moving to cities: e.g. empty nester boomers downsizing. With the majority of stats suggesting the trend is in favor of more people moving (back) into cities, there is a lot to do to make cities livable for those moving back in. We can see the evidence in these stark images of inequality in major cities across the world.
Growing inequality between the haves (e.g. boomers, creative class) and middle America,
Increasing suburban sprawl: as middle America moves further out of cities to find affordable homes. Even though it feels like suburbia is out of fashion, some data suggests that we can’t count suburbia out just yet, as it still provides some hope for the middle class and their stagnating incomes. And middle America is moving further out as they cannot afford the suburban McMansions that the boomers are leaving behind.
As we have conversations about the impact of these three trends there is next to no conversation about the impact on one critical resource; water.
A Case Study On What Not To Do
There is a small town of ~8000 residents just north of one of the big cities in Texas. I won’t use the name because it is the story of most towns near big cities in the US. It has a few water plants, a few source water wells, distribution pumps scattered around town, ground and elevated storage tanks to ensure the whole town gets water when they need it and a ~30 person staff of hardworking and long-serving water utility operations folk. The water utility is already strained and Hurricane Harvey last year did not help.
Due to its proximity to a major city, a thirty-minute drive without traffic, property developers have descended on the town. Just under five hundred new homes are being built on the outskirts, consequently, expanding the coverage area of this struggling water utility. The new homes, much-needed homes, are being built some distance away from the current ‘water distribution grid’ and so the town will have to spend money it doesn’t have to add resources that will provide new water pipes/plants, roads, and conveniences. This town is scrambling, literally scrambling, to deploy new infrastructure or upgrade current infrastructure to serve current and new residents. It is a situation that is unsustainable. But the utility team is unwilling or scared to communicate this problem to their citizens. A problem that is increasing due to continued sprawl…
Human Water Cycle. Courtesy of Weforum.org
How and Why We ‘Sprawled’
As told in the most recent special issue of National Geographic, urban sprawl happened in the US for good reasons at the time. World War II soldiers returned and needed homes for their families. But came back home from war to overcrowded and run-down cities. Suburbia was a drive away from the rot. Suburbia was freedom. In China, city streets were narrow and dense even as more hinterlanders moved to cities to find fortune. The suburbs, right on the outskirts of the major cities, gave a sense of freedom. The development of Le Corbusier style buildings on the outskirts of major cities coincided with the ‘reform and opening’ of China which brought hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.
From personal experience, growing up in Nigeria, similar reasons as above, the need for freedom and affordability, led to thousands of civil servants and middle-class citizens moving to affordable homes in the suburbs of the city of Lagos. This movement of masses out of cities expanded the boundaries of these cities with the connections between the main city and suburbia being roads lined with conveniences like gas stations, cheap motels, storage locations, and all the necessary businesses to support our transit based lives of living far away from work and school. This is the point where cities started to fail.
In Peter Calthorpe’s, a renowned architect, assessment of where cities failed, he suggests that earlier cities were built to bring people together but that, through urban sprawl to the suburbs, we did everything to tear people apart. Infrastructure sprawl, suburbia and all that was required to maintain suburbias appeal, led to more roads and cars to get us to the homes that were now far away from even the most simple conveniences like grocery stores.
Calthorpe and members of the Congress of New Urbanism believe that we need to stop expanding cities so voraciously even as more people move in. Calthorpe and his cohort suggest that a new approach is required to sustainably allow cities to grow; with nature’s needs at the core, adopting mixed-use infrastructure in small dense clusters that are walkable for the residents of the city, all around a web of transit.
Wat’ In The World
Even as people dispersed and moved out of cities into suburbs, most city planners and water utilities kept the centralized water distribution system that we got from the Romans. Every upgrade to the water distribution system has been based on this centralized system foundation. The system operated by collecting water from the source, transporting it to one location for filtration/decontamination, then transporting it to storage tanks where gravity was used to deliver it to end users.
Expansion in the land area where people live (i.e. sprawl), precipitation level reductions and competition for water resources strains this water system. And this strain comes at a point when there is no willingness to spend money on the facilities that are required to maintain clean potable water for homes. To ease the strain, we will have to move to a distributed water system. Similar to the systems on the power side where there is now a need to accept the distributed, decentralized and digitalized grid. We will have to move to a distributed water system future.
There are some glimmers of hope showing a mindset shift is already taking place in some parts of the water utility industry. Some operators of water utilities now see themselves as custodians of a precious resource and service providers and not just as rate collectors. But the business model shift that is required along with this mindset shift has not taken place yet. That has to happen. Similar to the suggestions of Calthorpe and crew above, a new approach is offered; reusing or rebuilding the infrastructure that is already there in ways that make it useful and usable for the growing population while keeping it sustainable for the future of the planet.
Moving to Water 4.0
What does a distributed water system look like? What does Water 4.0 look like? A distributed water system future takes the radical approach of ‘pushing the responsibility of water acquisition, treatment, and management back to the individual household or neighborhood or ‘cluster’ (in the words of Calthorpe).
What does Water 4.0 mean for the water utility business model? Water 4.0’s business model means that the water utility disconnects its revenue from how much water people use and attaches it’s revenue to the services and operations of managing these distributed water systems on behalf of the clusters that own those systems. It’s one that says to a developer building a new estate outside the current water distribution system that the water utility will provide effective water utility management software, which our company provides, and the resources to help the residential estate or building ensure that their residents get clean potable water sustainably.
The same thinking shared by Calthorpe above provides a template for how we manage the water system in towns/cities going forward. The clusters of livability will have to become clusters of water acquisition, treatment, and management, closer to where people are. It’s one that eschews the current approach of huge infrastructure for centralized water management. Infrastructure we actually can’t afford. Unfortunately, as evidenced by the example of the town above, we are failing to approach the future this way.
Doing It Right This Time
Taking the approach offered by Calthorpe and his cohort, building new homes and conveniences for the people migrating from this large city to the small town would focus the new builds on taking the strip malls and commercial areas of town and adding homes there. Those transitory roads that the current dwellers of the town drive through to go from home to school/work are lined with storage locations, U-Haul lots, cheap hotels and the familiar strip mall store brands in mostly one or two story buildings. One or two story buildings of underutilized spaces. Underutilized spaces that already have functional water pipes connected. These buildings could be converted into three to four-story apartment buildings that expand the capacity of those spaces with minimal water (and other utility) infrastructure upgrades. A more cost-effective and sustainable alternative to the current plans for this town that is about to be hit with a lot more than the utility operations team is equipped to deal with.
The I in IOT is for Information
How do the three trends impact the water utility?
More people moving to cities: as more residents cram into mega highrise buildings in downtown areas of cities, water usage goes up while the source water isn’t replenished and the infrastructure that the city or water utility has to ensure supply isn’t upgraded. Process inefficiencies then lead to water quality and delivery issues.
Growing inequality: Middle America, in cities or towns, isn’t earning enough to afford to pay the utility for the true value of water. Even as the infrastructure available decays.
Increasing suburban sprawl: Even as Middle America moves in, sprawls, further away from the available water distribution system infrastructure they require the water utility to serve them in their new locations. Inflicting a cost the utility is unable to bear.
Along with not building more infrastructure, there is also the need to communicate why and what is going on to the current residents of this town. For Water 4.0 to happen we, we will have to involve the residents and people of cities. Even as the public works team scramble to keep the water system running for their citizens, they are mandated to communicate the quality of the water and the state of the system to their residents. The water utility team will have to educate their customers if they want to survive the transition to Water 4.0. We’ve built a tool that helps the water utility team to start to increase engagement and educate all stakeholders on the real work that goes into managing a sustainable water system.
For a team that currently uses manual controls, alarms, and radios to communicate, the old approaches to communication (internally and externally) won’t work. The need to move to data capture within the distribution system, information display in simple and insight-driven visualization at most times cannot be overstated. Connecting devices and employees also shortens the ‘distance’ between the teams even as the unfortunate sprawl, brought about the new housing developments, start to happen. And the city needs new approaches to communicating with a citizenry that is constantly connected through their mobile devices and desires the information that enables them to make good decisions about their water usage actions, asset usage and learn more about the team operations and asset expenses. The water utility will not totally stop being the management provider of the centralized water system, it will just have to accept that it cannot continue to sprawl along with the cities.
As income stagnation and inequality moves a certain class of citizens to suburbia, and the wealthier creative class /boomers move back into cities, water utilities will have to increase their operational efficiencies and engage more with their end-user customers to improve their ability to sustainably manage water systems. These utilities will have to adopt more data-driven approaches to system operations, engage their customers in decision making and disconnect their business model from how much water a customer uses. The other version of Water 4.0 (offered by David Sedlak in his book) requires a lot of technical expertise and more money than most centralized water utilities have or are willing to spend on a resource that most customers take for granted and pay less than the true value for.
The water utility will have to make hard decisions now to avoid pain in the future.
Frankly, this is the version of the city that we’ll all have to adopt; one that grows with nature’s needs at the core, adopting mixed-use infrastructure in small dense clusters that are walkable and convenient for the residents of the city, all around a web of transit.
We will have to make hard decisions now to avoid pain in the future.