Jack Nicholson And Faye Dunaway In 'Chinatown'

Untapped Opportunity: Don’t Just Repair Water Infrastructure, Reimagine It

Since its establishment of a water and sewer department in 1884, my Boston suburb has built 10 wells that pump fresh water from two alluvial aquifers. It has also worked with the regional Massachusetts Water Resources Authority to tap additional water from two reservoirs and a river. Today it treats that water in three corrosion control and iron/manganese removal facilities; pumps treated water through 150 miles of street mains; stores excess drinking water in two facilities measuring almost 6 million gallons; and orders chemical analysis of the whole delivery system more than 8,000 times in any given year.

Phrased another way, I have barely a clue where my family’s water comes from. Anyone currently self-quarantined and home-schooling a fourth grader is likely facing a similar predicament: the traditional elementary school’s water-cycle diagram bears only vague resemblance to the complex, invisible realities of Wellesley, Massachusetts. 

The subak is one of the alternatives to Roman water infrastructure featured in Julia Watson’s book Lo—TEK, published by Taschen.

 

Modern America’s water infrastructure is largely descended from the aqueducts and tunnels of ancient Rome. In her new book Lo—TEK, Design by Radical Indigenism, Julia Watson reveals other ways this legacy could have unfolded. She takes readers to the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, for example, where Marsh Arabs have lived immediately atop their drinking water on al-tahla and tuhul islands since 4000 BCE, and then to Bali’s millennia-old subak terraces that are managed by dam-fed system of water temples and channels. These and other systems circulate water as ingeniously as the Pont du Gard conveyed spring water to Nimes. On the other hand, they are immediately experienced, highly participatory, and, except in the face of foreign intervention, remarkably resilient. 

Mahagiri rice terraces are one component of the Balinese subak system. Photo by David Lazar.

 

Lo—TEK arrives at a time when the flaws in our Roman inheritance are becoming ever more palpable. The history of American water infrastructure is one of crisis, minimally thought-through reaction, and new crisis, in which increasingly scarce fresh water is imported from increasingly faraway places. Climate change threatens that through line crucially. 

Other recent, albeit more terrifying, additions to my bookshelf include Downriver, in which Heather Hansman foresees increasing interstate conflict over water appropriation in the American West, and Michael Klare’s prediction of water shortage–triggered nuclear war entitled All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change. 

I enjoy doomsday scenarios as much as anyone (another at-home screening of Outbreak, anybody?). But it bears noting that water infrastructure’s failures are having palpable effects right now. Earlier this year the Environmental Protection Agency dramatically reduced protections under the Clean Water Act, by handing regulation of ephemeral water bodies such as wetlands, waste treatment systems, and groundwater over to states. A longer standing trend of federal disinvestment in water infrastructure has led to skyrocketing consumer prices for fresh water, as well as household shutoffs at a moment when hygiene feels more important than ever. And one can’t discuss this subject without reflecting deeply on the tragedy of Flint, Michigan, which could have very well happened here in Wellesley had our local officials treated the public trust of an enfranchised community with the same disregard. 

The hiddenness of water infrastructure plays a role in these events. If the breakdown of American water infrastructure is the result of multiple phenomena, the system’s lack of visibility—my own inability to tell my kids how rain turns into toothbrushing, in other words—certainly allowed it to happen with fewer checks and balances in place. 

Making water more visible won’t necessarily solve systemic dysfunction. But it is a first step toward ensuring the system is neither taken for granted nor exploited. 

If most of the nation’s water infrastructure predates the invention of zoning, then regulation is at least complicit in the decoupling of the water cycle from our daily lives. Some of the most progressive water-infrastructure projects operating in the United States today—California’s Carlsbad Desalination Plant, for example, or the Hampton Roads Sanitation District’s SWIFT treatment plant on Chesapeake Bay—stand on the fringes of their communities. Even our best efforts in water security are relegated out of sight and mind. Zoning should be revised to reflect the true importance of the natural resource. 

Understandably, certain water infrastructure is too large to be woven into an existing urban fabric. Not to mention that inserting a facility that is reputationally plagued by odor control can touch a NIMBY nerve in even the most lionhearted citizen. 

Yet water infrastructure can appear closer to our homes, because it already does. Service reservoirs and pump stations punctuate water systems, while drainage and catchment areas are the unwitting green necklaces of our communities. Local agencies and private citizens can rethink these spaces as public amenities, perhaps conscripting other taken-for-granted landscapes like traffic circles and off-ramps into the undertaking. The Smart Growth and landscape urbanism movements are already leading this reconsideration with any number of bioswales and other stormwater-remediation projects. Though I could imagine transforming a detention basin into the equivalent of a subak water temple, too. 

Has the BIG-designed Amager Bakke made infrastructure sexy again? Photo by Astrid Maria Rasmussen.

 

Wherever we promote water infrastructure to a public amenity, these interventions also require reprogramming, so they play a more active part of a community’s daily life. Carlsbad hosts tours and SWIFT includes research spaces; the educational component is a given. But could our water infrastructure welcome greater citizen involvement by, say, becoming pickup points for household rainwater cisterns that prevent untreated water from spilling into said drainage and catchment areas? Or consider the oft-quoted Amager Bakke in Copenhagen: BIG’s ski slope–topped waste-to-energy plant shows that it is possible and even preferable to arrange marriages between seemingly unrelated uses. Would this building be the stuff of tourism campaigns had it just been home to another K–12 composting exhibit? 

While beauty is a problematic word, we should also more assertively recruit aesthetics into illuminating and demystifying water infrastructure. Indeed, I may not have purchased Lo—TEK or written this essay had it not been for the detours to Steven Holl Architects’ poetic Whitney Water Purification Facility that my wife humored me with on multiple rides from Wellesley to New York. Hearteningly, there are many other projects that could have had the same effect on me. The Oppenheim Architecture–designed Muttenz Water Purification Plant in Switzerland, for instance, or the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant by Ennead appear conceived to turn passers-by into advocates. Conversely, I am enthused by the public investments that prioritize beauty fundamentally, but which take care to incorporate water security as a criterion of excellence, as Houston’s Buffalo Bayou or Hunter’s Point South Park in Long Island City do so well. 

Whether it is more centrally located, more multifunctional, or more beautiful, my underlying hope is that we transform our view of water infrastructure—from necessary engineering exercise into a full-fledged design opportunity. Any number of federal and local programs have shown that, for an incremental cost, incorporating design leadership can powerfully change citizens’ understanding of the built environment. Architects need to yearn for these projects like they were courthouses or museums, and water authorities should procure A/E services for them with the same multidimensionality and rigor. In the meantime I am planning my kids’ imminent home-schooling lesson, with an eye to triumph at the Schofield Elementary science fair.

Featured image: “Chinatown,” 1974, directed by Roman Polanski, written by Robert Towne.  

Newsletter

Get smart and engaging news and commentary from architecture and design’s leading minds.

Donate to CommonEdge.org, a Not-For-Profit website dedicated to reconnecting architecture and design to the public.