Kayaking the Sognefjorden during my recent trip to Norway on my mission Danielle Gallet
So, I’m on a mission.
My mission is to bridge previously siloed industries together to more holistically address today’s water resource challenges. My plan emphasizes 1) the need for improved partnering and cross-disciplinary project teams, 2) the need for a project or initiative to solve more than one issue at a time and 3) the need for valuing (and being willing to pay for) the vital role a convener and coordinator plays in ensuring successful collaboration.
To bring this mission to life, I have been traveling quite a bit recently. From New York City for the American Planning Association conference to St. Paul, MN for the National Adaptation Forum, and to Gothenburg, Sweden for the International Water Association’s Embrace the Water conference. I am conversing with planners, city officials, scientists, financiers, utility managers, water system engineers, university researchers, landscape architects and more. It’s been both educational and inspiring.
Having had this fortunate opportunity to attend and speak at these conferences about water resource management in the 21st Century, I wanted to share some universal, key perspectives gained from these conversations.
First, what are some of the water resource challenges we face?
The way we build our cities makes them flood
What used to function as a sponge—undeveloped land—continues to be paved over. This puts more and more strain on our already under-sized stormwater conveyance systems. Coordination is needed across jurisdictions to tackle the issue.
The infrastructure that brings drinking water to our taps 24/7 is OLD
Public health, as well as wasted water and energy are on the line. The infrastructure and massive investment our grandparents, great grandparents, some of us our great, great grandparents put in to provide water service and deliver safe drinking water is coming to the end of its useful life.
Clean, fresh water is not an infinite resource
Continuing to pollute and overuse water resources will increase what you pay for water. Polluted water is expensive to treat to make it into drinking water. And even in Chicago, on the banks of one of the largest freshwater bodies in the world, Lake Michigan doesn’t offer an endless solution to water demand since our withdrawals from the lake are limited by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The way we plan, design and manage infrastructure is siloed
Public money continues to be wasted due to a lack of cross-industry coordination. We need to coordinate on infrastructure projects: do the water pipes, energy or telecommunication lines beneath a roadway need upgrading or repair before we resurface a road? Can nature-based solutions like green infrastructure be introduced within the public right-of-way to assist with local flooding issues?
Gone are the days of large federal handouts for water systems
It’s time to invest in our own, local communities by ensuring sustainable water resources. Water rates should reflect the full cost and value of operating the water system and service we enjoy.
The very real impacts of climate change are already playing out in the water arena
Whether too much or too little water, communities are suffering from unprecedented weather. The latest climate projections predict even more intense weather events.
These issues and sentiments are universal and top of mind for many cities, regions and countries around the world. We are all grappling with how to better plan, design, build, manage, pay and ultimately enjoy our built and natural environments.
So what do we do?
I warrant we need to concern ourselves with who we be, first. We have to adjust our mindset.
Stationarity is dead: Our practice of planning for the future based-off past experience and data is no longer a true or accurate measure for what is to come—climate change is a game changer. We will have infrastructure that fails. How we prepare to respond in a time a chaos is what will allow our communities to be resilient and able to recover quickly from shocks and disruptions. In a time of complexity we should test different, smaller-scale solutions to see what works, where.
So we have to be flexible and adaptable.
We also need a universal way of communicating across industries about water. The terminology planners use differs from that of water engineers, which differs from community officials, which differs from landscape architects, which differs from scientists, which differs from artists, and so on. Being willing to speak plainly and clearly, without jargon, is a key recipe for effective collaboration.
So we have to be inclusive and open-minded.
Albert Einstein is often credited with saying some variation of “problems cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them.” Likewise, innovation will not happen in a vacuum. Partner, partner, partner—think outside the box on who has what skills to bring to a complex issue. Artists, scientists, financers, planners, engineers, researchers—varying perspectives on an issue brings strength to the ultimate solution.
So we have to be cross-disciplinary and creative.
From these ways of being comes innovation, successful outcomes and cost savings—happy communities. I am writing about the need to adjust our approach to solving the pressing water challenges of our time, and how it starts with an underlying commitment to being flexible, adaptable, inclusive, open-minded, cross-disciplinary and creative. Approaching our challenges from this perspective allows us to tackle complex problems.
This is what is needed, because we have some tough stuff to figure out.
Our struggle to ensure sustainable communities is as much about grappling with our human being-ness as it is getting the science and technology right.
Cities are doing a great job. No matter what noise or chaos may be coming out at the federal level these days, on-the-ground progress is being made at the local, community scale. Be it heat, water, flooding, extreme storms, air quality or energy concerns—it is our cities that are working to solve these issues. Those with the least resources will be hit the hardest with these challenges. So driving capacity—both financially and technically—to vulnerable communities is essential to ensuring fair and equitable quality of life for everyone.
Our struggle to ensure sustainable communities is as much about grappling with our human being-ness as it is getting the science and technology right. Humans have a great capacity for denial; it is in our DNA. Supportive communication and engagement strategies that adjust behavior and provide simple actions that empower people to change are just as important as the technologies and systems that we develop.
Whether you’re an interested citizen, planner, engineer, researcher, activist—whoever you are—for your next initiative, think about who might be missing from your team that could make the difference in thinking through an issue more holistically. What new partners might you invite to brainstorm about potential solutions to a complex challenge? Start simple—a coffee chat, and build understanding and fresh ideas from there.
And by all means have some fun! We cannot underestimate the value of comradery in uniting previously siloed industries and groups. Build a bridge and, please, get moving—there’s no time to waste.
This is my mission. But it can be your mission too.