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Sherwood Institute Brings Water Infrastructure Recommendations to the United Nations
March 5th, 2015 by Sherwood

This post is authored by Prentiss Darden, from SDE’s Innovation Lab, who participated in the SI Forum and is currently collaborating on the upcoming Sherwood Institute publication, “Innovations in Urban Water Infrastructure.”

This past September, Sherwood Institute hosted a two day workshop in New York City to generate ideas about innovations in urban water infrastructure and how to implement them.  We were joined by a group of 60 engineers, landscape architects, architects, planners, ecologists, policy makers, and development workers, including representatives from the UN, Columbia University’s Urban Design Lab and Earth Institute, Grimshaw, Gensler, Mia Lehrer and Associates, Sasaki Associates, and dland studio.  Participants came from the east, west, and gulf coasts, bringing a variety of experience and perspectives to apply in developing innovations and implementation strategies to a variety of sites chosen for their varying conditions relative to climate, population density, and infrastructure condition.  The workshop was conducted as a design charrette, with groups working on solutions for sites located in Manhattan,   Silicon Valley, New Orleans, San Juan (Puerto Rico), Qinhuangdao (China), and Bangalore (India), addressing innovations and implementations as they applied from bio-regional to district scales.

Forum participants discussing innovations in water infrastructure for the city of New Orleans. Pictured: Jason Hellendrung, James Lima, David Burke, Jeff Carney, and Elisa Petkova. Photo Credit: Angela Eaton / Sherwood Institute

We documented the innovations and implementations that came out of the two days of brainstorming, idea exchanging, and development, and presented this information at the United Nations during a side event for Prep Com 1 for UNHABITAT.  UNHABITAT is a conference held every 20 years to set goals and guidelines for sustainable urban development, which also provides parameters for development funding.  UNHABITAT III will take place in Quito, Ecuador.  Leading up to UNHABITAT III (2016), there are two sessions of preparatory meetings to develop the New Urban Agenda, the first was in New York in September 2014, the next to take place in Nairobi, Kenya in April 2015.  2015 is a significant year within the UN, because it marks the end of the cycle for the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), which have unfortunately, failed for the most part.  Recognizing their failure, and the need to continue addressing concerns of basic services for humans, the MDGs are given new life and rebranded as Sustainable Development Goals.  The challenge still exists to provide basic services for a rapidly growing global population.  UNHABITAT and associated groups are working over the next year to integrate the Sustainable Development Goals into the New Urban Agenda, to provide a framework for creating cities that are resilient, sustainable, inclusive, and healthy.

Creative diagramming by Lewis Knight of Gensler! Photo Credit: Angela Eaton / Sherwood Institute

Creative diagramming by Lewis Knight of Gensler! Photo Credit: Angela Eaton / Sherwood Institute

We gathered at the United Nations as part of the Prep Com meetings and listened as many people gave speeches about the projections our planet faces for population growth.  While past decades saw populations boom in Asia, future population growth is expected to occur mostly in African countries.  Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the United Nations, spoke about the expected increase in urbanization, and the challenges and opportunities it creates.  Projected growth creates challenges and pressures on natural and human resources to provide food, water, shelter, and employment during rapid urbanization.  People move to cities for jobs and opportunities, but many times when they are seeking to escape from poverty, they often find themselves in slums with few economic opportunities.  While the adaptability of humans in dire circumstances is often remarkable, there is no doubt that planning and design can render more livable and healthy communities.  Joan Clos, former mayor of Barcelona and current Executive Director of UNHABITAT, spoke about the critical need for the execution of design and planning to ensure growth in cities happens with intention and organization, to shape cities that are resilient, sustainable, inclusive, and healthy.

Sherwood Institute's Executive Director Angela Eaton, with Morana Stipisic from Columbia University's Urban Design Lab, and Bry Sarte, founder of Sherwood Institute at the UN for UNHABITAT III Prep Com I.

Sherwood Institute’s Executive Director Angela Eaton, with Morana Stipisic from Columbia University’s Urban Design Lab, and Bry Sarte, founder of Sherwood Institute at the UN for UNHABITAT III Prep Com I. Photo Credit: Prentiss Darden

UN Representatives spoke about the need to align Sustainable Development Goals with the New Urban Agenda that will come out of UNHABITAT III.  Much of the conversation centered on the need to develop housing and to provide economic opportunities for women.  However, for those who work in designing infrastructure, there was a notable lack of conversation about the critical role infrastructure plays in design and planning.  This is the point in which we at the Sherwood Institute and Sherwood Design Engineers want to be a part of the conversation.

During the side event, our panel presented innovations in water infrastructure, explaining how new versions of infrastructure have multiple rather than single benefits, and designed in a way that creates public space and continuity of the urban and ecological fabrics within which our cities are constructed.  Our panel included Bry Sarte (founder of SI), Morana Stipisic (Columbia University), Richard Plunz (Columbia University), Patricia Culligan (Columbia University), and Mary Rowe (Municipal Arts Society).  The idea of infrastructure as the connective tissue of the urban fabric that sends and receives water, energy, and waste, is being reimagined as a living system that provides a variety of benefits such as decreasing urban heat island effects, releasing pressure on aging infrastructure, absorbing water for flood protection, filtering water and reuse, and providing ecological habitat and ecosystem services.  Innovations in resource co-optimization and resource recovery allow us to see our waste as a resource, turning waste into usable energy.  Designing in a way that brings visibility to the performance of infrastructure allows people to understand how it works, and how our behavior affects its functioning.  Ideas about incentives and partnerships between public and private entities, across jurisdictional boundaries, and the role of leadership and vision underlie the implementation techniques put forth.


Presentation of the SI Forum during a panel at the UN for UNHABITAT III Prep Com I. Pictured: Mary Rowe (MAS), Richard Plunz (Columbia’s UDL), Bry Sarte (founder, SI), and Morana Stipisic (Columbia’s UDL). Photo Credit: Prentiss Darden

As we move forward in discussions and work related to UNHABITAT III and the New Urban Agenda, we envision bringing more attention to the role of infrastructure in sustainable urban development through our technical expertise.  There is a need for both a framework to set goals for cities with various conditions, and a way to measure success in reaching these goals so that we have a way to compare disparate locations reaching for the same goals.  Our work as a non-profit and as design engineers working within the water-energy nexus has a lot to offer in terms of how new versions of infrastructure systems function, and how they can be designed to benefit both formal and informal development as populations increase and climate change affects precipitation patterns and sea level rise.

United Nations Headquarters in New York City.  Photo Credit: Josiah Cain

United Nations Headquarters in New York City. Photo Credit: Josiah Cain

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