Future visions for water and cities...by Stephanie Bricker

With eight grand challenges, five bold future visions and 200 co-creators, the UK Water Partnership opened the debate on water for our future cities. The Research Council (RCUK) showcase event, held at the Crystal in London on 30th June, brought together a welcome mix of government, industry professionals and academics and city players to unlock the potential of a reimagined city water cycle. The water challenges faced by our cities may not come as a surprise; to reduce water demand, ensure there is plentiful supply of good quality water, maintain effective infrastructure (above and below ground - more on that later), city groundwater management, reducing or exposure to extreme events, protecting our environment and lastly, adopting a whole-systems approach - which in essence means working together to solve all of these challenges. The UK Water Partnership is surely the first set towards this?

While the challenge may be predictable, the future visions put forward by the UK Water Partnership are not, they embrace the physical, digital and social fabric of our city to ensure both effective water supply and a resilient and liveable city. The five future visions, presented by lead-experts, pitch innovative but plausible solutions to city water management from  city food production through to floating infrastructures and hi-tech sensors and robotics.

The Underworld 

As team leader for urban geosciences at NERC's British Geological Survey my interest was of course 'Cities and the Underworld'; a vision where we dig deep, installing more underground infrastructure, and where the subsurface is utilised to deliver effective drainage, water, heating and cooling. Alongside Prof Chris Rogers of the University of Birmingham and Thames Water's Michael Jones, I was given 5 minutes to pitch my thoughts on the subject. My message is simple, a city that maximises the benefit of the underworld is one that identifies the ground as part of its infrastructure, maps out the services the ground provides and recognises the value of those services through effective subsurface management. Like any city asset, we need to understand the functions of the subsurface, how these functions interact with each other and the limits beyond which these functions are no longer provided. All of these things are achievable through effective monitoring, performance evaluation and subsurface planning and governance, with urban demonstrators proving the opportunity to appraise the physical, digital, social and political of these visions. This is not a far-future concept, through pan-European subsurface good practice we are already starting to see re-envisaged subsurface planning in UK cities, and where on city leads others will follow.

Five future visions for water in cities:
  1. Green Food and Garden Cityscapes: Sensitive urban design and highly monitored 'systems of systems' support city food production and green city landscapes.
  2. Flood Proof Cities: A combination of engineering, green infrastructure and nature-based solutions are used to reduce exposure to sea-level rise and extreme weather events. 
  3. Smart Homes and City Networks: City digital data-hubs harness the internet, sensors and citizen participation to deliver optimal economic efficiency and environmental performance to provide utility services. 
  4. Cities and the Underworld: Infrastructure is increasing built underground in cities and the subsurface is utilised to deliver effective drainage, water, heating and cooling. 
  5. Community Transition Cities: Utilities support resource stewardship in communities actively transitioning towards sustainable habits and practice. 

Water research for our future cities - what the experts think: 

'We need to value our water infrastructure more...' Sir Mark Walport

'Bring together the boundaries between science and engineering and make sure we meet the challenges together for a sustainable and resilient future.' Dr Helen Reeves, British Geological Survey 

'We need to engrain and scale up dissemination of science research and integrate into mainstream industry, in a language and format that is accessible and readable. the digital era brings lots of opportunity but lots of noise and we need to make sure the science research cuts through the noise.' Briony Turner, ARCC Network

'We should consider water as an element of a number of systems within cities, how does water impact those systems. We should look at the interface of water with energy, IT etc. to understand how powerful water is in the city, which in turn will lead to a number of innovative business models.' Prof Chris Rogers, University of Birmingham

'We need to make sure the baseline data is sufficiently robust to support multidisciplinary research and an integrated approach...' Peter Bide, Independent

Read all about it...

UK Water Partnerships Thought Piece 'Future Visions for Water and Cities'

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