Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A "New Normal" for the Twin Cities: a "Living Region?"

Have you ever complained about being in a hole and been told that the first thing to do is to stop digging? I wonder if Minnesota is ready to consider similar advice when it comes to water. Although the state and metropolitan plans I've been skimming through for the past few days all say we need to learn to conserve and coordinate and cooperate when it comes to resolving our emerging water woes, the solutions that get the biggest sound bites all have to do with spending multi millions of dollars to augment and transport additional supply as our next steps. That leaves me with some significant concerns and questions about what the design envelope is for water supply and, more broadly, water resource management. (Remember our recent reference to Gene Merriam's "What's the problem we're trying to solve here?") From my efforts in the green building sector, working with those far more knowledgeable than I, I learned that the first step in locating, designing, building and operating and energy efficient building is to reduce demand. That old saying about reduce, reuse, recycle is actually referring to a hierarchy.

Mississippi River: urban water supply
Mississippi River: urban water supply
Photo by J. Harrington

This morning, thanks to some research by Brendon Slotterback at streets mn, I watched part of a March 6, 2013 presentation to the Metro Council’s Committee of the Whole on the water supply issue the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area is facing. Much of the video looks in detail at the costs of regional alternatives. The need to conserve and use low impact development techniques for storm water management came across as almost an afterthought. So, one of my questions is "at what point will the Council consider proposing energy and water efficient, natural resource conserving techniques such as green building or, better yet, Living Building strategies as elements in comprehensive plans?" In fact, as an aspirational goal, I'd like to see Minnesota and especially the Metro Area, adopt a Net Zero Impact for new development. It's a stretch, I know, and some of you are probably wondering what I'm referring to. Here's a link to the latest Living Building Challenge, "the most advanced measure of sustainability in the built environment possible today..." The folks who developed the Living Building Challenge are scaling up to a Living Community Challenge. I think we should step it up to a Living Region Challenge. (You heard it here first.) Do I think we'll be able to meet the challenge in the near future? No, not immediately. (In fact, I'm aware of one proposed development that rigorously evaluated trying to meet the challenge and decided they could come close, but not get there. Our plumbing code and some other factors may need some "tweaking" first.) I do believe, though, we need to start changing our thought and design processes so we can eventually have a future in which
"... all developments are configured based on the carrying capacity of the site: harvesting sufficient water to meet the needs of a given population while respecting the natural hydrology of the land, the water needs of the ecosystem the site inhabits, and those of its neighbors. Indeed, water can be used and purified and then used again—and the cycle repeats."

rural well head drawing from groundwater
rural well head drawing from groundwater
Photo by J. Harrington

The water supply and water quality constraints Minnesota faces aren't limited to the metro area. The idea of perpetual growth, economic and demographic, is unsustainable and has been referred to by some as akin to a ponzi scheme. There are those who argue that urban development is, de facto, more sustainable than sprawl. I think that's debatable. Now that most of the world's population lives in urban areas, we need to be more sensitive to the food sheds, watersheds, energy sheds and waste sinks on which those urban conglomerations depend. I hope that this contributes to what I believe is a necessary conversation about how Minnesota will become more sustainable. I agree with the perspective in the Metro Council's video that business as usual doesn't get us where we need to go. I'm just not convinced we can build our way out of water supply constraints any more than we can build enough highway capacity to meet induced demand. Yes, it would be a stretch. Robert Browning phrased it well when he wrote: Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for? The same can be said of states and regions and communities because it's our collective reach we're talking about.

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