A recent Canadian report questioned 17 experts about their vision of a water sustainable city: what such a city would look and feel like, emerging innovations in the water sector, the financial, institutional, and technological barriers to progress, and their personal wish lists. Together, they imagined the possibilities in urban water sustainability.

Water is visible in the Blue City.

Interviewed in 2013, the experts came from diverse backgrounds, including a landscape architect, a lawyer, the head of one of Canada’s largest water utilities, the lead of a regional non-governmental organization, a financier, a professor of engineering, a consultant specializing in asset management, an IT specialist, and many more.

The resulting report, Blue City: The Water Sustainable City of the Near Future, was released in January 2014 and weaves ideas into a single story of a hypothetical—but realizable—city. The exemplary elements of the Blue City are not only within reach for most communities, but are actually occurring in real places across Canada and around the world. Blue City represents an end state toward which municipalities can aspire.

Blue City was produced to help practitioners and decision makers build a business case for more sustainable, integrated water management. Since Blue City is largely an amalgamation of various aspects of real cities, it is easy to imagine its physical attributes, social relationships, and cultural norms. In fact, the report is punctuated by case studies embracing progressive ideas for urban water sustainability.

“There has long been a need for this kind of report: simple enough for someone with a general interest in water management to understand, sophisticated enough for the specialist to benefit,” says David Brooks, an independent water advisor and one of our collaborators.

Blue City offers a vision of a place where water is visible and valued, recognized as integral to the community’s economic, social, and environmental well-being. Scott Murdoch, landscape architect with Victoria-based Murdoch de Greeff Inc., captures the essence of this vision when he suggests, “We need cities where natural processes are visible. Water is a really great thing to see around us. It’s dynamic and changing.”

Another hallmark of Blue City is that it calls citizens to embrace and promote a culture of conservation that extends beyond water to energy and all natural resources. There is a shared responsibility for resource stewardship, and citizens are encouraged to become involved and participate in making their home municipalities livable.

Collectively, our collaborators identified four strategic areas where progress toward sustainability could be made:

financial responsibility;

progressive regulation and utility governance;

customer-oriented information; and

cutting-edge technology.

Stormwater management at the Atrium Building in Victoria, British Columbia. Credit: Murdoch de Greef Inc.

The innovations we need are practical and possible. Examples range from making instantaneous consumption data available to customers, to developing performance-based regulations, to recovering nutrients from wastewater, to creating new models for capital financing.

The concepts described within each of the four strategic areas are rooted in practice and emerging trends. Our collaborators pointed us toward tangible examples. As Carl Yates, general manager of Halifax Water points out, “When developing an integrated and sustainable approach to water management, the first thing you have to look at is governance.  Utility operations should be based on sound business principles with performance and financial practices regulated by an independent agency to ensure transparency and accountability.”

To build the city, we as practitioners need to offer a compelling business case. The pitch will look different in every circumstance, as each place has its unique social and hydrological context. However, embracing long time frames and the local political context are paramount to gaining support for an innovative project.

Creating processes that are inclusive of a diversity of opinions around water management will arguably be the most challenging part of building a water sustainable city. Success will inevitably require effective change management—dedicated leadership, risk management, and celebrated achievements. Theresa McClenaghan, executive director and counsel with the Canadian Environmental Law Association, says, “Whole sectors can change when you get a couple of good champions and good examples. Things can shift once there are a few pathfinders.”

Glen Daigger, senior vice president and chief technology officer at CH2M Hill and president of the International Water Association, adds, “Change requires motivation, which is an emotion. This is where the report really excels—by painting a vivid picture of what a water sensitive urban area is, and the individual and collective actions required to achieve it.”

Blue City is an accessible report, grounded in rigorous research and analysis, but presented in the style of a magazine. Complete with practical tips, this piece will lead practitioners and decision makers alike into a water sustainable near future.

The project was funded by the Blue Economy Initiative, a national project founded by the Canadian Water Network, the Royal Bank of Canada, and the Walter and Duncan Gordan Foundation. Research, analysis, and writing were completed by Econics, a British Columbia-based firm that specializes in providing water sustainability services to local governments and utilities.

David Henderson, managing director at Toronto-based XPV Capital Corp., points out that, “We are living in that transformational era right now.” The ideas in the report span organizations, jurisdictions, and professions, and can be embraced by anyone.

Sunset over the Ottawa river.

The idea at the heart of the report is that the decisions we make today will determine what the city looks like in five, 10, and even 100 years. With a shared vision in place, taking small, frequent steps is possible. Together, we can navigate diversity and complexity, and ultimately move a real city toward a better future.

The full version can be found online at www.blue-economy.caWC


Embedded in the phrase Water Sustainable City of the Near Future are four concepts:

   By city we mean a municipal environment of any size. We tend to think specifically of Canadian cities, but many of the insights would apply anywhere.

   By sustainable, we mean the capacity to endure. This includes biological systems that remain diverse and productive over time. It also implies the potential for long-term maintenance of human well-being. We think broadly and  include ecological, community, and financial aspects.

   By water, we mean drinking water, stormwater and wastewater. We think of water quality, quantity, and availability.

   By near future, we think along variable time frames. Some aspects of water sustainability are attainable within as few as five years. Changes that are more difficult could take perhaps 20 years to realize. Still others, such as replacement of major infrastructure, may take more time.


Eight Blue City Case Studies

Blue City is an attainable place. Many of its exemplary characteristics are found in real cities across Canada and around the world. The full report contains eight case studies that describe various aspects of a water sustainable urban environment.

1 Building Design (City of Victoria, British Columbia)

The Atrium Building is a seven-storey, 204,000-square-foot retail and office building at the edge of downtown Victoria. It is a multi-award winning project with acclaimed stormwater innovations.

2 Water in Decision-Making (Okotoks, Alberta)

Okotoks is a town of 24,511, located just south of Calgary. The town has an innovative relationship between bylaws and incentive programs to encourage continuous improvements in water conservation.

3 Blue Built Program (Guelph, Ontario)

The City of Guelph administers a certification program that provides rebates for new homes that meet an approved set of water-efficient standards, ranging from faucet aerators to rainwater harvesting systems.

Oxygen aeration of wastewater in sewage treatment plant.

4 Conservation-Oriented Pricing (Seattle)

Seattle Public Utilities has charged rates based on volume for decades and has been fully metered since 1920. In 1989, it was among the first in North America to introduce seasonal surcharges.

5 Developer Incentives (Chicago)

The Green Permit Program offers progressive developers an expedited permitting process and other incentives in exchange for incorporating items from a “Green Menu” of strategies and technologies in their projects.

6 Performance-Based Regulation (Edmonton, Alberta)

Since 2002, the City of Edmonton and EPCOR Water Services have operated according to performance-based regulations, a mechanism that prevents overspending, defines expectations, and lays out penalties in the case of under performance.

7 Utility Performance Measurement (Halifax, Nova Scotia)

Halifax Water is the first regulated water, wastewater, and stormwater utility in Canada. Its pressure and leakage management program has resulted in annual savings in operating costs of $600,000.

8 Source Substitution (Australia)

Pimpama-Coomera is a large greenfield development located on the Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia. It has a dedicated Class A+ recycled water treatment plant and entirely separate pipe system to supply homes and businesses in the area with water suitable for toilet flushing and garden irrigation.


Areas for Action

The water leaders interviewed in Blue City identified four priority areas for action:

1 Financial Responsibility: Sustainable utilities focus on levels of service, develop asset management plans, and embrace life-cycle costing. In pricing services, utilities aim for full-cost recovery and structure their rates to influence behaviours.

2 Progressive Regulation and Governance: 
Progressive regulations and incentive-based programs complement each other in driving performance and ultimately achieving water sustainability goals. A well-designed utility governance structure facilitates information flow and achieves resource efficiencies.

3 Customer-Oriented Information: Utilities measure their performance. This facilitates transparent reporting and informs planning processes. In a sustainable city, information is shared, integrated, and audience-specific.

4 Cutting-Edge Technology: Transformative utilities figure out how to incorporate technology that makes source separation economically viable. Sustainable cities have infrastructure that maintains the natural environment and minimizes the impact of activities on native ecosystems.

Kirk Stinchcombe and Louise Brennan are Sustainability Specialists at Econics. Jenn Willoughby is Manager of Strategic Marketing and Outreach at Canadian Water Network. This article appears in Water Canada’s March/April 2014 issue.


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