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For The Love Of Water: H209 & The New Generation Competition
Sean Conroe, 9 Sep 09

Today kicks off opening day for the H209 Water Forum in New York City. Hosted by the Henry Hudson 400 Foundation, the event aims to explore many of the water-related challenges of the 21st century.

Beginning with a keynote address from Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Lisa P. Jackson, and Tineke Huizinga, the H209 conference will feature more than 100 forward thinking individuals. From the HH400's release:

Dutch and American business leaders, environmental, planning and engineering experts, decision and policy makers, as well as visionary students, will explore how major 21st century water challenges facing today's city dwellers can be tackled for a sustainable future.
Finding Solutions for Coastal Cities is the main theme of H209. The conference explores sustainable adaptation to climate change, keeping safe and dry, ensuring water quality and building in harmony with nature for megacities in the decades to come. The best of both worlds, that's what participants can expect.

As part of H209, the foundation challenged undergraduate students in the U.S. and the Netherlands to submit their own ideas for improving water systems in The New Generation Competition. Entrants devised innovative solutions to water-related challenges that many coastal cities are faced with in the wake of changing climates, rising sea levels and diminishing supplies of fresh water.

The top three entries were chosen last month by a panel of judges that included Alan Blumberg, Director of the Center for Maritime Studies at Stevens Institute; Malcolm Bowman, Professor of Oceanography at SUNY Stony Brook; William Solecki, Director of the CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities and co-chair of the NYC Panel on Climate Change; Tara Gallagher, a private consultant on infrastructure and former vice president of infrastructure at Arcadis and Parson Brinckerfhoff; and Gary Rancourt, Business Development, Big Green Innovation at IBM.

First prize: Anke Poelstra, Technical University of Delft
Sitting around on a rainy day, 24-year-old civil engineering student Anke Poelstra started thinking of ways in which we could utilize rooftop rainwater that otherwise becomes nothing but runoff.

The solution? To use rainwater collected on roofs for flushing toilets in order to conserve water, reduce runoff and raise public awareness of a more sustainable water cycle.

Poelstra explains:

"I was looking out of my window on a rainy day, and the water fell on a partly tilted, partly flat roof. It seemed such an easy way to catch the water, that I wondered why we do not use [it]. Of course, there are some initiatives in the Netherlands, but using (grey or) rainwater is not done on a large scale. I figured that a small system, that catches the water for just the toilet (which in the Netherlands is already around 28 percent of the water use per person) should be feasible. Since the rainwater is only used for this, the storage...can be placed under the gutter.
"The size and location mean that also smaller (older) and already built houses can use the system. Besides the benefits of the use of rainwater instead of cleaned, drinkable water for flushing the toilet, this would also mean people could get aware of and involved with the water cycle, which I think is needed for a sustainable deltaic area."

Second prize: Ellen Speace, Rutgers University
As she approached her junior year as an environmental science major, Speace's interest in stormwater management sparked her idea on how reducing "reliance on the Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) New York City uses during heavy rainfall events" can help steer many coastal cities on the right path towards a bright green future.

She explains:

"To manage runoff, I suggested implementing green infrastructure to first reduce the volume of water able to enter a combined sewer system within an urban environment. (In recent years, there has been a paradigm shift from peak flow rates to volume control.) The second part focused on mitigating water which reached the CSS network and preventing the need for CSOs via installation of hydrodynamic separators and corresponding detention basins.... My proposal to decrease the reliance on CSOs has the potential to instantly reduce sewage polluting the Hudson River.

To me, I see that green infrastructure and stormwater management can go hand in hand. I strongly believe that stormwater management combined with green infrastructure will be the new face of urban planning in the coming years."

Third prize: Brendan McKeon, Columbia University
Inspired by a talk by architect (and Worldchanging ally) William McDonough, McKeon sought out ways to effectively manage runoff within cities. With roofs accounting for 40 to 50 percent of impermeable surfaces within the urban landscape, he figured that installing green roofs would be the best possible way to manage this excess water.

According to McKeon:

"The complexity of a few inches of soil planted with sedums is astonishing. Vegetation transported to a roof also can benefit private owners by reducing heating and cooling costs and doubling the lifespan of the roof. So there are private incentives to investment in green roofs, but I wondered why green roofs were still not widespread in America. It seemed to come down to high up-front costs and owners not wanting to risk long-term investment on the roofs.
Because many of the benefits of green roofs are shared with the public and not just by the building owner (such as reduced green house gases, reduced urban heat island effect, reduced flooding, and reduced strain on sewer systems) I think it is justified that a city or region may intervene through the development of green roof policies. It may create incentive programs to augment (and maybe one day supplant) traditional engineering budgets. Properly consider incentives, which include the opportunity costs associated with large-scale infrastructure, should spur private interest in investment, business competition, as well as proliferation of green roofs.
Cities would benefit from complex, balanced natural vegetated systems but don’t have much room or money for it. Private green roofs re-create many of the benefits of natural environments but also may appeal to budgets, especially if cities enact incentive programs based on collective benefits."

In addition to winning cash prizes ranging from USD $2,000-$5,000 (being awarded by Prince Willem Alexander of the Netherlands), Poelstra, Speace and McKeon will also have the opportunity to present their ideas to conference attendees in the session “Recruiting the New Generation of Water Professionals” on September 10. Internships starting in summer 2010 have also been arranged for the winners.

In the face of climate change, water challenges will require us to continually push the envelope to find additional ways to fix our flow. What we need is the best, most innovative solutions that require a different approach than those we've taken for years. By thinking outside the box and breaking free of old habits, we can help to push towards a sustainable future.

Spurring these ideas is a challenge in itself. Perhaps one of the best ways to accomplish innovative, big-picture thinking is by offering incentives, much like those offered in the New Generation Competition. By designing creative competitions that reward the best ideas, a myriad of groundbreaking ideas that may otherwise never have surfaced will come to light.

Read more on water in the Worldchanging Archive:
What's Your Company's Water Footprint?,
What Percentage of Water that Goes Down the Drain is Actually Lost Forever?.
Water Footprints Make a Splash
Plumbing the Future: Greywater Guerrillas

Photo credit: Flickr/Jörg Weingrill, Creative Commons License.

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These ideas don't seem new or very innovative to me at all. I'm very disappointed by the results. I was hoping that there would be more emphasis on community involvment and new ways to connect ordinary people on the street who don't have much money with their local ecosystems and to demonstrate the impact individuals in a community have on the larger water infrastructure.

Posted by: John on 11 Sep 09

The challenge itself was designed to take the big picture approach to solving water related issues faced by coastal cities:

”Since many of the world's great cities have developed and flourished along coasts, they all share 21st century realities, including concerns about adequate supplies of fresh water, rising sea levels, flood protection and waterfront development. Because coastal cities must maintain their vigorous port economies, they must increasingly tackle some or all of the following issues:

Waterfront and harbor development – commercial and residential; drinking-water quality and availability; source water protection; habitat for aquatic and shoreline life; wastewater treatment; water reuse; stormwater management; flood protection; infrastructure redesign; transportation and freight systems; clean water policy and enforcement.”

Cconsidering that we will be rebuilding over half of our current buildings within America by 2030, it remains vital that cities, especially coastal cities, create and implement these big picture ideas. And what’s even more essential is that the future water professionals understand the importance of changing the current ways we develop and plan our cities.

These students get that. And it’s encouraging to see that that these emerging engineers and scientists are proactively developing future-forward designs and policies to address some of the biggest challenges that cities face in the coming years.

Perhaps another competition will emerge soon that challenges us to think about ways in which individuals can address water related issues. I’d be curious to see what people come up with. Any ideas?

Posted by: Sean on 12 Sep 09

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