Networked Urbanism

design thinking initiatives for a better urban life

Design critics: Belinda Tato and Jose Luis Vallejo, principals of Ecosistema Urbano

Bostonians, through their water usage, are one part of an extensive, connected system.  The delivery of water to and from your home comprises of more resources than water alone and results in large scale infrastructural interventions that shape our landscape and impacts ecosystems on both sides of the chain. Through exploring methods of communicating these concepts, I hope provide a tool that educates users as to what resources go into the treatment and transport of water, how they’re using water in their homes and why it’s important to conserve it.


Know Your Water

“Know Your Water” came out of an interest in the hidden infrastructure of the city. Cities have complicated networks of resources that lie beneath them and only through the occasional clue, such as a manhole cover, are we even aware of their existence. Water, electricity and gas all appear at the click of a switch as if by magic; their supporting infrastructure only questioned when there are problems. I was particularly interested in the water network of Boston due to the sheer size of its supporting infrastructure.  Reservoirs and aqueducts are incredibly large interventions and Boston has one of the largest man made reservoirs in the world.  How have these massive landscape interventions been so successfully removed from our consciousness?

The first half of the semester was devoted to demystifying the water network, understanding all of the pieces of the potable water system from collection to use with the ultimate goal of targeting issues within the system that need to be communicated to the public. Since people tend to be very proactive about pushing for improvements in visible infrastructure such as streets, I hoped that I could help encourage them to take an equal interest in their water infrastructure and push for improvements in the aging underground networks.

Through research and interviews I realized that most of the issues in the Boston area lie not within the potable water networks, but post-use in the sewers.  For example, combined sewer/storm water overflow pipes are driving the design of our sewer systems and waste water treatment plants, causing major inefficiencies in the system except during large storm events.  Additionally, due to old pipes, clean water is infiltrating into the sewers which, combined with a largely impervious surface, are lowering the ground water level causing historic wood pilings in buildings.  However, the most essential piece of information I found was that the knowledge gap between the user and the water system is at a very basic level.  Partially due to the abundance of rain in the region, clean water is majorly undervalued and many users don’t understand why they should conserve it or even pay for it.

Currently, the average person pays only 1 to 2 cents per gallon for tap water in the Boston metropolitan area. Considering that as our population grows water is only going to get scarcer and prices cannot remain so deeply subsidized indefinitely, the goal of the project shifted to address the education of the average user towards the larger infrastructural, resource and ecological requirements of water usage.

The infrastructural requirements to provide water to the entire Boston metropolitan area are obviously quite extensive. There are three water sources feeding the system: the Quabbin Reservoir, the Wachusett Reservoir, and the Ware River.  Much of the land that drains into these sources, especially the Wachusett and Quabbin, is protected and came at the cost of displacement of multiple towns.  Additionally, the water travels at least 80 miles from collection to ocean release in pipes that range from 4 inches 23 feet in diameter.

There are also many other resources required in this process. A huge amount of energy is necessary to pump and treat waste water and despite many efforts to use renewable resources as often as possible by the Massachusetts Water Resources Aurthority, 84% of the energy they use is still coming from power plants.  There are also several chemicals that go into the water treatment process, disinfecting and altering the water composition.

Perhaps most importantly, the understanding that our water usage is part of a larger, connected system is crucial.  Our use affects ecosystems on both sides of the chain, and if the awareness of where our water will go can be achieved, then perhaps we can start to make smarter choices about our usage and what we put down the drain.

“Know Your Water” is not just about the water system alone, but is also an exercise in effectively conveying information. Much of my research is available through various water authorities’ websites but is not presented in an easily accessible format.  The process of water usage is complicated and systemic; the typical diagram is not effective at communicating these types of overlapping processes.  Through a reiterative method, I used animation as a tool for experimentation in communication. The resulting short animation is hopefully not just explaining the process to users, but by presenting the information in a neutral way, is asking people to have an opinion about it.  Working with the water resource authorities to make this film most effective, it would ideally be provided to users at the point of payment online. This animation is only the basic information, leaving many opportunities for the more specific sewer issues to be addressed in accompanying videos.


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