In an environment as water-rich as the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, it is easy to use water with complete abandon. We don’t save it, we throw it away blithely, we think little about how we use it. Water is taken for granted – as it is in many other industrialized, wealthy, water-rich corners of the world.
We overlook important truths when we are frivolous with water. The first is that water – the treated, drinkable, piped-to-your home commodity used in North America for every household purpose – is energy intensive. Every time we use it we depend upon a vast infrastructure that collects, cleans and delivers it to us, then carries it away, treats it and discharges it far from our homes. Using less water saves energy, and reduces the polluting and warming impacts of energy production. Of course, it is easy to overlook what you do not see. In aiming for all sorts of goals, laudable and otherwise, modern cities have effectively rendered water invisible. To allow for unhindered vehicle movement, public health, dry basements, tall buildings, efficient maintenance and development patterns based on straight lines and hard surfaces, modern cities have paved over streams, drained wetlands, channelled water into culverts and pipes, and forced this precious resource underground, inside walls and out of sight.
This causes us to overlook another important truth. We know, scientifically, that our bodies are made of water. But we have lost our relationship to it. Most of us only know it as a flow from a tap. We are unaware of its cycles, its ecology. We forget that we share it with salmon and eagles, forests and farms. We don’t know where it goes when it disappears down the drain.
Water is perhaps the best place to start the shift towards sustainability because it defies non-holistic thinking. It flows from place to place, adapts to any environment, infiltrates any opening. It is a connective tissue, linking us to our landscape and all the life around us – literally flowing through our bodies as it cycles within our ecosystem. Stopping the flow of water is like ceasing to drink – life withers quickly.
The designers of SEFC were told to bring water back onto the landscape, to make it visible, to “Celebrate the Water.”
Celebrate, indeed. For where we have water, we have life. How we treat water is, then, how we treat life. And where we learn to celebrate life – its perpetual flows and transformations of matter, energy, spirit, and yes, water – we take another critical step towards sustainability.
Water is a connective tissue, linking us to our landscape and all the life around us
This chapter explores the skin and lifeblood of the Millennium Water Olympic Village. That is, the green landscape stretched like living fabric over the buildings, and the rain that flows through building catchment systems, circulating back to rooftop and sky, before journeying beyond the development on its various paths to the sea.
Building landscape – once considered little more than a decoration at a doorstep – has evolved into a critical living element of sustainable building. Green roofs support passive design and mitigate the negative impacts of the built environment on the natural one, while rooftop and ground-level gardens encourage neighbourly exchanges, shared food and social sustainability. Bees, birds and barbecues are welcome here. In more ways than one, the building thrives.
The story of water at the Olympic Village can be rendered simply: rainwater is used for toilet flushing and irrigation, reducing water taken from the municipal reservoir. And runoff from dirty streets is cleaned in a wetland, where children and fish can also play. As with all stories of sustainability, however, there is much more under the skin. The intensity of design shifts, the challenge of leaving known territory for new initiatives, the complexity of trying to address multiple sustainability imperatives within single, elegant solutions – these are the stories of this chapter, captured so they can continue to inform the future.
Patrick Lucey – A Completely Different Design Approach
India and China are proposing to build 200 new cities over the next 15-20 years, each the size of Vancouver. What will those cities look like? At the moment, new cities mostly look and function like existing cities – a very daunting picture. To understand why, look back 2,000 years.
The Romans figured out how to do three things extremely well: build good roads, bring water over enormous distances and get waste out of cities. But they couldn’t build up because they didn’t have electric pumps or steel-reinforced concrete. Their curse was sprawl; it drove them insane and made their cities inefficient.
In comparison, consider the fundamental patterns that nature has used repeatedly for 4.5 billion years. First, all life forms are based on water. Second, nature doesn’t have an open-ended system – she has no “wastes.” In nature, when rainwater falls from the sky, much of it evaporates directly back from the surface of plants, or is taken up by their roots and transpired. If you track a single molecule of water, it doesn’t go from the sky, to the ground, into the river and back to the ocean. It’s recycled many, many times by plants and animals first.
However, for 2,000 years we’ve followed the Romans’ lead. We have a water supply – often pirated from outside our own watershed – which we pipe into the city. We use it once and then discharge it, usually harming the environment that receives it. We bring resources in and we discharge waste out: sewage, wet organic waste, garbage. We use everything once in an open-ended transport system.
To fix this, we’re focusing on the wrong things. Low-flow toilets, water conservation – this is still the path of consumption and waste. They are mitigation, when what we need is regeneration – a completely different design approach for the 21st century.
At SEFC, we’ve begun to close the loop. There’s a dramatic reduction in the amount of water needed from outside the system, and water is back on the landscape where it belongs. The SEFC development represents a fundamental shift in design – a bit like looking into a crystal ball. It says, “This is what is possible.”
The SEFC development says, “This is what is possible.”
We have to bow to the people at the City of Vancouver who had the courage to step outside their regulations and codes, to say, “This needs to be done and we will be the first to do it.” Now, they face a real opportunity – four blocks to the east, where 500 acres of old rail yards lie. There, they could build a completely self-contained city within one giant eco-block – and show the world what the smart, clean, green cities of the 21st century can be.
As a society, we have classified water to try and understand and manage it. This has created a problem, however, because there is no such thing as stormwater, drinking water, rainwater or wastewater. There is only water. By classifying types of water and believing that we understand it, we have oversimplified the complex set of interactions and pathways that nature uses to clean, store and renew the resource.
We have also created rules around how each type of water can be used. This has led to a disintegration and fragmentation of ecosystems and their services. For example, we use the terms surface water (e.g. lakes and streams) and groundwater. Yet where does surface water come from in the summer months? The ground.
Where does groundwater come from? Not the hot centre of the earth; it comes from the sky. Many people never mentally connect the two so we pave over the soil and inhibit groundwater recharge, and then wonder why our streams dry up. Value is derived from complexity, yet we seek to simplify ecosystems all the time. Thus we devalue them and the rich services they provide. This can lead to some very poor (and potentially dangerous) decisions.
CELEBRATE THE WATER The management of stormwater within SEFC has been one of the main guiding principles informing the design of the public and private open space, leading to strategies of retention, reuse and replenishment. Rainwater will be treated as a valuable resource.
SEFC Official Development Plan