On March 30th Penn IUR, in partnership with Perry World House, Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, and the Humanities+Urbanism+Design (H+U+D) Consortium, hosted a lunch talk with Henk Ovink, Special Envoy for International Water Affairs for the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Principal, Rebuild by Design. Penn IUR Faculty Fellow Stefan Al, Associate Professor of City and Regional Planning, School of Design kicked off the event by welcoming the overflowing crowd and introducing Ovink and panelists, Penn IUR Faculty Fellow Howard Neukrug, Professor of Practice, School of Arts and Sciences, Principal, CASE Environmental LLC and Dean Frederick Steiner, Dean & Paley Professor, School of Design.
Neukrug introduced the efforts the City of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Water Department have undertaken to address local and regional water challenges. Green City, Clean Waters, a program of the Philadelphia Water Department started 5 years ago with the goal of creating 10,000 greened acres in 25 years to mitigate the effect of stormwater runoff. Neukrug noted that work in the Netherlands served as an inspiration for much of the strategies deployed in Green City, Clean Waters. He argued that despite the many water infrastructure challenges in the U.S., these barriers also represent opportunities to build new systems that are more resilient to a changing climate and provide safe, affordable water to all residents, including the most vulnerable populations.
Turning the focus of conversation to global water challenges, Ovink began by introducing the gravity of the world’s current situation. Citing the World Meteorological Organization March report that argued we are now in “truly unchartered territory”, he explained that the problems of too much water, water scarcity, and water pollution are exacerbated all across the globe. Many countries are experiencing unprecedented flooding levels, sea level rise is already threatening small island states, and trashing and dumping are threatening the safety of our supply of clean water. The economic case does not reflect what the poor and vulnerable will lose if we only think of the problem in terms of monetary losses. Further, climate change will become a matter of international security if water scarcity leads to conflict or war.
We are at a turning point, Ovink underscored, and need a transformative approach to how we think of and manage water. Our approach must be outside of the current system. While the Sustainable Development Goals are a good starting point, we need to push beyond that to mitigate the future risks of water overabundance, scarcity, and pollution. Our current crisis, however, presents an opportunity to push the envelope, Ovink noted. A new approach needs to build capacity by marrying the short term and the long term and stressing both inclusivity and transparency. Design is critical to the planning process and must join the talent of the world to the talent of the place. Ultimately, we need leaders that dare to step up, not for our generation, but for our children’s, he said.
Al moderated a discussion with Ovink, Neukrug and Steiner, deliberating on what type of leadership is needed to address our increasingly serious water challenges, the role of designers in creating the solution, and who is going to pay for the implementation of a new approach. Neukrug argued that leaders are needed who bring a vision for change and can communicate that vision effectively to the public. Steiner warned that although designers are valuable contributors when it comes to creating quick solutions, they need to ensure they do not get locked into unsustainable solutions too early. Ovink emphasized that we will all pay for the rising cost of water challenges and advocated for raising the price water to reflect the societal cost.