Water in a Sustainable Urban Village by Richard Jennings

Sewers are the perennial streams of our civilization in most semi-arid areas. Because water is the critical element, water resiliency will include budgets, reserves, maximum cycling and plans for shared sacrifice or prosperity as the climate delivers….

Water in a Sustainable Urban Village

It is great to dream and make plans.  But then what?  To make things happen the plan has to be clear enough to create an understanding and consensus of what needs to be done.  This also requires buy-in from the community.   When the path is clear, people can move in collaboration and harmony.  A good start is to define the most important elements.   Good definitions are intuitively clear to enough people to create consensus and action.

What is Water? 

Pretty much everyone knows H2O; two hydrogen atoms that hang on to an oxygen molecule. The molecular picture looks like a round head with two ears.  The forces that put the ears where they are make water the unique life blood of our planet.  Its sacred properties make life on earth possible.  Here is an example.  Your ice cube floating in a cold drink has profound meaning.  Frozen water floats because the solid water is lighter than the liquid water.  Very unusual. That means that lakes and rivers freeze from the top down so life in the water below is protected. If the ice cube was at the bottom of your glass, our lakes would freeze from the bottom up with no insulating layer on top.  Good-bye fish and all of the other critters that make for a living water body.   Another example, a plant can transpire its water and photosynthesis happens.  Carbon is downloaded from the atmosphere to the plant.  That is how we get our food and oxygen to breathe from the plant world.

What is Sustainable?

For a system to be sustainable, it has to run continuously on inputs from Nature.  As it runs, it must make the inputs for the rest of the system.  So plants breathe in CO2 and breathe out O2.   We humans breathe in O2 and breathe out CO2.   The system works without our even knowing it.  But without a sustainable system we would die.  For humans living in harmony with the rest of creation, a good list of sustainable goals is: food, fiber, fuel, microclimates, habitat, resiliency, and beauty.

What is Community?

The idea that one species can dominate all others developed in a particular phase of human evolution.   The cost to us was that we stopped listening to nature.  That does not mean that nature’s conversations have not continued.  One community that relates to us and to water is the soil.  Soil is the terrestrial engine of life.  It consists of structure, chemistry, biology, energy and moisture.   For our community to be sustainable, the larger community must also.  This means making deals with other species.

What is a Village?

The web of life connects all. A small part of that web is human economics.  In a village, economics are integrated so that most human needs are available within a small radius of your home.   This requires new mediums of exchange that involve collection, storage and reuse of many forms of water, rain, sewage, condensation, etc.  It also involves new forms of commerce and new careers.  Earning a living where you live is a key part of village economics.

How does all of this fit?

The most successful communities of any species are able to live on the inputs that nature provides,.   Humans have survived by way of upping the returns by taking additional resources.  In the case of water the equation is simple.  Diversions = consumption + return flows.  This means that for every gallon of water you take from a well, a river, ground water, etc, something happens.  You can use the water and then it disappears by evaporation.  It is consumed and used up.  Or you can flush a toilet and the water comes back out of your home.  It is a return flow.   Return flows are most common in sewers .  The normal perspective on sewers is “Ewww Gross”.  A better perspective is that sewers are the perennial streams of our civilization in most semi arid areas.  They are a consistent return flow of moisture and nutrients that  are needed for the land and all of its inhabitants.

Getting back to the basics: food, fiber, fuel, microclimates, habitat, resiliency, and beauty.  Food is a substance that provides the chemistry for life and growth.   By cycling, all parts of the food web get what they need. Fiber can be used for clothing, building, paper, etc.   It is a carbohydrate that comes from the fields and trees of the village.  Fuel is embodied energy.  It may be used to heat a space, run a machine, or energize the soil foodweb.  Microclimates include such things as windbreaks, shade, and warm spots where more tender plants can live.  Habitat includes space and resources for all of the inhabitants of the village, whatever species.  This may seem strange until you consider that you share your body/biome with 100 trillion cells that do not share your DNA.  Your biome is a good model for how the village will operate with many species.  Resiliency is the glue that holds the village together.   This will become critical with the arriving stresses of climate disruption.  Because water is the critical element, water resiliency will involve budgets, reserves, maximum cycling, and plans for shared sacrifice or prosperity as the climate delivers.  The technologies of sustainable water have evolved over several thousand years from theIndusValley to modern systems combining technology and biology.  It can all be done with well paying work and respect in the community.   Welcome to the village.

This is a continuing story that was initiated by the Santa Fe Art Institute.  These words are dedicated to SFAI


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