The Swimsuit Issue

Posted in Vol 13 No 2 by bsaab on April 28, 2010

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It was a classic editor’s dilemma: how to sex up a magazine issue devoted to an important but — let’s admit it — possibly wonky discussion of water, policy, and design.

And then the skies opened.

At this writing, New England has been hit by two storm systems producing record-breaking rainfalls and catastrophic flooding. Boston alone has received 14 inches of rain. Suddenly everyone is a policy expert: television reporters fill newscasts with spot interviews about combined sewer outfalls and FEMA maps. People understand, with painfully earned clarity, the complex relationship between infrastructure and the environment, and the effects on their health and welfare. The questions of where, what, and how we build have rarely seemed so important.

This will undoubtedly prove to be a mixed blessing for those who have been laboring to promote effective water management policy in this region. New Englanders have been famously complacent about the challenges facing this region: gardens grow, water flows from the tap, beaches seem cleaner — what’s to worry about? Plenty, it turns out. But it may be hard to focus attention on concerns such as groundwater recharge or low river flow when YouTube videos of imperilled dams and washed-out roadways are so fresh in our memory.

Focusing public attention is not the only challenge for those who care about water resources, both salt and fresh. The path from science to policy to regulation to implementation was murky enough without the recent controversies and politics associated with climate change. Those who labor in what has been called “Water World” — the dedicated army of environmentalists, scientists, researchers, engineers, planners, and lawyers working in public agencies, universities, think tanks, and nonprofits as well as in the private sector — struggle to promote prudent policy that is often at odds with individual behaviors and interests.

The inevitable result is an omnium-gatherum of regulatory devices administered by international organizations, federal and state agencies, municipal code officials, and volunteer boards. Conflicts abound, good intentions are thwarted. And no one sees this more clearly on a daily basis than architects.

Architects occupy a territory that is at the intersection between water policy and implementation — a territory perhaps better likened to a traffic rotary, with participants moving seemingly in the same direction but actually toward different destinations, with the attendant confusion, stress, and occasional crash. From that vantage point, architects can see that new approaches to wastewater management are often at cross-purposes with communities that have learned to control growth through septic-system regulations. They know that protection of coastal wetlands often conflicts with developers and cash-starved coastal communities hoping to cash in on waterfront access. They hear firsthand that federal and state conservation mandates can lead to consumer frustration with new products and appliances that fail to perform as expected. They witness well-intentioned building owners and developers discouraged by local permitting processes.

One problem is that we are not starting fresh: New Englanders in particular must contend with established building patterns and aging infrastructure. Even a quick glance at a US Geological Survey map of eastern Massachusetts is enough to identify vast tracts that environmental planners today would probably redline. But the Chelsea tank farms occupy what might otherwise be clam flats, homeowners struggle to stabilize their houses on Plum Island despite erosion of the barrier beach, and neighborhoods encroaching on Revere’s Rumney Marsh (recognized as one of the state’s most biologically significant estuaries) thrive even as their foundations settle. These are not situations easily undone.

Since the March floods, the questions of where, what, and how we build have rarely seemed so important.

Similarly, we have inherited political structures that often frustrate reform. Competing jurisdictions can be formidable roadblocks, especially to hybrid solutions that emerge from a more sophisticated understanding of complex systems. A plumbing code that is developed and administered separately from a building code makes little sense in this new world.

A more effective, integrated approach to water resources will someday be implemented, simply because it must. The question is only one of time — and the attendant cost due to waste, inefficiency, and natural calamity.

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