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August 13, 2014

Toledo’s water ban demands a holistic view

Originally published on cleveland.com.

It is unthinkable that, in the world’s richest water region, there is a city that cannot access safe fresh water. Yet in early August, those served by the city of Toledo’s water intake in Lake Erie woke without water to drink. For several days, almost half a million people living within sight of Lake Erie, one of the five Great Lakes, brushed their teeth, washed their babies and ran their businesses with water carried in from the grocery store.

This is neither simply a Toledo problem nor even a Lake Erie problem. While the culprit for those water troubles has been identified as the toxin microcystin, found in the algal blooms that have engulfed the city’s water intake point at the mouth of the Maumee River, it is but a symptom of a larger governance and land-management problem.

Every day, runoff from our agricultural fields and our urban centers carries a mix of fertilizer, manure and sewage to the shores of the Great Lakes – a lake system that constitutes 20 percent of the world’s surface freshwater. In short, every last community and farm upstream of the mouth of the Maumee River is complicit in this month’s events in Toledo.

In natural systems, algae growth is limited by the availability of phosphorus. But our urban and rural runoff carries with it unnaturally high amounts of phosphate, essentially fertilizing our lakes into self-destructive cycles characterized by headline-catching plumes of algae, with invasive species lingering in the shallows.

The problem of excessive nutrients and algal blooms is nothing new. In fact, societies since Mesopotamia have been dealing with the mixing of manure and sewage with water. In the United States, the Clean Water Act has resulted in reductions in loadings of nutrients from cities and from agricultural activity.

However, the situation in Lake Erie highlights the long journey to fully protect our lakes and make them safe for swimming, suitable for fish and usable as a source of drinking water.

Climate change and the prospect of more frequent extreme weather events only increase the imperative for new approaches. In its Great Lakes Century Vision Plan, the architect-engineering-design firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill has called out agricultural runoff and climate uncertainty as two of the region’s most pressing challenges. By illustrating the Great Lakes Basin as one region, the 100-year Vision Plan highlights connections between urban and rural areas and the fact that water doesn’t recognize political boundaries.

Protecting the Great Lakes requires stewardship of the land that drains into its tributary rivers. We must stop applying excessive chemical fertilizers to farm fields and – more fundamentally – prevent runoff at the source. Soil amendments such as gypsum increase soil’s capacity to infiltrate rainwater, and buffers between fields and drainage systems can further absorb nutrient-carrying water before it reaches waterways. Less runoff means less soil erosion and reduces the need for synthetic fertilizers.

In cities, technology is already available to remove phosphorus from wastewater effluents – keeping it out of our lakes and directly reducing the need to dig phosphorus out of the earth for fertilizer. Some cities also capture and treat sewage overflows, reducing bacterial contamination and nutrient loading of source waters. Governance – from the city to the regional scale – needs to proactively address future needs, enable innovation and allow for future flexibility.

All of us in the Great Lakes Basin have a role to play, not only to prevent the regional embarrassment of repeating Toledo’s water ban, but also to improve the ecological integrity of the Great Lakes. A holistic view and collaborative efforts across stakeholders and governments are critical. This region can be a place bold enough to embrace its urban centers and agricultural hinterlands as part of one integrated ecology – a place where toxic algal blooms are once again unimaginable.

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July 15, 2014

“Changing How We Plan, Design, Build, Live and Think”

The Chicago Architecture Foundation features Great Cites, Great Lakes, Great Basin is its new 2013 Annual Report.


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July 10, 2014

Water Resources Inspire Water Technologies

The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River region is home to many of the world’s leading research universities, public and private research & development labs and international corporations.  This collection of human capital is already the foundation of a powerful knowledge economy with global reach. The region also has the world’s largest collection of surface freshwater and has the potential to become for the world leader of freshwater research, learning, and innovation.

At the recent Water Council meeting in Milwaukee June 18-19, many of the speakers commented on the value of a water-centric economy.  But it was Rich Museen, CEO of Badger Meter, who best summarized the idea and the phrase “like water, talent pools” especially caught my attention.  His comparisons of Milwaukee to Silicon Valley, Research Triangle, and Route 128 express how physical clusters, and proper branding can successfully galvanize a local economic sector with ripple effects felt throughout the region.

The City of Milwaukee has a rich history of water companies, many evolving to manage the wet industries of the day. Today, institutes such as The Water Council, the Freshwater Institute and many corporate headquarters in or near Milwaukee are branding and identifying themselves as a globally significant cluster of water expertise.  This is good for the region, and good for solving the near and far water problems of the world.

The Reed Street Yards in one of the exciting projects coming to fruition as a result of this pooled talent base.  This once brownfield area of Milwaukee will soon be the desired address and a thriving cluster of water companies, with startups co-located with billion dollar public companies, who are expanding markets globally and solving problems with local know-how.  The world needs more opportunity to share ideas that improve humanity’s relationship with water, and I look forward to seeing how the Water Council’s work can inspire our region’s leadership to bring innovation that creates freshwater security for people and planet.

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June 23, 2014

Great Basin Exhibition at AIA Convention This Week

Great Cities, Great Lakes, Great Basin is on display at the AIA Convention in Chicago this week. The exhibition  is a collaboration between SOM, the International Secretariat for Water and the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Thanks to sponsors ArcelorMittal, Illinois Department of Commerce & Economic Opportunity, and Sloan for their support.

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April 9, 2014

Great Lakes, Great People: Rick Valicenti

Rick Valicenti is the founder and design director of Thirst, a communication design practice providing design and immersive environments for high profile clients in the architectural, performing arts, and education communities. Rick’s recent honors include the 2011 National Design Award for Communication Design from the Smithsonian Cooper-­Hewitt. SOM worked closely with Thirst on the development of the Great Cities, Great Lakes, Great Basin exhibition among other media throughout the Great Lakes Century initiative. In a recent conversation, Rick described a future where best practices are in practice and calls for a larger grassroots in which every member of the public feels a sense of ownership for regional freshwater resources.

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March 31, 2014

Great Lakes, Great People: Ryan Wilson

Ryan Wilson is a landscape architect and Stormwater Program Manager at the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago. At CNT, Ryan promotes the value of using green infrastructure—trees, rain gardens, and native plants—to soak up raindrops where they fall and alleviate pressures on traditional grey infrastructure systems that lead to flooding. Ryan also leads CNT’s Wetrofit program—a one-stop service for homeowners  to reduce the risk of property flooding. Ryan talked with us recently about how re-reversing the Chicago River would renew public engagement with local water resources, and how multiple smaller, neighborhood-scale solutions can lead to significant improvements in resource use.

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March 24, 2014

Great Lakes, Great People: Christian Greer

Christian Greer is Vice President of Learning Initiatives at Chicago Architecture Foundation. With over 20 years experience in informal education and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program design, Christian has become a leading figure in interest-driven learning and oversees CAF’s ArcelorMittal Design Studio; architecture exhibitions; public programs like Drinks and Design and the city’s largest annual architecture event Open House Chicago; youth and teacher education curriculum such as the  and the Architecture Handbook; and digital learning tools such as DiscoverDesign.org. SOM worked closely with Christian on the development of the Great Cities, Great Lakes, Great Basin exhibition and we recently discussed how design and design thinking tools can help reframe challenges associated with sustainability and conservation. One of the greatest challenges, Christian explains, is inspiring people to take an expanded view of the Great Lakes system as a basin that extends beyond the shoreline.

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February 25, 2014

Chicago Tonight: Great Cities, Great Lakes, Great Basin

On Chicago Tonight, Phil Ponce talks with SOM’s Phil Enquist about sustainability, strategies, and urban design aimed at eliminating waste and ensuring fresh water for future generations.

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February 18, 2014

Great Lakes Symposium: Designing for Life along the Water’s Edge

Join us Thursday, March 13 at the Chicago Architecture Foundation for a panel discussion on waterfront design in the Great Lakes region.

Register here: http://www.architecture.org/eveningprograms 


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February 10, 2014

Bring a Big Vision to Cost Assessment

The Great Lakes Mississippi River Interbasin Study (GLMRIS) report released January 6 includes a wealth of technical information supported by complex analyses of integrated infrastructure systems.  However, this U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report fails to provide information on how the proposed technological solutions would generate economic and social value.  It asks public officials to make expensive decisions without regional context, a statement of long-term goals, or wider economic impacts.

Introducing the report’s eight alternatives with a vision statement for the Chicago Waterways, Great Lakes Watershed or the Mississippi River basin would have shifted dialogue from the cost of technology applications to the value of applying principles towards a common goal. Without a clearly stated vision, media coverage of the report has focused on the report’s findings regarding costs of controlling invasive species instead of the value of what could be lost – or won – by implementing forward-thinking projects.

This points to a shortcoming in the original definition of the Army Corps’ study and also reflects a gap in the broader public dialogue regarding the future of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins.  I believe federally-funded studies such as GLIMRIS should focus on returning the integrity of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds and should be framed with values stemming from the uniqueness of the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes basins.  These are North America’s two largest watersheds, where the threat of invasive species between them is real and damages are documented in billions of expenditure and lost value annually. In addition, invasive species take away from the character (and tourism value) of our localities, weaken the connections to our natural history, and erode our sense of place.

While the costs of controlling invasive species are significant, it is important to account for how these investments could help address some of the Chicago region’s serious challenges related to water quality, flooding, and transportation.  An appropriate solution would address these issues holistically  – with the costs and benefits accounted for comprehensively.  Billions of dollars will be invested on transportation, water quality and flooding regardless of how we manage invasive species.  Let’s consider how these investments will work as integrated systems – along  with invasive species protection.

This GLIMRIS report shows we can devote countless hours to debating technological alternatives.  But without guiding principles, we are bound to make expensive reactionary mistakes like the electric barriers in the Ship and Sanitary Canal, designed to protect against the transfer of the round goby but not turned on until the goby was far past the barrier. The other route, which I urge our public officials to pursue, is to plan with a long-term vision and purposefully restore our natural assets.

SOM’s “Great Cities, Great Lakes, Great Basin” exhibition at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, created in partnership with the International Secretariat for Water,  demonstrates that this watershed of 50 million people is one vast and vulnerable resource.  The exhibition’s “call to vision” resonates with diverse groups of stakeholders because of the absence of other large-scale, long-term holistic thinking.

The GLIMRIS – and other publicly-funded studies – presents a critical opportunity to establish a vision for the 21st century. A long-term vision needs leadership, and an agency like the Army Corps that has regulatory powers over our waterways could put real action behind a bold vision. As citizens and as business leaders, we must demand that public agencies accept this responsibility and act strategically towards a better future.

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