Water Works

Just wanted to give a shout out to Howard Neukrug for a fantastic presentation at an Urban Land Institute gathering I attended in Philadelphia earlier this week. Mr. Neukrug is a colleague of mine and the head of the Office of Watersheds for the Philadelphia Water Department. Watersheds, he is quick to point out, do not respect political boundaries, and so they make for an excellent topic to discuss if you’re going to talk about regionalism, which was the subject of the ULI event.

A defining direction of the Water Department is the notion that it is cheaper (in dollar terms) and better (in terms of quality of life for Philadelphians) to deal with water above ground rather than below ground. Below ground, you have to build and maintain costly infrastructure, which no one ever sees or cares about until it falls apart; above ground, you can do things that are of use to those of us who live above ground, like parks and green space and porous pavement basketball courts.

As Mr. Neukrug points out, we’re all downstream from someone; and, in fact, the actions of one group or locality all too often lead to consequences borne by other groups and localities, as it relates to the purity of the water we drink and bathe in. Water may seem like the most mundane topic ever, but I’m guessing how we treat it (literally and figuratively) will make a big difference in the way our cities and regions grow, and in the quality of life we and our kids and our kids’ kids enjoy. Just ask communities in California, who ever threaten to stir civil war over water access, or Middle Eastern nations, who may end up fighting over water more than oil when all is said and done. Or just ask us Philadelphians, who are fortunate to have such a thoughtful water department at the helm to help us figure out how to manage this precious and scarce resource.

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