Producer and director of Water Blues Green Solutions came to Greenwich for UK premiere

US film on intelligent use of water provides inspiring Jellicoe lecture

The US film Water Blues Green Solutions provided an inspiring centrepiece for this year's Jellicoe lecture, held at the newly completed building for Greenwich University.

The one-hour film, made by Penn State Public Media, showcased inspiring ways of working with water in US cities that were dealing with flooding problems, drought or a degraded social and physical environment.

It looked at Philadelphia, where the combined sewage and stormwater drainage system is so overloaded that it discharges foul water into the main river with rainfall of only a quarter of an inch. Having decided that it could not afford an $8-10 billion sewerage system, the city decided instead to act to reduce demand, doing everything from helping people install rain gardens and pioneering green playgrounds in schools, to introducing a tax that charged commercial users not only for the water that they bought but also for their discharge to sewers. As the operator of a paper recycling plant, who introduced rainwater harvesting, said, 'The best incentive was in the wallet.'

Philadelphia drew its inspiration from Portland, Oregon, a city that pioneered a green roof policy and the use of WSUD (water sensitive urban design).

Dealing with drought
For some areas of the US, drought is a bigger problem than excess water. The film looked at San Antonio in Texas, a city that is now in its third year of drought. Dependent on water from the Edwards Aquifer, the city and surrounding farmland has taken a number of steps to protect the aquifer and safeguard its water supply. This ranges from restrictions on lawn watering to evrionmental steps to avoid polluting the aquifer. The city also has a sophisticated sewage treatment plant that puts clean water back into watercourses and treats all waste as a resource, not a problem.

Perhaps most impressive was the way that the city sought to teach people about the value of water, through public announcements on roads about the level of water restrictions, enchanting lessons in schools for very small children and the provision of consultancy to encourage householders to switch from lawn cultivation to xeriscape gardening.

As a result of these measures, the city has maintained the amount of extraction from the aquifer at the level of 20 years ago, despite a 60% increase in population. As Majora Carter, presenter of the film, said at the start, 'We are the essential ingredient for solving environmental challenges'.

All about people
This was made particularly clear in the last section of the film, which looked at the work done to clean up the Bronx River in South Bronx, New York. This work started in one area, Hunt's Point, and was primarily an effort to provide interest and stimulation for young people in a deprived, depressed and degraded environment.

Through a scheme called 'Rock the Boat', young people learnt to build boats and then used them in the water. From here grew schemes to use and study seaweed and mussels to clean the river water. The project spread along the water and also led to the creation of pocket parks as well as vegetable gardens and employment opportunities. The regeneration of the watercourse also became a catalyst for social regeneration.

After the showing of the film, Sue Illman, past president of the Landscape Institute and a passionate advocate of WSUD, introduced Frank Christopher, director of the film, and Cheraine Stanford, the producer. She reminded the audience of the relevance of the film to the UK saying, 'There are 5.2 million properties in the UK that are at risk of flooding.' 

One of the questions asked was where the champions of these initiatives came from. Cheraine Stanford said that while there were very knowledgeable people involved, including distinguished landscape architects, the makers had been keen to emphasise the importance as well of people in local communities who become engaged with the issues and the solutions.

It was also important, she said, to recognise the intangible as well as the tangible benefits that the approaches showcased can bring. 

Asked why the film didn't 'show any of the bad guys' who can impede progress of such initiatives, Frank Christopher said 'A film is just a snapshot in time'. He said that he was interested in showing initiatives that were working, even if it proved in the future that they suffered setbacks. 'I wanted to show the importance of decentralised support,' he said, 'and of ascertaining the needs of the community.' He referred to a Texas farmer in the film who identified himself as very conservative but was passionate about protecting the Edwards Aquifer because he believed, as a conservative, that it was vital to hand on the legacy of a healthy environment to his children.

Asked how landscape architects were using the film in the US, Cheraine said, 'Some of them are using it to explain what they do.' It was a valuable tool for them, she said, to give a sense of the benefit of what landscape architecture could bring to society without having to sound self-promoting. 

You can learn more about the film and watch sections of it here

Today (Friday) Guardian Cities will host a live discussion with Majora Carter and Sue Illman at 2pm. You can tweet questions to @guardiancities.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

one × 4 =