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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Water, Neighborhoods and Urban Design: Micro-Utilities and the Fifth Infrastructure


Global warming has given a new dimension to urban design efforts that seek to integrate the infrastructure systems of a city into a sustainable and more natural built environment. For several decades, architects, planners, and designers have been calling for a more compact urban form that integrates nature with the city, as well as greater use of energy efficient building and transportation alternatives. However, the need to mitigate and adapt to climate change has created a new and more urgent driver for change. The result has been a transformation in approaches taken by leading edge designers and the elites responsible for urban infrastructure systems. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the water and energy sectors (Daigger, 2009; Dreiseitl et al, 2009; Hermanowicz, 2008 Lindsay, 2010; Poetz and Bleuze, 2008; Woltjer and Al, 2007). Mitigating carbon emissions has been taken up by local governments around the world, while water is the most visible vector for the effects of global warming. Many describe these responses under the rubric of the “eco-city.”

The eco-city rejects the idea of waste, instead seeking to transform it into beneficial uses within the city. In so doing, it seeks to reduce inputs of water and energy from afar. This concept is behind efforts to decentralize the production of energy and food and to create more local “green” employment. It also powers the three “R’s” of solid waste management as well as transportation efforts such as transit oriented development, walkable neighbourhoods, and “complete streets.” Architects, planners and landscape architects have used many of these innovations at the building site level over the past twenty years. The next breakthrough is to integrate these systems at the neighbourhood, block or development cluster to begin to approach zero emissions.

This paper begins by describing energy and water innovations at the site and building level before examining the experiences of six cities that have tried to integrate water, energy and solid waste utilities in new neighbourhoods. In so doing, these pioneers have begun to move towards the development of micro-utilities that use the landscape as the fifth infrastructure for true sustainability.

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