I’ve wanted to write that headline ever since Dr. Mehmet Oz did his poop show on Oprah, giving us more on that subject than we ever wanted to know. But this is about sewers, another subject we just as soon not think about. It’s just flush and forget, until something goes wrong. And then, we call the plumber. The end? Not exactly.
I first got curious about sewers when we had a block-long pavement collapse in front of our building in New York City in the late 1980’s. It was caused (we were told) by the breakdown of an old water main, and it took over a week to replace the section of pipe and repair the road. In the meantime, we residents of adjacent buildings and passersby got a good look at the size of pipes that move water – and sewage, too – through underground tunnels in a city of that size. I could have stood up in the pipe, assuming I wanted to, and stretch my arms straight overhead. Back then, I wasn’t all that worried about crumbling urban infrastructure, let alone what could happen in the kind of flooding Sandy brought to lower Manhattan and Hoboken (another place I’ve lived) across the Hudson River.
Then my husband came across an oddball story from Dubai about waste management that curled our hair. Terry Gross zoomed in on it, too, in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air with Kate Asher on her book (The Heights) about skyscrapers, including Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, still the world’s tallest building. Of course, if you’re a fan of hers, you’ll know that Terry Gross cuts right to the question that everyone wanted to ask : “When you’re on the 100th floor of a building and you flush the toilet, what exactly happens after that?” (Quick answer: about the same as what happens in a two-story townhouse, with more pipes.)
Burj Khalifa has broken all kinds of construction records, but what the official page fails to mention is that its plumbing is not connected to the Dubai sewer system. In a building designed to hold 35,000 people, this means that about 15 tons of human waste must be hauled away each day, by truck to a sewage treatment facility. Sometimes so many trucks line up this process can take 24 hours to complete, whereupon it begins again. Seems a bit cart before horse s—t, to me, design-wise. (Google Poop Trucks of Dubai if your curiosity out-weighs the eeww factor.)
Feels like the subject keeps chasing me. Found this in my inbox today: We have a “scary sewage problem,” wrote Gar Alperovitz in Alternet, due to aging, overwhelmed treatment centers and the kind of infrastructure problems I got to witness first hand over 20 years ago, in all our older cities. If the more visible roads and bridges are allowed to fall apart, chances are what is out of sight is getting even less respect and maintenance. Mix flooding from heavy rain to the runoff from agriculture, and you’ve got a sanitation and water security problem, Houston, and Toledo, too, where toxic algal blooms in Lake Erie recently poisoned the drinking water.
In his groundbreaking book, What Then Must We Do? Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution, historian/political economist/activist, Gar Alperovitz offers plenty of great ideas for addressing the huge problems with our economic system that too many people rant endlessly about on Facebook and other social media. Hint: he’s big on cooperatives. So I wasn’t at all surprised that, although he is straight talking about the challenges, he also sees plenty of opportunities, as in JOB opportunities, in fixing the monster urban sewage problem. Chief among these is prevention of storm-water runoff in the first place. He points to smart design approaches like urban forestry, green roofs, and artificial wetlands, among others. It reminds me of the ‘soft’ design approaches to an inrushing ocean – high dunes planted with dune grass vs. seawalls – that spared some Jersey Shore communities during Sandy. It also made me think of On the Water: Palisades Bay, the architectural design project that captivated me during a visit to the Museum of Modern Art in 2010 (see link below). These are the kinds of things we need to lobby for in our cities, whatever their size, as adaptive strategies to climate change that also positively impact the economy, immediately and later on. Check out Alperovitz’s work at Democracy Collaborative about building a more sustainable, equitable economy, and what we as thoughtful citizen can and must do. Sign up for his newsletter.
Click for pdf intro: On the Water: Palisades Bay (Soft infrastructure aims to synthesize solutions for storm defense and environmental enrichment along the coast.)
Photo: Van Gogh’s Toilet by Clare Wentzel