Talking Headways Podcast: Sustainable Infrastructure for Cities

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This week, Michael Neuman, author of “Sustainable Infrastructure for Cities and Societies,” talks about trees’ importance for infrastructure development, Barcelona’s lessons for the world, and why infrastructure is lately seen as a monetary asset instead of a public good.

For an edited transcript, see below the audio player. For a full, unedited transcript, click here.

Jeff Wood: I really liked the focus on the tree and its survival over eons, millennia — thinking about that as an infrastructure. You mentioned a number of the things that really struck me in the book, but specifically thinking about how it’s super sustainable, the leaves drop off it nourishes itself. It connects with all of the other trees. In my backyard, not specifically in my backyard, but in the yards around my backyard, there are three Redwood trees and Redwood trees are a very communal tree. They connect with each other. They’re very social. But you know, thinking about those trees together as a stand makes a lot of sense in the sense that they are an infrastructure upon themselves and that they connect with each other and they over time have fed each other.

They might not only be this specific set of Redwood trees because I’m sure San Francisco is logged over. It might only be a hundred or so years old, but it really speaks to their longevity and their history and their ability to show us kind of ways in which we can design our infrastructures, such that they are sustainable.

Michael Neuman: Right. And that’s so important. For example, California and the West is going through a severe drought. It’s part of what the climatologists tell us a 50-year drought and the most severe drought in 1,200 years in this part of the country. And so you think of Redwood trees, they’re so well adapted, right? They’re only on the Pacific Coast where the fog is A, and what they do is, if you look at the leaves, the needles, they have a groove in them and it traps the fog, the moisture, and it drips down through the groove. So up to 40 percent of the moisture that comes into the soil in some parts of the Northern California coast comes from mist and fog drip through the intelligence of evolution; over time, the Redwood trees have adapted their needles even to more efficiently capture that. Their bark is resistant to fire, right?

In fact, as a fire-climax species, they need fire for the cones to open and release the seeds. They’re not the only species in the American west like that; there are other trees that are fire-climax species. So in many ways they’re adapted and we can learn from nature, not only the networking of trees in a stand of woods or a full-fledged forest, but in every way, close observation. That leads me to think of, I spent some weeks in Iran eight years ago now, and I was invited to lead workshops for a week each in Tehran and Isfahan and Shiraz, three cities and a separate lecture in Mashad, the second-largest city.

It was interesting that they’d invite me to Iran to lead workshops on sustainable urban design, because I had been reading about Persian architecture and design and engineering for decades. I had, in many universities, a lot of Iranian doctoral students and post-docs. What I learned was that, for example, Isfahan is a city of about a million people now. Five hundred years ago, it had a half a million people and, along with Beijing, was the largest city in the world. Well, it is a mile high, like Denver, and it’s in a bone dry, blazing, hot desert that highest surface temperature on earth ever recorded was in central Iran at 64 degrees Celsius, which is well over 150 Fahrenheit.

So what they have is these “qanat” …. This is before the Romans and their aqueducts 2,000 years ago. Their engineers and designers designed these underground aqueducts that were gravity fed, like an aqueduct, but it conveyed water scores, or even hundreds, of miles from the mountains to the valley. The city was in the valley and they clearly realized that if they had surface water, surface canals in the hot, dry desert, it would evaporate. And so they were ingenious enough. They’re brilliant enough design these underground aqueducts thousands of years ago.

In their cities, Shiraz is known as the garden city and not garden city — like a urban planner might know in terms of Ebeneezer Howard and the Garden Cities in England and elsewhere. But because it was so green, and here Shiraz is about the same elevation. It’s in the little further south; it’s a bone dry, blazing hot desert, yet the city is extremely green all over.

What they do is they take the water that they bring into the city from the mountains through the qanats. And they, they liked them. They had these water channels that are open, but they’re not concrete. It’s just dirt soil. They’re lined with vegetation. So they’re very green and with the water running and the vegetation and the transpiration, it’s very cool. So you have these green ribbons throughout the whole city, and you have these parks, these very green parks fed by free natural irrigation, meaning gravity fed, and they don’t lose much water.

And here we are in California. Since I first moved to California in the 1970s, having studied engineering, but not even never having heard of city planning, I was just always wondering why in the desert in California, do we have very wide, very shallow open to the air, water canals shipping water hundreds of miles from the mountains to the cities and agriculture with all that evaporation.

I mean, it’s ridiculous. In fact, I had dinner last night with a leading environmentalist and consultant in California. They’re working on a plan right now to finally cover all the water canals in California, you may have heard of this, with solar panels to a) power the pumps needed in the canals and b) to cover the canals, to prevent all this evaporation and to save a lot of water and also any excess electricity to pump it into the grid. So that’s an example of an integrated infrastructure thinking that basically my book is all about.

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