WaterCityChanger Vincent Lee: Managing Water with Green Infrastructure

CityChanger Vincent Lee: Managing Water with Green Infrastructure

Karl Dickinson
Karl Dickinson
Change matters. It takes courage. As a writer - and citizen - I am inspired by stories of those who challenge the 'we've always done it this way' attitude. We can do better - it's time to listen to those who go against the grain.

Few firms have the level of recognition that Arup enjoys. This has given Vincent Lee the chance to work on an impressive array of projects since joining the New York office in 2006. He shares what he has learnt from using green infrastructure in urban water management projects around the world and how even the smallest scale interventions can make a noticeable difference.

Good at maths and science at high school, Vincent Lee naturally gravitated towards a career that offers tangible outcomes. “Civil engineering just made the most sense.” As an Associate Principal at Arup, our CityChanger oversees “a lot of our green infrastructure projects, our resilience projects, and projects around sustainable development”. It’s all geared around water management, conservation, and urban renewal.

He also leads the Americas East Civil + Water Team and is Arup’s Global Water Skills Leader. These roles see Vincent working with international water specialists on large-scale infrastructure projects. They “share knowledge, learn from one another, share best practice, develop tools, and research topics together”. And now Vincent gives CityChangers.org his insights into improving resilience in urban centres.

The Big Three

Three water systems must be considered in an integrated water management plan: wastewater, water supply, and rainwater.

New York’s sewers are on average around 75 years old, Vincent estimates. They now have the crushing demands of 9 million people beating down on them. For New York City, they suffer from the challenge of too much water and need to address extreme rainfall, sea level rise, and coastal flooding.

Elsewhere, there is also the challenge of too little water. In cities in California, Texas, and Florida – and further afield such as the Middle East – our CityChanger has seen the pressing need for water efficiency improvements.

He starts by looking into the local water sources to find where synergies lay. Flooding during summer calls for stormwater solutions, while rainwater capture preserves supply in dry spells. Opening a wastewater treatment and reuse plant to deal with a district’s sewerage can make H2O suitable for non-drinking reuse, reducing demand on the public supply by up to 50%, our expert calculates. Cities in arid places such as California, Arizona, and Texas have projects treating wastewater and reusing it for non-potable purposes, like flushing toilets and irrigation. Some are taking it to next step by treating wastewater to a drinking standard.

A Blank Canvas

This line of work can be an engineer’s dream. Vincent’s first project with Arup was a game-changer – a brand-new city!

Songdo City was part of the Republic of Korea’s master plan to develop greener, more efficient cities. Starting with a blank canvas, Vincent realised, meant that he could apply all the sustainable practices he’d aspired to. It turned his profession into a passion.

“I feel like I’m making somewhat of a difference in the communities that I work in.”

Building cities from the ground up is increasingly common and gives engineers a chance to skip tired practices and learn from decades of lessons. In Asia and the Middle East especially, Vincent notes, migration raises demand for urban centres. How we handle water in a functioning city needs to be at the heart of planning. Nature-based infrastructure, water reuse projects, and stormwater management solutions must be built into the fabric of the city.

Old York City

Adding to the legacy of ageing infrastructure, older cities are usually concrete jungles, designed to direct water runoff straight into drains and sewers, straining capacity. The ‘we’ve always done it this way’ attitude can hinder any kind of change. Especially because old school engineers and planners are convinced it works.

“The standard way of doing things 15 years ago was to build concrete channels, to put a pipe in the ground. That’s how cities dealt with stormwater.”

Vincent has worked for eight years on NYC’s green infrastructure programme. He has been behind thousands of green interventions that absorb rainwater from streets, houses, schools, and parks. He has installed plenty of street-based bioswales “that are 4 feet by 20 feet. They are planters but adapted to absorb rainfall runoff that falls on the street”.

These may be relatively small-scale interventions, but as Vincent adds, the aim is to get as many in place as possible. “If we’re trying to put in 200 or 300 of them, that makes a big change within a neighbourhood”. A grey street is suddenly pleasantly green, which keeps people happy.

Tangible Interventions

Vincent has gained a little celebrity status. His work is tangible and very public. His children point to it and say, “Daddy did this.” It connects with people.

Little Island, New York

Just take Little Island, in New York City. “It’s an amazing public space,” Vincent tells us, which makes use of the old Pier 54 stretching into the Hudson River. “It’s a new waterfront island that’s built on pier structures that look like pots” – or ‘tulips’ – a green oasis for play, relaxation, arts, and community.

Little Island New York - CityChangers.org
Little Island’s tulip supports, designed by Arup. Image credit: Unsplash / Willian Justen de Vasconcellos

Using the municipalities own phrasing, Vincent adds that this is part of the New York City plan to “saturate these neighbourhoods with as much green infrastructure as possible”, helping to improve water quality in NYC waterways one green intervention at a time.

Green infrastructure - CityChangers.org
The inviting greenery of Little Island, NYC. Image credit: Unsplash / Ben Michel

Hunter’s Point, New York

The 30-acre revitalised industrial land of Hunter’s Point South is a waterfront development in New York with a public park and foundations for residential development. This gave developers the chance to separate storm drains and sanitary sewers, preventing them from mixing and releasing contaminated overflow into the East River. The development includes rain gardens, constructed wetlands, and enhanced tree-pits to manage stormwater at the surface level.

Meixi Lake, China

This project in Changsha was the first in China that Vincent worked on. The plan measured in at a grander scale, rerouting a river to restore Meixi Lake close to the business district.

Meixi Lake - CityChangers.org
Image credit: Pixabay / Jingdashu

“The original plan that we inherited,” Vincent comments, “had the lake sunk in six metres to help with flooding.” This would act as a basin to contain excess inflow from the watershed upstream. “But the architect and developer did not want a six-metre drop from where people were walking to where the water was. That’s not Amsterdam. That’s not Venice. They wanted it to have a more urban feel.”

Vincent faced a dilemma: a city wanting a lake and flood protection; an architect with a particular vision; and Vincent’s company depending on him to develop a solution and present a convincing case to the municipality.

Blue-green infrastructure provided the answer. “We created a river around the site to divert floodwaters.” This channel feeds the lake. Our expert describes it as “win-win”. The lake was reasonably level with the street, and it “created this new green corridor around the city, which basically became their linear park”. The city got their business case: land alongside the new waterways is prime real estate.

Making the Argument

Convincing the authorities of his proposals is rarely a challenge for Vincent now. He notes how, from a policy perspective, sustainability has been embraced. “But on the implementation level, it’s a challenge to get it approved, get it permitted, get buy-in from different stakeholders.” So, what guidance does our CityChanger have to share?

Hybrid Solutions

Asking some simple questions establishes a basis for change:

  • What are the benefits of green?
  • What’s the cost of grey versus green?
  • Is there a hybrid solution of grey and green and/or blue?

In his designs, Vincent avoids suggesting totally green solutions. “We recognise that there needs to be a combination of the two to make it work.” It’s important to tailor a set of solutions that lead to your desired outcomes based on local needs.

Demonstrate Change

Building support for a particular idea is proven to be easier when people have chance to experience examples for themselves. Arup, as a global firm, has a plethora of these opportunities at their fingertips. “Now there’s references to point to, there’s results, there’s monitoring, all that stuff’s been done.”

When authorities in Shanghai wanted change, and quick, it took teamwork between the local, UK, and New York offices. This worked to the engineers’ advantage. Colleagues from NYC had already implemented thousands of the blue-grey-green interventions like those Vincent presented in China. This gave the proposal credibility, even where the lessons from these interventions had to be scaled up to a 25-million-person city.

Respectful Engagement

Sustainable infrastructure underpins smarter, more resilient communities, Vincent tells us. At the heart of this is collaboration with clients. What’s his winning formula?

“It’s early engagement. It’s negotiation. It’s not going in and saying, ‘This is how it’s got to be.’” Involving communities, not dictating what will happen, breeds respect and buy-in.

Basically, when you land a format that works, replicate it; ingrain it in the local culture – and policy!

This is what Vincent did with the City of Toronto: some early guidance and lessons learned in a conjoined effort to develop guidelines for standardised green infrastructure in the city. He advises we adopt this concept of a manual for consistency:

“You need to have a book so that other engineers, other planners can look at it and say, ‘Okay, here’s what we’re going to pick, here’s what we’re going to do.’”

A Digital Age

Vincent reflects on how data accessibility and digital tools have accelerated and automated processes of change. For example, no longer do GIS technicians need to tediously review maps and manually assess land uses. Machine learning and artificial intelligence does this for us, which is especially useful for cities the size of Shanghai.

It was the same digital wizardry that allowed his team to determine an index for absorption capabilities for the seven cities covered by Arup’s global sponge cities snapshot report. At a glance, Vincent can isolate the green spaces, sandy material, and the clay where water does not infiltrate so well.

Using aerial photographs to assign a pigment to each item in a sample tile – from rooftops to trees, and soil to asphalt – a human teaches the computer to recognise land use, which then enables the computer to map this key across the whole city, upon which a plan can be formulated. “We could never do that five, 10 years ago – not in the time that we had to do it here, nor to this accuracy.”

This technology enables faster solutions while retaining confidence in the quality of the product.

Keep Your Friends Close

Cities need to be open to their stakeholders. When the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago turned to their staff for ideas of what specific actions the city should take to manage water, it turned out they had already written a plan. They just needed a forum to voice it.

“If you really want to make change, the first thing is to listen to your stakeholders. Oftentimes, the answer is there; it’s already been thought about.”

That’s why the best projects, Vincent suggests, are those where engineers get to engage directly with clients and stakeholders and where both sides get to air their challenges and ideas. Involve them in solution prototyping and the testing phase. That, Vincent adds, is an effective way to shortlist the best approaches.

When asked for any final words, Vincent was clear:

“Don’t take no for an answer. Don’t take ‘we’ve been doing it this way for 30 years’ as the answer. Persistence, listening, and collaboration are what it takes. It’s that easy.”

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