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Getting Off the Grid and Unpacking the Jargon about Sustainable Urban Engineering


Sustainable urban engineering is a popular topic but what the heck does it mean?

Date: 6/26/2008 12:00:00 AM
By: Wendy Beckman and Keiasha Simpson, GearUp Student
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Photos By: Lisa Ventre, photojournalist

UC ingot   OK, it’s trite, but let’s see what George and Charles Merriam and Noah Webster have to say:

Cincinnati skyline

Sustainable
: a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.

Urban: relating to or characteristic of or constituting a city

Engineering: the application of science and mathematics by which the properties of matter and the sources of energy and nature are made useful to people.

So in general, sustainable urban engineering means planning and creating a lifestyle and a society around our cities that can be maintained without running itself out or depleting its own resources.

What?

Sustainable urban engineering, in a nutshell, is designing for life and work in a manner that sustains our environment and resources for the benefit of present and future generations.

"Sustainable urban engineering" at the University of Cincinnati also is a trans-disciplinary education and research center. Researchers at the Sustainable Urban Engineering Center at UC study how urban infrastructure and environmental policies affect the long-term health and wealth of cities and develop and disseminate information regarding the scientific metrics, policies and technologies that promote the evolution of economically and environmentally sustainable urban regions.

A condominium overlooks the Ohio River and surrounding green space.
A condominium overlooks the Ohio River and surrounding green space.

"It's looking at your part of a whole system," says Dan Oerther, professor of environmental engineering at UC. "For planners, for example — how can we increase the density of people in a living area but provide more green space around them?"

It means that people in health-care fields would look at moving their focus from acute care to preventative care. Engineers would ideally move their focus from making a product in isolation — manufacturing with a focus on cradle to cradle.

"How do we reuse that screw and skip the grave — rather than melting it down and making another screw?" Oerther goes on. "'Rehab' the car — don’t crush it and melt it down. Use it as a source of parts."

Another popular phrase these days is going "off the grid." Just what is this "grid," where is it and how does one get off it?

"Our society depends on a certain infrastructure: transportation, power, water. That’s the 'grid'," says Oerther. "We have gone to lower population density and more sprawl. Resources are overtaxed, less optimal. So we should look at urban dwellings that can pull away from grid. Can we look at how we can wean ourselves from these large, metropolitan systems and provide for ourselves at what’s called the 'point of use' — at our homes?"

Oerther points out that the new model comes from developing countries to the United States: "We in the United States relied on common infrastructure and that was our advantage. Third world countries are taking advantage of scalable technologies and have scaled down to point of use."

"In our country’s history, we developed scalable technologies and then with economies of scale we scaled them up," he explains. "The pony express led to the U.S. mail, which led to e-mail. Telegrams led to telephones which led to cell phones. Developing countries skipped the pony express and landlines and went right to cellular!"

UC's Engineers Without Borders helped villagers in Kenya construct point-of-use water filters for their homes.
UC's Engineers Without Borders helped villagers in Kenya construct point-of-use water filters for their homes. (Photo by Sarah Pumphrey)

For example, in the United States a hundred years ago, a water filtration system was a piece of cloth. Then we learned that sand was good for filtration. So in the United States, we built huge boxes of sand the size of swimming pools and we filter our drinking water through these filters. Today, technology of membranes has advanced to a point where they are effective and cost-efficient. They’re manufactured by GE, for example. And people can afford them as individuals. So — do I pay more taxes to support a centralized sand filter or go buy a membrane unit for my house?

Oerther points out that in India, where he conducts much of his research, "there are few government agencies to treat your water, so you have to treat your own — you can’t rely on the management of New Delhi for much more than to get some water from time to time."

Technology perfected in large-scale applications is now being down-scaled and used at the home to purify water on an individual basis in less-developed countries. But that same approach could also be used here in the United States, as well — even in our urban areas.

"For example, we could consider using solar power to heat water at our houses or using a composting toilet instead of discharging to the Metropolitan Sewer District," Oerther continues. "Storm water collected in a rain barrel can be used to water gardens and wash cars, instead of running water from the tap. If there are technologies available on a large scale, how can we make use of them individually?"

Ride the bus!

Oerther emphasizes that this encourages individual determinism.

"How do we use technology to reinforce a policy promoting mass transit?" he asks. "In the United States, it makes more sense to ride a bus, but few of us do so."

Related stories:

5/28/2008   Research Road Trip: UC Faculty Take Center Stage at Ohio Statehouse
UC researchers showcased their work to state legislators on May 27. Ohio representatives and senators learned about – and even tried out – research projects related to green energy, medicine and more.

8/22/2007   UC’s Engineers Without Borders Assist Kenyans Without Water
Seven UC students and alumni spent spring break 2007 looking at water needs in Nyando, Kenya. Now they’re looking for a way to go back.

6/28/2007   Learn About Sustainable Urban Engineering at First-Annual Seed Grant Kickoff Meeting
Hear an overview of sustainable urban engineering projects at UC.

5/1/2007   2007 UC|21 President's Excellence Award: Dan Oerther
Dan Oerther is the poster child for UC|21 — a living, breathing embodiment of UC’s raison d’être: students at the center — research — diversity — global — future.