Uncovering JAPA

Changing Climate Calls for Changing the Built Environment

We take water for granted. Each day we use it without considering where it came from or to where it goes afterward. As the climate continues to change, the relationship between individuals and water must change with it.

This is particularly true in the western United States where diminishing water supplies threaten quality of life. Here, altering personal consumption will not be enough; but planning offers an opportunity for substantive change.

In their article "Building Water-Efficient Cities" in the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 85, No. 4), Philip Stoker, Heejun Chang, Elizabeth Wentz, Britt Crow-Miller, Gabrielle Jehle, and Matthew Bonnette explore the impact change to the built environment could have on water consumption in four western cities — Austin, Texas; Phoenix; Portland, Oregon; and Salt Lake City.

Through their analysis, the authors assess characteristics of the built environment — such as lot size, property value, neighborhood density — on municipal water use.

Overall, their models developed for both summer and annual water use, demonstrate that together higher vegetated cover, large lot sizes, and newer, more expensive homes are associated with higher water use.

While many of these associations are easily explained, new homes consuming more water is counterintuitive, especially with the greater efficiency of newer appliances. The authors attribute this to the landscaping practices or large sizes of the homes which may be related to greater consumption.

Elasticity of built environmental variables explaining annual water use by city, from "Building Water-Efficient Cities" in the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 85, No. 4).

Table 2. Elasticity of built environmental variables explaining annual water use by city, from "Building Water-Efficient Cities" in the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 85, No. 4).

With climates in some areas becoming more arid and a growing population requiring additional housing stock, the authors make it clear that planning and design must remain central to municipal conversations about water conservation.

While changing the built environment to conserve water may allow municipalities to support their populations for longer, water supply will continue to decrease given inaction to address climate on a global scale.

Still, there remains the ability to maintain quality of life. Effective water resource management cannot be limited to the city scale. Instead, it requires cities to not just engage in these practices but also encourage regional partners to join them as well.

I agree with the authors that building water-efficient cities is essential to improve water conservation; however, I believe there continues to be an opportunity and a necessity for greater collaboration.

The Journal of the American Planning Association is the quarterly journal of record for the planning profession. For full access to the JAPA archive, APA members may purchase a discounted subscription for $48/year, or a digital-only subscription for $36/year.

Top image: The authors found that highly vegetated cover is associated with higher water use. Photo in the public domain.


About the Author
Kyle Miller is a joint Master in Urban Planning and Master of Public Health candidate at Harvard University.

April 2, 2020

By Kyle Miller