A roadmap for transforming cities

Australia’s Urban WaterGuide provides a blueprint for future-proofing cities. Tony WongJamie Ewert, and Katharine Cross show how its philosophy of integrated water management has significance for urban environments across the world.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. At its heart are the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs), which are an urgent call for action by all countries – developed and developing – working as a global partnership. The SDGs are interconnected, to be pursued as an integrated set of priorities, rather than individually. Within this framework, water is a common currency linking nearly every SDG. Water is a critical determinant of success in achieving targets in most SDGs – energy, cities, health, the environment, disaster risk management, food security, poverty, and climate change, among others.

Cities and towns concentrate and magnify many of the key challenges captured by the SDGs. The convergence of three factors is influencing cities globally: climate change, rapid urbanisation and water security challenges. Water security encompasses a wide spectrum of challenges including access to water supply, access to sanitation, affordability, drainage and flood management, and environmental degradation. These challenges manifest differently in developed and developing country contexts, but, importantly, we cannot ignore the interconnections and interplays between the SDGs. There are synergies, but also unintended consequences of directing actions at individual goals. Rather than adopt conventional urban water servicing approaches, we have an opportunity to direct future investments into well placed, efficient and resilient infrastructure by adopting an integrated urban water management framework. Contemporary urban development strategies are creating hybrid systems that combine critical existing infrastructure with flexible decentralised solutions that can be tailored for local conditions. This approach enables the progressive resilience and climate adaptive strengthening of cities.

Integrated urban water management

Integrated urban water management (IUWM) is a way of using water to make our cities and towns more sustainable and resilient. In this context, ‘integrated’ has three aspects:

  • Integrating different water services (water supply, sewerage, drainage and flood management, and environmental protection)
  • Integrating water infrastructure planning and design
  • Integrating water system administration/governance

Reorienting existing infrastructures, institutions and capacities towards this new integrated approach is the key challenge for the urban renewal of developed cities, while greenfield land development projects are guided by new development guidelines.

Importantly, these new guidelines for contemporary urban water consider factors that influence broader social and technical issues of urban liveability and efforts to ‘green’ cities.

These provide a vision of holistic urban water management across the physical and social dimensions of:

  • Water availability and fit for purpose potable and non-potable uses, and industrial and agricultural production
  • Safety from flooding hazards
  • Safety from waterborne diseases and urban heat
  • Improved health and wellbeing associated with environmental biodiversity and ecological health
  • Social cohesion associated with the amenity value of public spaces and local, community led responses to threats (for example, floods) and opportunities (for example, restoring waterways)

Cities must look beyond the urban administrative boundaries, to the management of upstream water sources and consider the impacts downstream on other human settlements and the environment.

IUWM includes an objective of aligning urban development with basin management to ensure sustainable economic, social, and environmental relations along the urban-rural continuum. This means actively connecting cities with their basins through a ‘Source to Sea, Catchment to Consumer or Ridge to Reef’ approach that considers the wider hydrological and natural water system on which a city depends and influences. IUWM therefore requires urban water managers to adopt a water stewardship role. They can do this by aligning urban activities with wider integrated water resource management at the basin scale. By proactively taking part in basin management, the city secures water, food and energy resources, protects water quality, and increases resilience to extreme events. Implementing appropriate and sustainable solutions in line with governance in cities and their basins means working towards public policy coherence and efficient water management across administrative boundaries and sectors.

Water Sensitive Cities, Sponge Cities and Low Impact Development

Water initiatives with broader liveability objectives include Australia’s Water Sensitive Cities, China’s Sponge Cities, Singapore’s ABC Waters, the United States’ Low Impact Development, and Vancouver’s Rain City Strategy.

By combining innovative technology with social and institutional initiatives, this vision aims to change community behaviour and the institutional arrangements that determine infrastructure investment and operation. It has fostered hybrid infrastructure solutions that combine conventional engineering infrastructure with new, flexible, decentralised approaches, including nature-based solutions. Hybrid solutions that combine conventional (or grey) and nature-based (or green) infrastructure are known as grey-green infrastructure.

As the challenges cities face become more complex, we must embrace the complexity rather than retain a reductionist approach of analysing and describing the complex interplay of the many constituents contributing to, or affected by, these challenges as isolated components. Many of our past efforts to address issues such as water security have time and again yielded unintended consequences and sub-optimal solutions. Embracing this complexity involves acknowledging uncertainties and recognising that we may not have all the answers. But doing so provides a strong foundation for adaptation, learning and growth.

Although effective, IUWM is not yet business as usual. Any city can face barriers in implementing integrated and inclusive approaches. These barriers include resistance to change, poverty and marginalisation, fragmented responsibilities, lack of legislative mandate, lack of experience in engaging the whole community and lack of funding. Key reform initiatives include:

  • Outcome focused policies that clearly articulate performance objectives and targets associated with IUWM and the potential multiple benefits derived. These need to be context specific and fit for purpose for the local environment, reflecting regional biophysical analyses and be based on community led deliberations.
  • Multifunctional public spaces, for example, regional and local public open spaces and corridors, including local streets and parks.
  • Planning and urban development policies that encourage hybrid infrastructure, particularly green infrastructure in private sector urban developments.
  • We need co-investment across government agencies and through public-private agreements. However, this only makes sense if there is an economic framework that clearly articulates costs and benefits.
  • Improved coordination between local governments to protect catchments, allocate water, and manage drainage in not only urban areas, but also the surrounding rural areas. Cities can take an active role as water stewards in protecting and investing in water resources in their basins.

The Urban WaterGuide

The Australian Government, Australian Water Partnership and the Cooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities partnered to develop a framework to improve and mainstream the implementation of IUWM in international cities and towns, based on Australia’s urban water experience. First published in 2017 as an Australian contribution to the High-Level Panel on Water, a two-year initiative (2016-18) by the UN and the World Bank to accelerate progress on achieving SDG6, the Urban WaterGuide covers water supply, sanitation, drainage, flooding, waterways and urban liveability, with a cross-cutting focus on gender equality and inclusion. In 2018, a revised edition was published and launched at the 2018 World Water Forum. The Urban WaterGuide has been used as a tool to share Australia’s experience of managing water scarcity with other countries, including Uzbekistan, Jordan, Mexico, Senegal, and Iran.

The Urban WaterGuide outlines how these barriers are being addressed in Australia, and by Australians working on international projects.

The five parts include:

  1. A vision that frames urban water challenges in terms of city wide and inclusive community level outcomes: water is an enabler of a wide variety of outcomes in a city and it is important for the water sector and diverse stakeholders to have a say and a clear line of sight to this broader purpose.
  2. A strategy that describes how the city can move to more integrated management of the urban water cycle: harnessing the whole of the water cycle to deliver the vision and to open new pathways to deliver services for the whole community.
  3. Hybrid on the ground solutions that take the concept of creating value to a project level, detailing how projects can be multifunctional rather than monofunctional.
  4. Practical ways to co-fund and de-risk the implementation of the new agenda so that actions can be delivered on the ground and citizens can enjoy the benefits.
  5. Gaining permission for change to occur by building political and community support for new initiatives.

A city can implement IUWM by working on any one of these parts, before moving onto the other parts: the sequence is less important than the actions. For instance, a city may wish to invest in more multifunctional infrastructure (Part 3). Following this, the city may see a need for greater co-investment in these new systems (Part 4) and notice that co-investment is much easier to achieve when there is a shared vision (Part 1).

Inclusive collaboration is also fundamental to the success of integrated solutions and is included as a cross-cutting theme. In the Urban WaterGuide, inclusion is considered through a lens of gender equality, disability and social inclusion (GEDSI). The guide helps practitioners identify GEDSI stakeholders, their different needs to access and use water resources, their role in decision-making and the barriers they might experience and how to address them.

Moving ahead

Many cities have begun the journey to implement IUWM. These ambitious undertakings represent a global series of ‘living labs’ that can incubate new ideas, adapt the IUWM concept to different contexts and pilot real-life projects from which others can learn.

As an industry, our focus is on moving towards making these IUWM initiatives the ‘new normal’, by mainstreaming the practices that help us manage the complex task of adapting historical urban water systems to make them future ready. By connecting these efforts and encouraging cities to learn from each other using tools such as the Urban WaterGuide to share insights, we can accelerate this transition.

More information

The authors

Professor Tony Wong is Chief Executive of the Cooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities, Australia

Jamie Ewert is Mainstreaming Leader at Water Sensitive Cities, Australia

Katherine Cross is Strategy and Partnerships Lead at the Australian Water Partnership

Find out about IWA’s work on Water-Wise Cities.


Featured image: City of Wuhan, Hubei Province, China. Source: Hao Wan, Shutterstock
This article was originally published in the International Water Association’s ‘The Source‘ magazine on 26 January 2023
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