There is no doubt that our nation’s infrastructure systems need to be upgraded and water infrastructure is no exception. Water and wastewater infrastructures are aging and in need of replacement and rehabilitation; in fact, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructures a grade of ‘D’ in 2013. Furthermore, climate change, increasing populations, and insufficient funds are likely to exacerbate these challenges and without strong public support, water infrastructure improvements may not be given the priority they deserve.
Throughout my time as a water engineer, I have concluded that most people generally understand the importance of strong and reliable water infrastructure systems, yet they are not familiar with the processes required to treat and manage water, wastewater, and stormwater, as well as the issues currently faced by these types of infrastructure systems. Unless there is a pipe burst, a water shortage, a sewer overflow, or a tragedy like Flint, water systems and their current condition are not usually part of everyday conversations.
So why do most people take water infrastructure for granted? In my consideration, the main reason is that water systems are set up to make us forget about them. Compared to other infrastructures, like roads and bridges, these systems are buried, hidden, or placed far away from communities. How many times do we think about the water we use when we open the water faucet or flush the toilet?
While pursuing my master’s in urban and regional planning, I became interested in public art and placemaking. However, while browsing an issue of Public Art Review, I realized that my new interests could be the way to make water infrastructure systems more visible. When properly integrated, public art not only makes water infrastructure systems noticeable, but makes them of the urban fabric.
A great example of the integration of public art in water infrastructure is the Brightwater Treatment Plant, a wastewater facility in King County, Washington, which I visited in August 2016. The plant successfully integrates public art throughout the treatment process. The public art not only has made the plant visible, but part of the neighborhood’s urban fabric. The community continuously comes to walk around the beautiful gardens and check out the public art. In fact, it has become so popular that community center is used for wedding receptions!
But the public art has also been a way to educate the community about the treatment of wastewater. This is the case of Buster Simpson’s BioBoulevard, a (shown here), a public art piece that is also a reclaimed water pipeline. Working closely with engineers, this purple pipe tells the story of the marine outfall discharging to Puget Sound. The portholes on top of the pipe expose the water to the sun and allow the chlorine to off-gas, while representing the oxygen diffusers in the actual outfall. “Do not drink” is written in all languages represented in King County throughout the pipeline.
Although procuring, creating, installing, and maintaining public art requires money, time, and experience, bringing public artists into the development of infrastructure can be rewarding and beneficial. So, as I continue my professional career, I challenge my fellow engineers and planners concerned with water infrastructure: why not use public art to bring visibility and engage the public to address some of the concerns?
Jimena Larson is an environmental engineer and urban planner from Bogota, Colombia interested in water, infrastructure, and urban design challenges.