Urban rainwater harvesting from niche to mainstream: challenges and opportunities for planning (UrbanRain)


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Project description and research questions

Achieving sustainability in urban water policies constitutes a major challenge due to a wide range of factors and drivers including competing demands on existing water resources, spatial and temporal rainfall variability exacerbated by climate change, pollution of water sources, or the complex problems posed by wastewater treatment and disposal. The situation is even more acute in developing countries. The world’s urban population is expected to reach 6.3 billion people, 67 percent of the total population, by 2050, and this growth will take place entirely in the Global South. This growth will have a significant impact on water resources and put even greater pressure on urban water management and planning. UrbanRain examines Rain Water Harvesting (RWH) as a complementary tool to support urban water planning and management.

Project’s photostream

The project focuses on the opportunities and challenges involving planning for the upscaling and expansion of RWH systems as socio-technical devices to enhance water management sustainability in urban areas of Europe; although we expect that its lessons and recommendations will have a wider, global impact. Increasingly, RWH systems are used for a wide range of urban functions, from providing alternative water supplies and water saving to stormwater control, groundwater recharge, and greening of residential areas. This expansion of RWH systems’ uses is taking place at a range of different scales, from localized households to large underground reservoirs and interconnected networks. The transition of RWH in Europe from isolated, small-scale pilot projects (socio-technical niches) to more extensive, inter-connected and (in part) larger-scale applications raises a number of pertinent issues of planning and policy-making not so applicable so long as RWH was restricted to a small number of enthusiastic stakeholders working in self-contained or isolated contexts. UrbanRain examines the experiences with RWH in three European cities: Barcelona, Berlin, and Stockholm.

Research questions

UrbanRain is an interdisciplinary project that brings together urban planners, geographers, hydrologists, and sociologists. It draws its conceptual framework from Planning, Urban Political Ecology, Polycentric Governance, and Public Goods theories. The project aims to answer a number of initial questions connected with specific objectives. Of particular importance will be the role of planning in the re-ordering of socio-technical relations between a growing number and range of social actors involved in, or affected by the upscaling and mainstreaming of urban RWH systems. Our key preliminary questions are:

a) What social roles, responsibilities, liabilities, institutions and practices need to be renegotiated in planning and implementation of upscaled/extended urban RWH systems?
b) What are the crucial factors in relation to the connectivity (and tensions) between urban and landscape planning, water management planning and infrastructure planning?
c) What should be the roles of public authorities at all levels in governing transitions towards the implementation of upscaled/extended urban RWH via integrated planning?
d) What social and cultural values can be identified and what is their significance in the design of innovative socio-technical solutions for the implementation and sustainability of upscaled/extended urban RWH?
e) What mechanisms would enhance and facilitate the exercise of active citizenship in planning and implementation, ensuring accountability, legitimacy, openness, transparency, and inclusiveness in the broader dissemination of urban RWH?
f) What are the material costs and benefits of wider uses of urban RWH? Who pays and who benefits? How to ensure equality and fairness in the distribution of these costs and benefits?

UrbanRain will have a lifetime of 3 years (2014-2017). It is a product of the long-term collaboration between the partners in the context of the WATERLAT-GOBACIT Network’s Thematic Area 3, The Urban Water Cycle and Essential Public Services.

UrbanRain is funded by the Swedish Research Council Formas