One of this year’s RSA Student Design Awards briefs, ‘Improve Water Environments’ calls for a design (or re-design) of a system, service, product or environment that tackles issues of water pollution. Improving our water environments has huge benefits for people, communities, wildlife and the economy, but it is a complex problem that is notoriously difficult to solve.
On the 21st February, representatives from the Environment Agency and Thames Water hosted a site visit with a group of students to Valentines Park in northeast London to help us get to grips with some of the problems around this important issue.
Valentines Park, home to Valentines Mansion, a manor house built in 1696, has four bodies of water, including a small ornamental pond, boating lakes and a large main lake to the south of the park. The lakes take surface water drainage from all local roads and houses, and are all inter-connected across the park.
Surface water is defined as anything that runs from the roads, roofs, pavements and paths. It is essentially rainwater, which has landed! This needs to drain away to prevent flooding and networks of drains flow this water into our rivers.
Shahnaz Isaac and Karen Douse from the Environment Agency showed us several points throughout the park where surface water enters the waterways, and explained that contaminated water from surface water drainage systems entering our rivers is one of the biggest problems when it comes to water pollution.
This contamination can happen in several different ways:
1) Water waste being disposed of incorrectly.
Examples of this are washing your car with chemical detergents on a road, with the chemicals being washed down a surface water grate, and things like mop buckets and paint pots being emptied straight onto a road. This means that toxic chemicals bypass the sewer system, and instead enter the surface water stream, ending up in our rivers.
2) Mis-connections in properties
Laziness and/or lack of knowledge means that kitchen and bathroom water outputs are sometimes plumbed straight into the surface water system rather than the sewage stream. This water can be toxic for many different reasons – water from your washing machine containing chemicals, organic matter from waste food, and worst case scenario, sewage waste and non-decomposable items such as baby wipes.
It is the job of Richard Pumfrett from Thames Water, who works with the Connect Right programme, to identify properties that have mis-connections and advise them on correct water disposal.
It can be easy to spot potential culprits of mis-connections, of which approximately 2 percent of the population is guilty, and while we were on our visit, we spotted a property which looked like it could be one in this minority. You can see a large amount of pipes from the house empty directly into the gutter, indicating that contaminated water could be entering the surface water stream.
To test for mis-connections, Richard puts dye in the water at these properties, and then looks for traces appearing in surface water streams and outputs. This is a time consuming and laborious task, as permission is required from landlords to carry out the testing. Sometimes the council has to get involved, which can make the process even slower.
We were also able to see how entire roads can be checked for mis-connections. Manhole covers containing surface water drainage pipes are lifted up, and wire nets inspected for debris. If anything is found down here, like toilet paper (and we even heard of goldfish and mobile phones!) it is an indication of a mis-connection.
We all assume that it is chemicals and non-decomposable materials that are the main culprit of water pollution, but I was surprised to learn that organic matter is also a problem. We were shown a water output which entered into the park through a grate. This grate was littered with rubbish – mostly food packaging – and Karen showed us the resulting grey fungus in the water. This has not been caused by the plastic in the rubbish, but from the decomposing food scraps that remain. Feeding the ducks (of which Valentines Park has many) can even be bad for the water, with excess bread rotting and promoting the growth of the dreaded blue/green algae, which Karen described getting rid of as “a dark art”.
There is in fact a huge amount work being put in to improve the water environments behind the scenes at places like Valentines Park. And this isn’t an isolated case, it is mirrored all over the country. It struck me that the two main issues to be tackled here were behavior change and education (with huge design opportunities for both!). How can we encourage people to take more responsibility for water AFTER it has left their home. We are currently in the mentality that once water has left our house, it is no longer our responsibility, our ‘problem’; however we all want to live in a cleaner world, and see benefits of cleaner water environments among both people and wildlife. We need to start taking ownership and responsibility for some of these issues.
Do you have an idea to improve our water environments? Download the brief here, and enter the Student Design Awards, and you could win a 6 week internship with the Environment Agency, £2,500 and see your design idea developed into a real solution.
Deadline: March 22nd 2013.
I come from an outdoor education background, playing in rivers, scaling rock faces and tramping over hills and through woods and it has always been instilled into me to leave nothing behind. I spent a few years working in Canada where the ‘no trace camping’ ethic is very strong. When I came to the RSA almost a year ago I was really interested by the work that was beginning on recycling and circular design. Having been inspired by Yvon Chouinard’s book Let My People Go Surf and his company Patagonia’s work on recycled clothing it was great to see such an esteemed organisation stepping up. There is a growing awareness that we need to reconsider our attitudes to waste, and recycling. The RSA has been busy exploring circular design ideas through the Great Recovery project to reduce waste and promote cradle to cradle design and the RSA has also embarked on an exciting piece of work exploring makers and designers which was launched in June at Somerset House which hopes to raise awareness of new design and making principles to shift the conversation and create a new breed of designers and creators.