Thursday, July 30, 2009

High Density Hiking

Last Sunday I did a day hike in the mountains that shade Seoul National University, which was once a golf course for Samsung executives but is now home to students, classrooms, and laboratories. I took the #5516 bus a few kilometers to one of the trailheads, leading to a rocky hike that took me up 630 meters in elevation, and lasted about 5 hours. There were lots of people on my bus with backpacks and especially those collapsible hiking poles, and together with the other dozen or so different bus lines that converged and regularly deposited people wanting to get out of the streets for a day, we started up the mountain. I quickly forgot any idea that this was going to be a typical "walk in the woods" that I might find in Cincinnati. The streets in Seoul are crowded and so are the hiking trails. If you want to stop and look, or just breath the air, you get off of the path or else you'll get run over.

For me, this was just another indication that Seoul is a city that works for its people. Everyone there might have appreciated a few less people to walk around or get out of the way for. But everyone also must have appreciated how easy it was to get out of the streets and into this lovely natural area, from just about anywhere, by subway and bus. And, it's a lot more fun to people watch and worry about getting out of the way, than to be thinking that you're somewhere you shouldn't be, cause nobody else is there with you.

At the top I bought some new rice wine dipped from the galvanized pail by this friendly guy, for about $2.50.

If you've ever had "new wine" then you'll know what I mean - it's just finished fermenting and is maybe a few weeks old. This was made with rice instead of grapes but it had the same effervescence and yeasty flavor. I saw lots of people drink several glasses of this before heading back down. At the top were great vistas of the Seoul metropolis, with the Han river in the background.

But a real highlight was sitting down at the buddhist temple at the top with this simple bowl of noodles and bean sprouts, in a hot spicy broth. There is a donation box for whatever you would like to pay, including nothing. After you are done, you wash your own bowl and utensiles, and leave. I hiked down a different side of the mountain but, no matter, the #2 green subway line was right there at the bottom to greet me, and so I could confidently get on and navigate my return, having only to choose which of two directions to go.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Cost of Urban Rainfall

Hamilton County, Ohio averages 42.6 inches of rainfall per year. Some of that falls on the more than 36,000 acres of impervious surfaces that keep our homes and businesses dry and provide driveways and parking for our automobiles. (This figure does not include roadways.) Since our sewers were designed to convey sewage and not rainfall flows, rain events frequently overcharge the infrastructure, and to relieve that we send about 6 Billion gallons of untreated combined rainfall and sewage into the Ohio river each year. The US Environmental Protection Agency doesn't permit that, and finally after decades of back and forth, they are making us enlarge our infrastructure to largely eliminate these "combined sewer overflows" - to the tune of $3 Billion dollars. That's serious change; the cost of urban rainfall would buy us a Hamilton County light rail system, estimated for the 2002 MetroMoves plan at $2.6 Billion. The cost of eliminating untreated sewage discharges doesn't generate the same interest and hype that rail transportation does... but that's a subject for another post.

Well nobody is suggesting that we shouldn't like rain, of course. But maybe we should make good use of it before it hits the ground, while it is in a relatively pure state, able to be moved by gravity - and before we have to pay for its expensive ride downhill to the Ohio river. How much water are we talking about? A lot. Remember the 42.6 inches falling each year on 36,000 acres of impervious surfaces in Hamilton County? That represents about 85% of all drinking water pumped by the greater Cincinnati water works each year. That's right, if we captured all of the rain falling on all our roofs and driveways and parking lots, and treated and used that water locally, we'd barely need the water works. That's just a thought exercise, but we should be able to water the petunias with that rainfall, and possibly flush our toilets, and save some money for us and some carbon for the planet. It's nothing more than recovering the common sense possessed by our grandparents.

I was happy to have the chance to pee recently in the urinal pictured above, which was flushed by rainwater harvested from the rooftop of this highrise apartment building in Seoul, Korea.
The alien - looking cartoon character above each urinal and toilet is the Korean's happy way of telling you that you are using rainfall to wash away your waste product, without first having to send it down to the Ohio river and back. This building is part of the Seoul "Star City" project, a complex of 4 luxury highrise apartment buildings. The Star City buildings harvest rainwater from their roofs and store it in a 2 meter deep subbasement.
That way, the Seoul sewer system doesn't handle the roughly 3000 cubic meters of rainfall generated annually by each building. Treatment is minimal - only a simple German manufactured self-cleaning screen to remove the rare large particle. The Star City complex also uses the stored rainfall to irrigate a lovely urban garden space.

Star City was only the first major new construction in Seoul to implement rainwater harvesting and local rainwater use. According to Professor Mooyoung Han from Seoul National University, Seoul is the first International "Rain City" to require, by way of regulation, that every new public building will implement rainwater harvesting. Since 2004, 21 other cities in Korea have declared similar regulations requiring rainfall harvesting. The simple logic of the idea is the fuel for its growth. They're learning as they go about how this approach can scale to other building sizes and configurations, and they are looking to figure out the right mix of incentives and regulation to push rainwater harvesting to all new private buildings, and to preexisting construction. They are moving toward solving their urban rainfall problems - similar in type to those in Cincinnati - not by costly expansion of their urban infrastructure, but by capturing and storing and using rainwater locally. This is more a problem of government and institutions and laws, than of engineering and science (though there's some of that, too).

There are lots of questions, but lots of motivation to try and get the answers. Can Cincinnati be the first U.S. "rain city"? Where would we start? How do we encourage broad scale participation by individual land owners? How much of that $3 Billion infrastructure expansion cost could we save, and how can we shift some of those funds over to help pay for local rainwater harvesting? How can we maintain the rainwater harvesting infrastructure, owned by individuals, over the long term?