More than sewage and water pipes. How a water company in Spain becomes a driver of urban transformation
Water companies in urban centres are fundamentally associated with the elemental task of providing clean drinking water, managing water resources and ensuring grey water is processed and kept off seas and rivers. Certainly not a small fit in its own accord.
Nevertheless, utility companies at large and of course, water companies included, possess yet another characteristic, critical for urban governance in the 21st C. They are system-designed and operate at a metropolitan scale whether urban metropolitan governments are in place or not. They are therefore uniquely positioned and potentially resourced to play a crucial and much needed role in helping city governments deal innovatively with pressing urban problems and manage risks, which in the 21st century are more volatile, frequent in nature and stronger in intensity. Notwithstanding, urban transformation requires long-term planning, flexibility and resourcefulness and its fundamentally about improving everyday operations and living standards in order to be rendered capable to reduce the effect of any given shock and crisis.
The Mayor of Sevilla in Spain Mr Juan Espadas Cejas elected for a second mandate in 2019 and the CEO of the Metropolitan Water Supply and Sanitation Company of Seville (EMASESA), Mr Jaime Palop Piqueras have been vocal proponents of the crucial role of urban public utilities have to play in urban governance. Together they actively promote the role of urban authorities as hands-on problem solving actors adopting innovative and forward looking solutions in a number of urban issues and in particular when it comes to matters of social cohesion and climate mitigation – two very related subjects of urban life as manifested in Sevilla.
“Maintaining our culture and outdoors way of living” is an active strategic goal set for all city stakeholders and is the key direction determining key policy decisions and program development priorities
Mayor Espadas Cejas
In fact, it underpins a number of central initiatives and programs including the Urban Innovative Actions (UIA) “CartujaQanat” program, funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) embedded as a key acceleration program to deal with urban heat and social innovation in public spaces. As the CEO of EMASESA, Palop Piqueras, quotes
‘EU funding is there to help us accelerate and expand what we are already trying to achieve by adapting, strategizing and implementing new solutions’.
Palop Piqueras, CEO EMASESA
Based on the city’s strategic plan ‘Sevilla 2030’ and always through the water perspective as an entry point EMASESA has been following over the last three years a structured strategic direction to materialise the urban dimension of the Sustainable Development Goals through a combination of interlinked initiatives. These initiatives are the ‘Transformation of the ‘Avenida El Greco’ which is now completed and under monitoring; the experimentation with the water and air cycles as natural cooling agents through the Urban Innovative Actions CartujaQanat project and of course last but not least the improvement of water depositories and water quality in the city in light of future resource depletion and limited open-space availability or public risk safety such as the COVID-19 crisis during which EMASESA has been testing the waters to identify possible sources of infection around the city’s districts.
The binding and aspiration goal across all projects is the transformation of the city at scale through a new approach of responsive governance that combines various formats of stakeholder engagement and efforts to standardise information integration from pilots towards holistic policy-development and innovation.
CartujaQanat is a key pilot project at the heart of this approach due to develop a set of solutions for innovative management and revitalisation of public spaces and the production of new technological renewable solutions for cooling outdoor spaces.
In the context of the project, Sevilla is using its metropolitan water company, EMASESA, to provide three key solutions to contemporary urban challenges:
- Governance and coordination of actors: As a metropolitan company EMASESA has access to the metropolitan area of Sevilla. This means that it is the ideal project coordinator to ensure access to human and other resources, access to information and transferability of the solutions provided by the University of Sevilla and the other technical partners.
- Technical innovation: Water has been traditionally used a cooling agent throughout the centuries. Nevertheless re-learning to living with water has re-emerged as an urgent parameter of problem-solving for the vicious cycle of extreme-heat, drought and flooding that is the number one problem in cities around the world. With the context of CartujaQanat EMASESA is partnering with the University of Sevilla to built and procure a diverse set of technical solutions including new penetrable materials, water-movement equipment coupled with renewable-energy solutions to deliver a complete proposal for low-energy public-space cooling systems that can be retrofitted at various scales. EMASESA will thereafter be a co-driver in adapting these solutions across the city and beyond.
- Integrated management of funding and financing: Part of the Urban Innovative Actions agenda is to encourage government transformation in order to equip governments in managing and reducing risk. Within this context the City of Sevilla in partnership with EMASESA is developing and implementing an integrated management approach when it comes to the use of the project funding. In other words as the project develops it is horizontally integrated to serve the same strategic goals related to social equity, safety and liveability in 21st C Sevilla. In this manner the company multiplies the original investment made for the formation of one complete solution by matching it to similar investments and know-how from the business and social community of Sevilla.
Expanding the understanding of ‘water management’ and through the integrated use of funding EMASESA is using the UIA project to become a strong strategic and operational arm in urban transformation using water as a resource for innovation. By helping to improve the city’s resilience to risks such as extreme heat and water management through the lenses of social equity and shared prosperity EMASESA is pointing to a redefinition of the traditional role of utilities as vehicles of transformative urban governance in the 21st Century.