Interview: Maurits Ruis on Urban Scale Fog Harvesting in Rio de Janeiro

Today's interview is with London-based architect Maurits Ruis about his very interesting research entitled Harvesting in Rio de Janeiro, a research that problem-addresses lack of infrastructure, and water stress in favelas.

But before this interview, Maurits Ruis explains the articulation of his proposal as follows:
Christo and Jeanne-Claude realized the Valley Curtain project in Rifle, Colorado in 1971.  The orange-colored canvas curtai had a span of almost 400 meter, a surface of 18,600 square meter, and required bridge heads of 200 tons of concrete on each side of the valley (1).
FogQuest is a non-profit that uses mesh curtains to harvest fog to deliver water to rural communities. They say that on a yearly average, 200 liter of water could be collected per day with 40 square meter of mesh (2). This is the equivalent of 5 liters per square meter per day (3).
Combining the Valley Curtain Project with FogQuest's findings would open up possibilities for fog harvesting at an urban scale.
Case Study: Favela Cosme Velho, Rio de Janeiro
Cosme Velho is a favela at the foot of the famous Christ statue in Rio de Janeiro, with a population of about 7,500 people (4). According to Western European standards, one person uses around 120 liter water per day (5). Cosme Velho therefore needs 7,500 x 12° = 900,000 liter water per day. This is the equivalent of 45 small tank trucks.
If a mesh curtain were to be hung between the hilltops on either side of Cosme Velho, it would have a surface of 173,500 square meter. A mesh of this size should be able to collect 173,500 x 5 = 867,500 liter water a day. At a use of 120 liter water per person per day, 7,229 people would be served with a Fog Harvesting Curtain, which is 96% of the population of Cosme Velho.
With 1,400 meter, the span the fog curtain would be much bigger than the Valley Curtain project, but in terms of civil engineering the curtain would only be slightly longer than the 1,280 meter of the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, and much lighter. The realization of a fog curtain at this scale should therefore be possible.
1. Source: Christo and Jeanne-Claude2. Source: FogQuest3. More info on fog harvesting: Allianz, Science Daily4. Source: Rio Census5. Source: UK Code of Sustainable Homes

The interview, below, is an email interview on this project and various but important questions on this pressing subject: water scarcity. More broadly, I wanted to hear Maurits Ruis's point of view on the lack (and/or the obsolescence) of infrastructure and the effects of poor quality of urban planning on dwellers' living conditions.

Q: Let's start with a basic question. I would like to go back to the origin of Urban Scale Fog Harvesting in Rio de Janeiro, if you don't mind…
A: The idea for this project is my own. The motivation behind the project is not just water scarcity in an urban context, but more specifically the urban assimilation of slums. Slums are usually built without a prior infrastructure in a way that cities are usually built. As a consequence, water provision usually constitutes a major challenge for slum dwellers.Although I have contact with Rio City Hall on the subject of urban regeneration on another project, no other parties are currently involved. I have contacted a number of agencies, such as FogQuest, mentioned in the post, to see what the feasibility of this project would be. The reason why I chose for Rio is because I think the city has a leading position globally in urban regeneration for a number of reasons, especially in relation to slum policy — contrary to, for example, India, South East Asian and African countries.
Valley Curtain Project, 1971.
Originally appeared on Maurits Ruis.

Q: A question that I have a strong interest in is water scarcity due to global issues. In this new era, water scarcity will be becoming one of major issues. Population growth, urban migration, floods, climate change, drought, human activities will grow extreme. As many observers pointed out, governments, international agencies, economists, and scientists have constantly underestimated the growth demand, and the growing stress on water supply. Many areas will be affected by these issues that I mentioned, and water is one of the most worrying constraints. Cities will be more and more at risk as they will continue to grow. The risk will be an over-exploitation of water resources. In this context, architects, landscape architects and planners will be more and more involved in re-engineering cities, defining new ways and tactics to face these issues. In my view, your project Urban Scale Fog Harvesting, beyond its aim to respond to water issues in Rio de Janeiro, raises this crucial task: redefining infrastructure by addressing issues such as water scarcity, and more broadly, energy.
A: I would agree with your comment that urban water provision does not get the attention it needs. The water issue is gaining urgency not only in the face of exponential urban growth, but also in the face of climate change. In the United kingdom, where I live, we are currently in drought because of two very dry years, and we are now forbidden to wash our cars or water our gardens. Mind you, the United Kingdom has always been infamous for its rainy weather! This shows how urgent the problem is, even in the developed world. I also agree that we have to start looking for more innovative methods. For one, because of the current financial crisis there is simply not enough money around to provide water infrastructure to all those in need, especially in developing countries. What is more, most urban growth happens in slum areas where infrastructure was not an issue when they were built. This makes it much more complicated to add infrastructure afterwards, which underlines the need for innovation. I agree that architects, landscape architects and planners have a crucial role in finding methods that are grassroots and local. The same goes for energy, as you rightly point out.
Urban Scale Fog Harvesting in Cosme Velho, Rio de Janeiro - Infographic © Maurits Ruis.

Q: Just asking: do you know the density of this part of Rio?
A: I haven't done a density study for this part.

Q: I read months ago many articles about this issue of drought that threats UK's cities. I was at first surprised reading these articles but, and I mentioned it in the previous question, as water stress has always been (and it is still) underestimated even in Europe, it is unsurprisingly that even some European cities are at risk. We must also include China's and India's rapidly growing cities. Due to population expansion and rapid economic growth, China and India's natural resources including water are over-exploited with direct threats in populations as well as governments. Many areas in these two countries have poor infrastructure, including water, sewage and drainage. Some observers forecast major crisis and tensions in these areas due to water scarcity in the coming years. Back to London and possible drought issues, as I mentioned in the previous question, these pressing problems reveal the obsolescence of today's infrastructure…
A: I agree with your comments. Interesting fact about the water scarcity in London: recently the head of the Wales water company said that they should sell water to London 'like oil' (note 1). To me this is a worrying prospect of what is yet to come worldwide. Another water fact: in his book 'Critical Path' Buckminster Fuller claims that the real reason why China invaded Tibet was water, as all of the important rivers in South East Asia — Ganges, Jangtze, Indus, Mekong, Yellow River — all start in Tibet. This illustrates that the Chinese already in the 1950s understood the threats of water scarcity.

Q: architects and landscape architects' task will consist in developing systems, networks and technologies that will share key characteristics as follows: problem-addressing, flexible, adaptable, responsive, scalable, and non-linear. Urban Scale Fog Harvesting is of those soft systems, as show in the Bracket upcoming issues [goes soft] (note 2), that works as interface with the environment, trying to address or mitigate it operating at the scale of an area within the city. In this way, I am wondering whether or not, rather than working at a global scale, Urban Scales Fog Harvesting is a localized system embedded in its environment. In few words, a resilient system…
A: I would add to your comment that architects understand the social, environmental and economic sides of a problem — The Triple Bottom Line — and their interrelationships, whereas business or politics often only focus on economics. I agree that resilience has everything to do with localized systems rather than centralized ones — as the Fukushima incident painfully pointed out. What is more, localized systems are far more sufficient as there is no need for infrastructural investments, and in terms of energy, there are no transmission losses.
Q: This leads to another but complementary comment. Earlier today, I discussed with a friend of mine about a series of articles we found on The Atlantic Cities (note 3) and the Sustainable Collective Cities (note 4) that emphasize, cope, and address the impact of poor urban planning on city-dwellers. This reminds me a conference organized by the LSE/Urban Age in Hong Kong (note 5) last November, a conference entitled, if I remember, Cities, Health and Well-Being. As you know, health and well-being, are keys to best living conditions. These keys will become crucial in this century if we don't adopt better measures to respond to these pressing issues. A bad urban planning tends to lead to poor quality of life, asocial behaviors, spatial disparities, and health differentials. As conventional urbanism failed to respond to these constraints, one of cities' tasks will consist in planning problem-addressing scenarios to provide the economies of scale necessary to support health-supporting infrastructures such as water, sanitation and drainage, to quote and only these three. Many Observers, among others Richard Burdett, pointed out that cities' health service are not just a resource for urban citizens; they also serve rural population in their immediate vicinity and beyond. Yet a growing number of population estimated to be living in informal settlements in the developing world face multiple health risks from birth. Lack of infrastructure and access to basic services, such as water, will cause communicable diseases, such as illnesses, respiratory, accidents and injuries. In this context, as you mentioned very well in your answers, cities's tasks are to provide efficient infrastructure for all their city-dwellers. In a previous response, for example, you pointed out that slums share many key characteristics among others: poor infrastructure and water issues. These pressing problems worsen dwellers' living conditions, health and well-being raising issues such as communicable diseases and crisis. In this way, I was wondering whether or not Urban Scale Fog Harvesting can be viewed as tactical urbanism, as being tactic in nature, by addressing these lacks, by revealing the impact of poor infrastructure in the city. I would like to have your point of view on this…
A: In extend to the point above I certainly think that the Fog Harvesting project would classify as tactical urbanism. The problem is that to date cities have been planned in a centralized way, including city services. For tactical urbanism to take root therefore has far reaching implications that include a changing paradigm. I think Brazil is ahead of the game in this as they actively try to integrate favelas into the urban fabric. To me the extended financial crisis is a sign that we are getting to grips with this new paradigm. Regarding the importance in water in cities — Edward Glaeser dedicated a chapter in his book 'The Triumph of the City' to this — highly recommended.

Suggested Book: Edward L. Glaeser | Triumph of the City ı How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier | The Penguin Press HC, 2011.

Q: Back to Urban Scale Fog Harvesting, what are the main technical aspects of your case study?
A: Regarding the technical challenges I would say that they can be resolved. The structure I propose is quite simple in terms of civil engineering, especially if you compare it to a suspension bridge. The main challenge I would envision is wind: Christo's Valley Curtain project for example had to be dismantled after only a few days because of an upcoming storm. There are also cultural challenges, for example, how do we explain to the slum dwellers that the curtain is intended to provide them with water, and not to cover the sight of their slum from the rest of the city? I hope a number of issues will come up by publishing this idea and that we can come to a fruitful discussion and, hopefully, to a real life project.
Urban Scale Fog Harvesting in Cosme Velho, Rio de Janeiro - Photo Montage © Maurits Ruis.

Q: Two more point before concluding this interesting email interview. Firstly the possible future of your project. Let me ask you this: what do you think your project can be a model for urban and rural areas that will be confronted with water stress?
A: My aim is to propagate exactly that: to urge an urban policy that does not think in terms of slum eradication, but about assimilation, and I think that projects that source water and energy locally are essential in achieving this. My project is only of many possible solutions.
Originally appeared on Maurits Ruis.

Q: You probably know Manuel de Solà-Morales and his work. For him, architecture, urbanism, infrastructure, and landscape were considered as variables in the same equations. Examining Urban Scale Fog Harvesting, it appears that your approach is similar, as your proposal seems to provide an integrated solution for Favela Cosme Velho…
A: I would agree with de Sola-Morales' view — I like to view the city as an urban ecosystem, an organism if you like, in which designers can only tweak its real workings and dynamics.
Note1: Welsh Water should sell its water 'like oil' during hosepipe ban || BBC
Note2: InfraNet Lab and Archinect (ed.) | Bracket [goes soft] || Actar Editorial (soon)
    —>  See also: Bracket [goes soft]: ESP// Estuary Services Pipeline
                              Bracket [goes soft]: GROUNDING: Landslide Mitigation Housing
                              Bracket [goes soft]: Dredge Locked
Note3: Is Bad Urban Design Making Us Lonely? | Nate Berg || The Atlantic Cities
Note4: Smaller Cities: Setting the Pace for the Next Wave of Innovation and Growth | Adam Christensen || Sustainable Collective Cities
Note5: Urban Age/LSE | Cities, Health and Well-Being ı Urban Age Hong Kong Conference || November 2011

More on Maurits Ruis, his work, research and biography can be found here.

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