Working Group Discusses Climate Change, Water, and Sustainable Development

Professors from across Harvard’s graduate schools and members of the private sector gathered at the Harvard University Center for the Environment last Friday to discuss issues surrounding water access and subsequent challenges for sustainable urban development.

Presenters talked about water usage reduction and the burgeoning problem of water scarcity, as well as the effect of climate change on growing sea levels and how to protect cities from potential flooding.

The roundtable meeting was held by the Working Group for Sustainable Cities, founded in 2008 by Martha Schwartz, a professor in practice of landscape architecture at the Graduate School of Design.

The Group’s mission is to synthesize various areas of expertise to create dialogue surrounding sustainable development of cities both environmentally and economically.

“It is clear that water is the central natural resource that is going to have the greatest global impact in the next century,” Schwartz said.


Recognizing the need for a theoretical approach, the group spent the first part of the meeting discussing technologies that gather evidence of climate change and how to effectively interpret evidence collected.

The group also considered strategies for better management of water resources and the ethical issues surrounding the decision to rebuild cities in zones prone to flooding.

Other issues brought up at the meeting included how to effect policy change with regards to efficient water management and climate change when existing policies are in conflict.

“We need to create infrastructure that will cross all sorts of jurisdictional boundaries,” Schwartz said.

Professor of Environmental Health and Human Habitation John D. “Jack” Spengler said that the wide variety of perspectives presented at the meeting was important.

“You come away with a new insight to different problems,” he said. “For practitioners there is a lot of cross value where they learn from different projects and how they have approached them.”

Spengler added that combining the knowledge of academics from different disciplines allows the Working Group to find solutions to problems that are fundamentally interdisciplinary in nature.

“[We need] to create interfaces across disciplines, break down silos, bring different interdisciplinary schools into this,” Spengler said.

—Staff writer Amira Abulafi can be reached at