The water-sustainable city: Science, policy and practice (Feldman, 2017)

Michael Webber

city Feldman, D.L. 2017. The water-sustainable city: Science, policy and practice. Cheltenham UK: Edward Elgar, 197 p., Print ISBN 978783478569; eBook 978783478576. GBP19.96 (pback, eBook).


Michael Webber

School of Geography, University of Melbourne, Carlton VIC 3010 Australia;


To cite this Review: Webber, M. 2019. Review of " The water-sustainable city: Science, policy and practice ", Edward Elgar, 2017, by D.L. Feldman., Water Alternatives,


David Feldman, together with colleagues in southern California (USA) and Melbourne (Australia), seek in this book to identify the challenges involved in establishing water-sustainable cities. They show how cities affect water availability and quality, identify the tools through which to analyse the environmental and social impacts of water consumption and how to choose approaches to minimise threats to water management. They have aimed the book at graduate students and water practitioners.

A water-sustainable city is one, they write, that successfully deploys technologies to supply water to support growth and development. Though these technologies include high-tech fixes – such as desalination, stormwater harvesting and water banking – the book argues that, in a world where the climate is changing and urban population growth rates are high, they must be supplemented by low energy approaches – such as biofilters and aggressive demand management. The examples that support these arguments are principally drawn from southern California and Melbourne, though New York City also figures prominently, and other cities intermittently.

The book is divided into three parts.

The first (Chapter 1 through 4) reviews the ways in which water has been used in cities, both past and present, and identifies how a water sustainable city might differ from this standard approach. After discussing the threats to cities’ ability to sustain adequate supplies of water, Feldman turns to cities in history – their aspirations to harness water sources, their need to supply water to all residents and their aspirations for growth through infrastructure. Next is an exploration of the roles of engineering, law and institutions in urban water management through the histories of water supply in Tokyo, Mexico City and Melbourne. Finally, the work of Rebekah Brown is used to identify transitions in the regulations, norms and cognitive frames that inform cities’ approaches to water management.

The second part (Chapters 5 and 6) explores the water-energy relationship and the value of water. Feldman explains three strategies through which the productivity (output / unit) of water can be raised – using lower quality water instead of higher quality water, treating water to raise its quality, and minimising the use of higher quality water. After describing different ways of pricing water, Feldman examines trends in the use of water in southern California.

Part three (Chapters 7 through 10) proposes solutions, drawing in particular on experiments in Melbourne during and since the drought of 1997-2009. Feldman begins this task by proposing ways through which to raise the quality of water in urban streams and the persistence of flows through dry seasons. Next, he examines ways to reduce domestic demand for water, through changing rate structures, encouraging or mandating water-efficient appliances and reducing the amount of water used to irrigate gardens. And finally, he explores innovative forms of governance for water sustainability, focussing particularly on the concept of polycentric governance. Feldman concludes by describing challenges that need research: the impacts of climate change; vulnerability and social equity; and means through which to fairly measure the benefits and costs of 'green' and conventional approaches to supplying urban water.

This is certainly a book for practitioners or aspiring practitioners rather than critical social scientists. Bakker, Linton and Swyngedouw all get referenced, of course, but not engaged with: there is nothing here about power, governmentality, assemblages and all the other theoretical paraphernalia of critical scholarship about society and its relationship with water. Instead, we are presented with a menu of techniques through which to make cities more compatible with a thriving earth, some discussion of the evidence about their effectiveness (which is often sparse) and a review of some of the hurdles that are likely to be encountered in seeking to introduce those techniques. This is not a criticism – just an attempt to specify what kind of reader might engage with the book (and for what purpose). Indeed, any practitioner or interested citizen would gain a wealth of understanding about some of the approaches to sustainable water management for cities that are now feasible.

More critical, though, is the fact that aspiring reformers are not much guided about the intricacies of bureaucracy and public politics that often stand in the way of their ambitions. Perhaps because the book jumps about between southern California and Melbourne (principally), but with excursions to New York, Tokyo, Mexico City and other places, there can be little depth to the analysis of the pitfalls to would-be reformers or the way in which emergency can provide an opportunity for reform. In the end, I felt that the material in the book, though rich and interesting in its own right, was not quite digested into messages that practitioners could take home.

Finally, I have to say: the presentation of the book is terrible. Sure, the paper is glossy and many maps and diagrams are in colour. But lots of those maps and diagrams are simple reproductions of originals, in which labels are frequently unreadable (p33), scales are missing (p25, p27), and dates and sources are missing (p27). Explanations of notes in diagrams are sometimes missing (p41). The axes on graphs are not titled (Figures 6.1 - 6.4). Abbreviations remain unexplained (Table 6.1). There are unexplained references to events and things that may not be familiar to a reader: examples include New York’s "harsh economic realities" (p27); and the "Walsh bucket model" (p103). Some chapters lack a conclusion that tries to bring together the disparate material of the chapter to provide lessons: for example, chapter 3’s examination of the roles of engineering, law and institutions is never drawn together into some kind of synthesis; even Chapter 10 looks towards future research needs rather than drawing together what the book has established. The book never settles on the imperial or metric systems of units. There is repetition of background information as well as of specific sentences. There are silly mistakes in the writing that reflect a failure of proofreading. The pity is that these issues detract from a book that has much to offer practitioners who hope to help create cities that manage their water supplies more sustainably as well as to citizens who might want to put pressure on those practitioners.




Additional Info

  • Author(s): David L. Feldman
  • Year of publication: 2017
  • Publisher: Edward Elgar Publishing
  • Subject: Urban water supply
  • Type: Review
  • Review author: Michael Webber
  • Language: English