Finding Value(s) in our Stories and Waters

By Emily Simonson

I’ve never had so many people wanting to talk to me in my life than I did while working the USA booth at the Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador. Drawn in by the flag towards the outside of our booth space, people browsed the EPA materials on the Urban Waters Federal Partnership, the Agency’s efforts on climate change, and guidebooks on protecting drinking water sources, materials from USAID and the State Department. A steady stream of people – the general public and conference go-ers perusing the displays at the conference exhibition – were keeping me busy.

“I love New York. I used to study there.”
“In Mexico, water is an important women’s issue, but we need to find ways to engage men.”
“I want to learn how rural and urban governments can work together to manage water here in Ecuador.”
“What can you do for the river in my city?”

 While the topics ranged from polite conversation to details on projects and technical information, a few themes struck me. Boiling it all down, each conversation was about values: opportunity, equity, participation and democracy, striving to do better.

Coming from my ORISE fellowship with the Urban Waters Program at EPA, I was in Quito to learn, volunteer at the USA booth, and support a program partner, the Caño Martín Peña Community Land Trust (CLT) from San Juan, who had just won the 2016 World Habitat Award. I got even more out of the experience than I’d hoped.

As part of the group that scheduled the programming for the USA areas, I’d arranged for members of the CLT to present their work in the exhibition space. The CLT’s story of community members organizing to grant land tenure to those living along the Martín Peña channel while working with partners to reclaim the channel from decades of pollution really reflected the values people had expressed all day. Several of those in the audience stuck around to talk with members of the CLT, because their story resonated with challenges they were facing in their own communities.

The CLT’s story and mission reminds me that water is central to both urban livability and sustainability. When people envision a better community they often talk about access to water for recreation, drinking, health and sanitation, and business. The ways people access and interact with water (especially in our cities) can reveal so much about the progress we’re making towards building cities that reflect the values we can all agree upon.

I really appreciated that our booth and the rest of the exhibition spaces were open to the public. The candid conversations happening there revealed just as much, and possibly more, as the high level conference sessions about what it’s going to take to realize the equitable, sustainable, and democratic cities of tomorrow that our communities deserve.

Moments like the ones I experienced do not just put into perspective that the issues we work on at EPA transcend the country’s boundaries. The knowledge and models we contribute at events like Habitat III are shared in a language that also crosses borders and is spoken by people of many citizenships– it’s the language of our values, our daily patterns of living, and our aspirations and actions for our communities.

The Habitat III Conference focuses on the future of our planet’s cities and how to implement the New Urban Agenda, a document on urban sustainability created by contributions from governments and civil society organizations from around the world. EPA lent expertise to this document on several topics, including lead, water, and food waste issues.

About the author: Emily Simonson is an ORISE Participant with the Urban Waters Program in EPA’s Office of Wetlands, Oceans, and Watersheds. Emily enjoys travel, hiking (urban and scenic), running, and reading.

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