A Companion for Sewer Catastrophes

Have you ever seen such charming illustrations for sewage?

By Max Liboiron

Sewers are the most expensive and expansive urban infrastructures in North America. They are underground. They are made of inflexible pipes.They are difficult to access. And increasingly unpredictable acts of nature, from earthquakes to climate disruption, are making the probability of their spectacular, large-scale failure something to take note of.

A couple of folks in Portland are on it. They’ve developed A Sewer Catastrophe Companion, an “illustrated guide [that] presents a series of graduated responses you can do to keep yourself and your community safe from disease during the short term and long term disruption of sewer services. It’s a solution for managing excreta that’s not excreting problems later.”

The Sewer Catastrophe Companion is remarkable for a few reasons. First, like much emergency literature, it is an exercise in realizing how invisible yet foundational many of our urban infrastructures are, and how daily live is premised on its smooth functioning. But the Companion takes this a step further to break down the logistics of reestablishing that infrastructure on a smaller, though potentially long term, scale. Just leaving your feces in the sun won’t do. It turns out there are best practices for that sort of thing. Now you, too, can become antiquated with the usually externalized life cycles and ecosystems associated with your own body.

Another notable facet of the Companion is of particular interest to scholars like me who are interested in how quantification and scale have the ability to change things ontologically. In short, knowing how much you defecate might change your outlook on life. How many times do you go to the bathroom in a day? Never counted? With a sewer catastrophe you might. Consider this fantastic infographic:

Reading it is one thing, planning for it is another (where would all those buckets go?), and living it is yet another. How would urban planning, sizes of communities, and uses of private and public space change if we thought in units of pee and poo buckets? I leave it to you to ponder.

The Companion was written and researched by Molly Danielsson and Mathew Lippincott, and illustrated by Molly Danielsson and Emma Conley.

Max Liboiron is a postdoctoral researcher with the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing and the Superstorm Research Lab.

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