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Water Too Much Too Little

Head of Rotterdam studio, Liesl Vivier, shares Dutch expertise with the challenges of designing for communities with too much or too little water.

Throughout civilisation cities have been intimately connected with water. Prosperous communities with rich cultures, such as Amsterdam, New York, Mumbai and Cape Town, have thrived along ocean-fronts, while ‘floating islands’ proliferate next to river banks or lake shores, particularly across Asia. In the 1960s Buckminster Fuller, seized by the idea of living with water, designed a floating city for 100,000 residents and even had his plans approved by the US Navy as a solution for overcrowded cities.

Water is not only a divine gift, bringing prosperity and enhancing cultivation. Water can also pose a threat. While establishing a city on the Mediterranean coast was seen as advantageous for global trading, the location left inhabitants vulnerable to attack from pirates, storms or floods. But because the upside of living close to water far outweighs the downside, city expansion has continued.

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Tanker trucks transport millions of gallons of water daily for the people of Bangalore. Copyrights - Adnan Abidi

As climate change introduces the threat of too much water to new places, the knowledge of managing water, gained over many centuries in the Netherlands, has become a sought after area of expertise. No other country has reaped the benefit of living with water - while containing the threat - as successfully as the Netherlands. Almost half of the country lies close to or below sea level and these areas are kept dry thanks to a complicated system of dykes, dams, canals and pumps. As a result, the Netherlands is an open test-field for water infrastructure where some of the most interesting concepts relating to water management and urbanisation are being developed.

The Dutch reclaimed the maximum amount of land from the water to expand their territory and for hundreds of years the country has been kept safe and dry by the construction of water barriers in the form of dykes. However in the past decade, this century-old approach to water management has been reviewed as the Dutch realise that the rising water levels, triggered by climate change, cannot be addressed by building higher dykes alone. This means designing areas where rivers can expand during floods and designing cities to be less impervious to rainwater. In essence, we must design cities which act like sponges.

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Design for a water neutral community in Bangalore - rainwater is collected and directed to rain gardens for filtration and reuse.

Too Much

The Dutch project Room for the River is at the forefront of this thinking. Levels of Dutch rivers such as the Rhine and the Waal are becoming increasingly unpredictable as surges of water from increased rainfall in areas upstream result in more frequent flooding downstream. To address this issue the Room for the River project does not build dykes higher, but instead is focused on strengthening and lowering them, widening the riverbeds and increasing the size of flood plains so that these serve as designated areas along the rivers which can safely be flooded when the need arises - and so preventing severe flooding. It may sound ridiculous, but the Dutch answer to too much water is “we will accommodate more water in our cities!”

We used a similar concept in our masterplan to transform a former shipyard into a residential quarter along the banks of the River Lek in the Netherlands, electing to remove soil from the lowest parts of the site in order to create more space for the river to flow and expand. This earth was used to extend the breadth (but not the height) of the existing dykes, making them extra wide, and therefore stronger. In the masterplan a number of homes are situated on the widened dykes at a safe level from the water. At the lowest area of the site, in the widened river bed, we proposed floating houses, which would follow the fluctuations of the river levels. A third, most interesting typology was proposed for the area of the floodplain itself. These homes are built above a concrete basement, which can be used as a garage or space for storage. However, in the case of a 1 in 100 year flood, these basements will fill with water.

The houses are engineered so that the rising water level in the basements will push the houses upwards, so that they also float upon the water. They are designed to return to their original position after the flood water has receded; an excellent example of how homes can be developed in harmony with water. In the UK, we are designing a flood resilient masterplan for York Castle Gateway. York is positioned at the confluence of two rivers, the Foss and the Ouse, and large areas of the site are located in high risk flood zones. We aim to create an accessible and attractive riverfront, replacing asphalted areas with permeable paving and new flood resistant buildings. Proposals to consider actually lowering the banks of the Ouse to create more space for the river are also under review.


Shipyard River Lek design at low and high tide.

Too Little

Conversely, in Africa and Asia, climate change is leading to acute water shortages which result in massive disruption to city life. Rapid uncontrolled urbanisation is causing boreholes and wells to dry up. In this instance, too little water is just as dangerous as too much water.

Bangalore is a rapidly expanding city in India where the supply of water is outpaced by the demand. To meet this increased burden, tanker trucks criss-cross Bangalore daily, transporting millions of gallons of water from wells to homes. This short term fix causes traffic congestion, adds to environmental pollution and is inherently unsustainable. The problem is so acute that new-build townships are no longer being connected to the water supply system of the city, which means that other means of supplying water to the new homes has to be explored.

To address this challenge we are masterplanning a water neutral community of 6,000 homes on the northern outskirts of the city in collaboration with GPL design studio. Our design creates a l near park which meanders through the entire development acting as an enormous 2km long water harvesting element. Rain and surface runoff water collected in the streets is transported to the park, where the water is filtered in raingardens and directed to ponds where it seeps into the ground and is stored, ready for use by the homes. This water is supplemented by the collection of rainwater from roofs and grey waste water from the homes, which is filtered, stored on site and also reused.

Climate change is making it increasingly necessary to reassess how we urbanise our world; whether we are working in flood-prone cities, or in drought-stricken places. Extreme variation in water is now a fundamental concern for designers. We must embrace the idea of living with water and design our cities to connect with water as a positive force, realising its potential for recreation, biodiversity and real sustainable innovation.