Several events have converged in the last couple of months to make people consider more urgently than before our relationship to the environment. These include Hurricanes Florence and Michael, as well as the latest report from climate scientists, warning that we have until 2030 to reduce greenhouse gas pollution if we’re going limit the increase in temperature to less than 1.5° Celsius (2.7° Fahrenheit).
In the wake of the report, an article published a few years ago in the New Yorker has been circulating again, looking at what various cities around the world are doing to “climate-proof” their infrastructure. This seems as good a time as any to take a look at what’s working, and as so often when the question is how to handle water—flooding, erosion, and encroaching seas—people are looking to the Netherlands.
Despite, or perhaps inspired by, its historical success at reclaiming and protecting land, the country continues to look for new ideas and several years ago hosted an architectural conference focused on helping cities cope with new influxes of water. The city of Rotterdam, where the conference took place, has put some of the ideas into practice. As the article notes, “Rotterdam is now experimenting with an architecture of accommodation: it has a floating pavilion in the city center, made of three silver half spheres with an exhibition space that’s equivalent to four tennis courts; a water plaza that serves as a playground most of the year but is converted into a water-storage facility on days of heavy rainfall; a floodable terrace and sculpture garden along the city’s canal; and buildings whose façades, garages, and ground-level spaces have been engineered to be waterproof.”
The country also handles much of its infrastructure differently than most US cities do. Rather than stringing distribution lines high on utility poles, where they’re vulnerable to wind and falling trees, the Dutch tend to bury them within water-resistant pipes, and the grid is redundant and “circular, rather than being a system of hub and spokes, so that, if a line goes out in one direction, operators can restore power by bringing it in from another source.” That has resulted in average total power outages per year of 23 minutes, compared to 214 minutes in many Eastern US states—or something on the order of days after a major storm like Hurricane Sandy, which left parts of Manhattan in the dark for five days. “The walls protecting Con Ed’s substation along the East River, at twelve and a half feet above the ground, were eighteen inches too low to stop the storm surge and prevent the consequent equipment explosions,” the article points out.
Other countries, especially island nations, are trying other measures. Singapore has spent more than $2 billion to improve its drainage infrastructure, including crest gates, pumps, and “a ten-thousand-hectare catchment area that is roughly one-seventh the size of the country. The system not only protects low-lying urban neighborhoods from flooding during heavy rains; it also eliminates the tidal influence of the surrounding seawater, creating a rain-fed supply of freshwater that currently meets ten percent of Singapore’s demand. Moreover, by stabilizing water levels in the Marina basin the barriers have produced better conditions for water sports.”
Whereas Rotterdam is largely preparing to let the water in and then deal with it, in the US we tend to think in terms of keeping it out with sea walls and other barriers. Many coastal cities are planning softer barriers as well—living shorelines, restored wetlands and marshes, and other ways to limit the impacts of storm surges. The trouble, some say, is that today’s storm surge level could be tomorrow’s everyday water level. A geophysicist quoted in the article notes, “Barriers are at best an intermediate solution. They will require at least twenty years to build … [and] we’d get protection for perhaps a few decades. Walls will keep out storm surges, but not the rising ocean, and they could cause a sense of false security that prevents us from finding real solutions.”
What do you think are the best investments we can make to protect cities and other infrastructure? Would you allocate more resources to changing the way coastal and vulnerable inland areas deal with storms and flooding, or to addressing the greenhouse emissions themselves?
Western Water Summit Call for Speakers Is Open
The Western Water Summit will take place January 22–23, 2019, in San Diego, CA. It focuses on all facets of water management: groundwater, surface water, wastewater, drinking water, irrigation, water law, reuse, generation, restoration, conservation and efficiency, and erosion and sedimentation. The Call for Speakers is open until November 1. Find more information about the conference tracks and registration at www.westernwatersummit.com.