The impacts of the climate crisis increase in reach and damage every year with more people feeling the consequences. People have finally woken up to the fact that we need to act now to curb more climate chaos, the problem is that economists might figure that out too. Properties built on flood plains or other vulnerable areas are going to lose their value as global warming increases and that can spiral countries into recessions. In some parts of the USA politicians are planning ahead to navigate the troubled waters of the combined effects of climate and economic chaos.
If you want to address this today: ask the company you work for what their business plan is for a planet two degrees warmer than it is today.
A 2014 report from Arizona State University estimated that one year without water from the river could cause US$1.4 trillion in economic losses and impact 16 million jobs across the region. If calculations were done again today, those estimates of damage “would definitely be bigger,” says Timothy James, a co-author of the report.
The technical fixes are easiest to predict: more water-efficient technologies and policies like higher prices on water to encourage their adoption. But adapting to climate change also requires hard decisions about the pace and scale of development. It could mean refraining from building new communities in the desert altogether. At the moment, however, Phoenix is growing rapidly.
Cities need to work with their local ecosystems and not against them. This is evidently true when it comes to waste management and overt displays of green initiatives. There is a harder aspect of ecological thinking for cities and it’s usually beneath our feet: water.
Water systems are complex in every direction – getting drinking water in and storm water out. The way cities plan for water issues is more important than ever before as we enter a time of water scarcity and extreme weather. What we should be doing (and smart cities already are) is designing our urban spaces with the flow of water in mind.
“We need to acknowledge that the water is eventually going to do what the water wants to do, and shift our approach, as human populations living on the Earth, from one of trying to dominate nature to one that acknowledges the power of nature and works in synchrony with that,” says English. “We’ve already set ourselves down this path of dams and levees and water control systems, and it’s really hard to turn back. But we don’t need to keep replicating that. We don’t need to make the situation worse. It’s time to step back from the approach of control and fortification.”
“Cities that today start to embrace water and take advantage of the skills of water, will be the cities that have a better performance economically and socially and politically in 20 to 30 years,” says Koen Olthuis, founder of Waterstudio, a Dutch firm that has found designing around water to be more than a niche market. “When situations change—and that’s happening now, the environment is changing, the climate is changing—cities have to react. You have to change the skills and the performance of the city to give a reaction to this situation, and the reaction should be not fighting it, it should be living with it.”
New York, like other large cities, has a lot of impermeable services which means that when it rains there is little to contain the water. By using green infrastructure of soil, broken stone, shrubs, trees, etc. the bioswales can capture a lot of water. This green infrastructure is good for water management and obviously benefits the local environments through cleaner air and more pleasant views.
The Big Apple’s pretty new bioswales, built into city sidewalks much like standard tree pits and more modest in size than their suburban brethren, will join about 250 of these aesthetically pleasing drainage ditches that have already popped up around the city as part of the city’s stormwater management-focused Green Infrastructure Program. The price tag attached to this aggressive — and much needed — onslaught of vegetated swales is $46 million.
While that might seem like a hefty wad of cash for the city to dedicate to curbside rain gardens, it’s nothing compared to the costs associated with upgrading New York’s aging combined sewage system (a system that handles both storm runoff and domestic sewage) and cleaning up after perfectly foul combined sewage overflow (CSO) events that strike following heavy rainstorms (and, of course, hurricanes).
One of those programs she is referring to is the tower renewal program which helped energy conservation, local ecologies, and improve housing conditions. Toronto’s mayor ensures these programs don’t get funding.
Here in Toronto where we have a druggy mayor who hates the environment who also sat in an idling SUV during the flooding (idling is illegal in the city). The mayor has gone out of his way to ensure that Toronto treats the local environment worse than it did the year before. I mention this as a contrast to what is happening in England’s biggest city.
In London, they have a mayor who actually knows that climate change is happening and the city is doing something about it. London is no stranger to threat of flooding, indeed the Thames barrier’s lifetime has been reduced due to the increased pace of climate change. With most usable space already consumed, what is the city to do?
London has turned to constructing green walls! The walls absorb water that would otherwise contribute to flooding within the city by soaking up rainwater.
The wall captures rainwater from the roof of the hotel in dedicated storage tanks; the rainwater is then channeled slowly through the wall to nourish plants, simultaneously reducing surface water on the streets below. “The plants themselves will take up rain too, so the rain doesn’t fall on the street below,” says Beamont.
During the design process, Grant picked out native ferns, English ivy, geraniums, strawberry and primroses for the living wall, using the Royal Horticultural Society’s pollinators list as a guide. “My approach is to use native species in natural associations, however sometimes it’s not practicable because of problems with availability or a lack of visual interest or late flowering,” he says. “It’s still necessary to choose plants that are known to thrive in living walls, or are likely to thrive in living walls, and are suited to the aspect and microclimate.”
So the ineptitude of the current Toronto mayor got me thinking of how things could have been different with forethought of climate change. It’s worth noting that Rob Ford spent the flood idling in his SUV:
Just spoke to Mayor Rob Ford, power is still out at his house. He's in the SUV with his kids trying to stay cool #TOpoli#stormTO
The barrage is part of a comprehensive system of flood control to decrease flooding in the low-lying areas in the busy quarters of the city. During the heavy rains, a series of nine crest gates activate to release excess storm water into the sea when the tide is low. When high tide comes in, giant pumps drain excess storm water at at a rate of one Olympic-size swimming pool per minute.
Although large areas of green roofs have many benefits for cities, such as reducing air pollution and helping to combat the heat island effect, Rotterdam’s priority was for water retention, since the city has a shortage of areas where water can be stored following heavy rainfall. Water management has always been a major concern in the Netherlands, since approximately 60% of the country lies below sea level. The analysis of the potential of green roofs in Rotterdam that preceded the introduction of the subsidies focused heavily on their capacity for water storage in order to reduce peak water discharge following a rain storm and help prevent flooding.
Once established a green roof can significantly reduce both peak flow rates and total runoff volume of rainwater from the roof compared to a conventional roof. Green roofs store rainwater in the plants and substrate and release water back into the atmosphere through evapotranspiration.
The amount of water that is stored on a green roof, and then evapotranspired into the atmosphere, is dependent on the depth and type of growing medium, type of drainage layer, vegetation used and regional weather. The FLL Guidelines should be followed to ensure that actual runoff will be in accordance with calculated runoff.
A green roof can easily be designed to prevent runoff from all rainfall events of up to 5 mm and as part of a SuDS strategy, should reduce the volume of surface or underground attenuation required at the site boundary. In summer, green roofs can retain 70–80% of rainfall and in winter they retain 10–35% depending on their build-up (Green roofs benefits and cost implications, Livingroofs.org In association with ecologyconsultancy, March 2004). The difference is due to a combination of more winter rainfall and less evapotranspiration by the plants because growth is not as vigorous during the winter months.
I like this tweet from Toronto’s chief planner Jennifer Keesmat as a good conclusion to this post:
Suddenly spending $ to maintain all of that not-so-sexy infrastructure and to plan for climate change seems wildly appealing. #TOflood