The water is coming. What should we do?

Coming down from the sky, and up from the oceans: lots more of it, soon, and forever after. Eating our roads and pipes, coming into our homes. So what should we do “yesterday already”, pronto, and in our future?

An excellent piece in the DomPost by Nikki Macdonald yesterday talks through some cold hard (wet) realities of climate change, and options for reducing the extent to which we’ve put ourselves in harm’s way.

It does a good job of covering some neat initiatives for making homes built more along the lines of herons than kākāpō, and canvases options for protecting ourselves from the sea –  which is coming up, regardless of what we think.

There’s a bit about how to insulate homes against the temperature extremes of climate change.

Alas on the vexed issue of who pays for adaptation of coastal properties (such as moving them), and who pays for existing pipes, sewage treatment plants and rail lines that can’t just move, there’s but a sentence. (We wonder if she’d written more but it was left on the cutting-room floor.)

Our ears pricked up at a wee box called “Lessons from Afar”, where Mcdonald provides ideas about recovering from natural disaster.

Once disaster’s struck: build back, or build better?


America’s Rebuild by Design competition was supposed to pick up the pieces after the Hurricane Sandy disaster. Instead, it turned into its own disaster, argues American landscape architect and climate design activist Billy Fleming, who will speak in Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland later this month, as part of the Festival of Architecture.

It’s a precautionary tale about how complicated adaptation work can be, wasting millions and the precious time of both designers and community representatives, says Fleming.

“What tends to happen is we rebuild a lot of things sort of as they were before the storm, making small tweaks to a few places afterwards … We just sort of packaged it all within a design competition and really set everyone up for failure by not making the big structural reforms that need to happen to the way projects are built in this country.”

There’s also a sad tendency for good designs, which include ways for people to connect with the water and each other, to be winnowed down to “big dumb walls”,  he says.

One of the few successful projects to come out of the competition is New York’s Hunts Point development, which provides flood protection for the city’s critical food market. Rather than accelerating gentrification by building swish apartments that push out existing residents, the project includes a walkway and cycleway and public spaces and work for existing communities.

Fleming also believes designers should think bigger than technocratic tinkering, advocating ideas that make environmental and design sense, such as supporting public transport over more roads, and lower carbon energy use.

While design adaptations can buy time, Fleming argues new institutions will be needed to manage the “huge complicated” task of inevitable retreat. He advocates a 21st-century version of the 1930s Resettlement Administration, which relocated struggling families to planned communities.

“If we leave that up to market forces, we know how that will work. The people of means will leave first and will have a choice of where they go and when, and those without means will be left behind.”

This sounds very very interesting. Especially for cities and towns like ours – still rebuilding from earthquakes, and trying to get ahead of the next disaster and doing growth.

Fleming is giving the Ian Athfield Memorial Lecture in Pōneke on Wednesday 25th September at the Embassy

Image credit: Bob Zuur

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