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Design and climate change. When landscape architecture saves lives

In the face of climate change, we will have to re-think the way we design cities. In India, Holland, China and America, cement gives way to green areas and “strategic” landscape. Because the way forward is a better designed nature and less concrete.


In Mumbai there is a factory with an internal terraced garden.  They descend downwards like Dante’s hell. For almost the whole year, workers (who produce metal pieces for industries of all kinds), can sit on its grassy steps, marked by bricks. Or go down and enjoy the view of the super-contemporary cement building.

Sameep Padora Void Architecture near Mumbai (photo Designboom)

When monsoons arrive, however, everything changes.

Because that “void”, specially designed by Sameep Padora, an avant-garde Indian architect, gradually fills with water. Seven hundred cubic meters in total. And workers and employees can observe this huge temporary pond from the top of safe suspended concrete passages. «The factory, on a hill, has always suffered during the rainy season, that has gradually become more and more aggressive», explains Padora. «It used to turn, basically, in practice, into a huge water collector. Rather than trying to deviate this flooding, as has always been done before, the project follows nature and welcomes the water. controlling its strength and facilitating its slow absorption». Design and climate change

It might seem like an issue that should not concern us. Because in Europe there are no monsoons, right?

But even in Italy the storms are more intense. with the dramatic water bombs (more than 30 mm of rain per hour), becoming gradually more frequent. And it would be good to be ready for them. because their number will only increase as they are a direct consequence of climate change. Design and climate change

«From the 60s to the 90s, water bombs were very rare events: one every 20 years», said world-renowned climatologist Giampiero one of his last talks (he recently passed away). «Now we have eight to ten a year. And this had already been foreseen at a climate conference in 1980».

Design and climate change is a global theme

Everyone should therefore be interested in a project like Padora’s.because it shows how landscape architecture can provide flexible, sustainable and functional responses to climate change. Improving the quality of the present – thanks to the creation of pleasant places to live in the absence of catastrophic events – and responding promptly when needed.

Bishan Park, Singapore

Making nature work for us

«We need to make nature work for us», says Andreas Kipar, a German landscape architect based in Milan with his studio Land. «Many scholars talk about these issues but the actual projects are just a few. The concept that nature can become a protection infrastructure just does not get easily through. The bare minimum would be to use rain gardens in cities. If built where they are needed they would drastically improve the quality of urban spaces during violent climatic events». Design and climate change.

Rain gardens, design and climate change

The “rain gardens” that Kipar refers to are considered the ABC of design and climate change, and of the sustainable urban landscape. They are small green plots, alongside the roads, at a slightly lower level. and set up with plants suitable for growing in water-rich soils. When it rains, the difference in level brings the water towards the rain garden. which directs it, after having filtered it and purified it, towards the sewage system. The presence of absorbing soil and a drainage system allows, even in case of torrential rains, a gradual passage of the water. avoiding the risks of flooding. According to the PlaNYC (New York Sustainability Agenda), rain gardens designed with soil containing 60% sand and 30% compost retain more than 50% of rainwater.

Do we need landscape architecture or civil engineering?

In short, improving the permeability of the land could be the key to respond efficiently to the challenges of contemporary climate. And it would also be a more sustainable and economically viable approach when compared to the engineering one, when that means more concrete (building dams, barricades or cemented roads).

Make room for rivers

Holland, always at the forefront on water containment, has for instance created the Making Room for the River program. Which stands for, literally: widening river banks, getting rid of all containing concrete structures. and transforming the areas around the waterways into parks.

Houtan Park in Shanghai, by Turenscape

Widening rivers without adding concrete

By widening the Waal basin in 2013, the water level has dropped by 34 cm, protecting the city of Nijmegen from flooding. even in emergency situations.

«These are projects that also require a concertation of social goals», says Henk Ovink, director of the think tank Rebuild By Design. (wanted by Obama, he studies preventive solutions to climate cataclysms). «Because it is clear that the buildings, with a view or direct access to the water, are a problem and will be located elsewhere».

The problem in Italy is precisely the large amount of concrete, often illegal.

Huge amount of illegal hourse are built by the waterways. The figures quoted in the book “Sea View. The transformation of coastal Italian landscapes” are clear. In Italy, 51% of the coastal areas are occupied by hotels, buildings, ports and industries. with peaks up to 63% (in Abruzzo and Lazio), 64% (in Liguria) and 65% (in Calabria).

But it would be enough to observe how the challenges of climate change are faced where landscape architecture is fully exploited. to understand that the answer can not be “more concrete”, but “more land”. The best way to do design and climate change.

The answer to contrast climate change is less concrete and more properly designed landscape

For example, in Shanghai, it was decided not to recover a former industrial area on the banks of the Huangpu River with new construction. And the huge area has become Houtan Park, a public green space designed by Turenscape. for the control of rainwater flows and the treatment of the polluting elements they contain.
The same approach was followed by the Weiss-Manfredi study in New York. where Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park has become a picturesque wetland, almost swampy. Where the concrete structures only serve to protect the ground from river currents. and plants are the natural receptacle of excess water.

Milan could have its rain belt

«In Milan we dream of reopening the Navigli to make them navigable again, following the response of the referendum», concludes Kipar. «But it would be better to think of them in a system of protection. The urgency – well aware of those who live near the Seveso, which exudes every storm – is more and more under the eyes of all ».

Cover photo: Hunter’s Point by Weiss Manffredi

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