As the climate changes, it’s impacts will be felt more and more frequently on our fragile and ageing infrastructure. Every time lives are disrupted by flooding, overheating, melting roads, or snow on the tracks, it tests our resolve as a community and inevitably, questions are raised about the lack of robustness in our infrastructure. But the reality is that our buildings and infrastructure were not designed for the sort of weather patterns we are experiencing. And why would they have been, if they didn’t need to be? But now they do need to be. The minimum standards are rising, rapidly, and unless we learn how to cope we are going to suffer the consequences. But rather than rely solely on central government for leadership (which regularly lacks the ambition or resolve required to tackle the big issues) some communities are taking things into their own hands to improve their resilience now.
In the aftermath of natural (and unnatural) disasters, the speed and effectiveness of the community in bouncing back (recovering) provide an indication of the community resilience.
The best way to build resilience (reduce recovery time and rebuild cost) is to prevent damage from occurring in the first place. However, where the cost of providing a very high standard of protection is prohibitive, or there is a residual risk (such as behind flood defences) then developing resilience in the community is key. Consideration of people’s safety, early warning to allow planning, safe access for emergency vehicles, property protection, insurance and continued access all form part of the resilience of a community.
Whether it is in response to flooding, wildfire or overheating there are structural and non-structural measures that can be taken to improve the resilience of communities. Architects and master-planners are often focused on the structural measures (including landscaping), but we also highlight that non-structural measures such communication can help to build community resilience.
Faced with rising sea levels people often argue that we should move away from risk areas. Indeed, ‘Over one-third of the total human population, nearly 2.4 billion people, lives within 100 km (60 miles) of an oceanic coast..’ (source: NASA) And no doubt, rising sea levels, and to a lesser degree fluvial flood risk, are likely to be the single largest causes of population displacement. Over time all the ice on the planet is likely to melt. Calculations suggest that sea level is expected to rise by approximately 66m (source: National Geographic). Most of the people living at risk, and more, are likely to be displaced. To relocate such a large population to 70m above sea level is unrealistic and currently unnecessary. One could argue for relocating people from the lowest areas to higher ground but with the right type of adaptation and resilience people could continue to live in these areas for some time at least, especially if targets are set and achieved to mitigate the sea level rising.
Area wide flood defences are most cost effective when providing protection to large numbers of property. However, they may result in complacency and ignorance of the remaining risk. Where properties are more isolated, adaptable construction may be more cost effective. Our approach to resilience is to integrate the measures to reduce risk within the built environment.
In Shoeburyness, we developed a comprehensive masterplan for a site that was behind flood defences but could be at high-risk in the future. The flood-risk solution to the site has been placed at the heart of the design, and was a design driver in the planning, building forms, landscaping and place making. It included various measures:
- Safe Havens – there are four home zones, each a safe haven from flooding.
- Land Raising – each home zone is raised to prevent flooding.
- Safe access – the homes can be accessed safely even in the event of a flood.
- Absorbent landscape – The whole development is set within a large floodable park.
- Raised floor levels – there are no bedrooms or living spaces at the lowest level.
- Elevated Buildings – the buildings are built on stilts above parking or utility spaces.
- Resilient construction – the lower floor of the buildings is designed to resist flood water.
- Sustainable drainage – permeable paving, swales and ponds throughout the landscape
- Early Warning – the residents have access to an early warning system.
These measures provide a comprehensive means of reducing the flood-risk to this site, but furthermore they add richness and character to the design.
We are currently working on a community-led, landscape solution to climate change.
In February 2020, during Storm Ciara, a breach in the coastal defences resulted in extensive flooding between Littlehampton and Climping. During the event, Ferry Road and large areas of farmland were inundated with sea water. Access to homes and businesses was cut off for days. It resulted in £100,000s of damage. Thankfully, it just stopped at the edge of homes in Climping Park and Rope Walk. If it hadn’t, then the consequences would have been far worse.
One of the biggest challenges to this location is that it is at risk from both river and coastal flooding. This means that improving the flood defences is too expensive to secure government funding, which requires any defences must be built to last 100 years. Without any government funding there is little prospect of new defences being delivered even to protect residents for the next 20 or 30 years. An alliance between the landowners, local authority, environment agency and other stakeholders has been formed to try to find an adaptable solution.
The proposal is to work with natural processes to achieve an adaptive coastal realignment, enhancing community resilience to flooding and biodiversity improvements. Instead of being blighted by inertia due to government standard approaches this enables incremental improvements to be made over time as the coastal defences retreats in the face of rising sea-level.