Littoral Urbanism: The Precarious Socio-Ecology of Urban Waterfronts

Steven Velegrinis, Woods Bagot

So, we are now living in world of seven billion people. In the 21st Century, population growth is one of the most significant contributors to the environmental and economic challenges facing the Earth. The Asian continent is at the forefront of this challenge as Asia is host to 70% of the world’s top ten mega/metacities. Considering projected population growth and urbanisation in China and India alone, it is likely that new urban development will need to accommodate between 900,000,000 and 1,200,000,000 people by 2050. That is just for India and China, based on current population and urbanisation predictions.

If we consider the global situation, the United Nations predicts that we will need to build enough new urban development for 3,300,000,000 people by 2050 (when 75% of the population will live in cities).

Over 50% of the global population currently live in cities and the vast majority are located in waterfront areas. In total 40% of the global population live within 100 kilometres of the coast and another approximately 45% of the human population live within 100 kilometres of inland waterfronts. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted sea level rises of five metres from current levels if we do not change our ways. The resulting crisis is clear for urban areas which have always gravitated to waterfronts.

Major urban conurbations like the 40 million people in the Pearl River Delta, 15 million people in Bangkok, 16 million people in the Mekong Delta and 8 million people in Dhaka are at significant risk of sea level rises.

In the environmental design professions we can no longer shrug our shoulders and assume that Climate Change is someone else’s problem. Our daily choice is now whether to be part of the problem or part of the solution. These challenges require a new approach to waterfront development which recognises and embraces the ecology of water and sea level change in master planning of waterfront developments.

Governments are increasingly paying serious attention to the issues of sea level change in urban planning. In Abu Dhabi the 2030 Masterplan establishes minimum platform levels for waterfront development at four metres above current mean sea level.

In Singapore the Public Utilities Board conducted the strategic ABC Waterways urban planning review of every waterbody, drain and reservoir in the country with a view to consolidating water resources, using waterbodies wisely and protecting water resources from rising sea levels.

At Woods Bagot we have attempted to recognise our responsibility to not just to avoid doing more damage but rather to improve the health of waterbodies in our master planning work. In projects like the Wuqing Masterplan in Tianjin, our plan addresses the non point-source pollution caused by agriculture and industry by restoring the river ecology and treating and returning wastewater to a river that was almost completely drained by irrigation schemes.

In the Middle East we have used the required establishment of raised platform levels to institute a hydraulic system that treats all wastewater on site through the landscape and creates additional mangrove habitat. In effect we are seeking to create development prompted by the simple question of ‘What if every act of design left the world a better place?’

While current approaches to sustainable development reduce the environmental harm caused by the construction and operation of new buildings, we need to go beyond reducing the impact of new development to creating buildings and places that contribute to the healing of compromised human and ecological systems. If not we risk becoming the captains on the bridge of sinking ships.

Steven Velegrinis is Urban Design Practice Leader at Woods Bagot. He grew up in Australia and pursued a career in Urban Planning & Heritage Conservation before embarking on a career in Landscape Architecture. After spending almost a decade in Asia, Steven moved to the Middle East four years ago and took up a position with Woods Bagot as their Urban Design Practice Leader for the Middle East. His recent work & PhD research seeks to promote the idea of Landscape Urbanism as the future for sustainable urban development in the Middle East and Asia

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