In the 2013 book Resilience in Ecology and Urban Design Kelly Shannon of the Oslo School of Architecture defines resilient cities as those that “bend from harm.”
Times call for creative solutions in the design of cities—if they are to bend and not be broken.
In a chapter about the cross fertilization of art and urban design, artist Mary Miss talks about making visible our connection to nature. We live in a human-dominated landscape, but “we live in an age when imagination and the ability to envision alternatives is our greatest resource.”
Miss has produced large pieces where teams of artists and archeologist revealed what’s in the soils of a park to small blue dots on trees to indicate high water marks in flood zones.
Some of the strongest moments in the book explain how cities were built to bend toward nature. In desert cities, water was enshrined below ground to protect it from evaporation, but above these cisterns were central gathering places. The Ganges is the holy shrine for the city of Varansi in India. Ghats or step downs to the river are the most important gathering space.
In modern times, cities move water away as fast as possible. When water is visible, we associate it with a problem. It is not that we don’t have a deeper appreciation for it as a resource to grow things (rather than a worrisome cause of wet basements).
To achieve resilience, cities need a process that promotes the coordinated development and management of water, land and related resources, Shannon adds, to maximize economic and social equity and sustainability.
“Water is no longer engineered away. It is part of an urban discourse…about the renewed relationship between city and nature.”
City structure was once inconceivable without rivers or canals, she adds. Feng shui is the ancient Chinese art of designing around natural elements like water. Its practitioners were “geomancers, diviners of auspicious sites, those endowed with the ability to read the dynamic powers of the genius loci and its specific topological features and their relation to heavenly bodies.”
The Sanlihe Greenway, for example, in Qian’an, China was created to be a water-centered public space that integrates storm water management, habitat restoration, pedestrian and bicycle paths, and a catalyst for development.
Organized under Indigenous Adoptive Landscape Strategies, Cleveland has the potential, too, for adopting a “water city” outlook. To “make friends with water,” could mean finding what is the local idea that expresses the closeness of our city to water. The step wells dug for harvesting rain water that second as public spaces. Or, the reconstructed wetlands to buffer cities from floods and protect drinking reservoirs.
The authors of the book point out a few misunderstandings about ecology that could inform attempts to rethink cities in the image of nature. For a start, ecology was often seen as a “subversive” science—as advocacy for nature versus the actions of humans. Another myth about nature is that it needs to find a balance; it is really in eternal flux. Finally, the main discourse on resilience rightfully focuses on a system’s ability to self-organize and adapt to changes. Changes in city design that are ecological would be continuous and gradual. For more, check out the Resilience Alliance.
The path toward water friendly cities in an age of climate change is laid by understanding vulnerabilities. “People quickly forget their vulnerabilities.” And yet careful designing with ecology, such as the conservation or replacement of swamp/wetlands to reduce damages from storm surge, could reduce vulnerabilities.
For cities like Cleveland, environmental justice is another important topic that has to continue expanding from location of pollutants to parks and clean air and water as determinants of public health. An example of an intervention Cleveland can make is update its bike (and possibly pedestrian) plan to include walking access to parks with a goal to reduce obesity and type-2 diabetes. Here's another: public transit can be planned to reduce ground-level ozone — as it did in Atlanta (by 28%) during the 1996 Olympics and the number of acute asthma cases by 42%.