“Make Friends with Floods”

March 15, 2014 § 6 Comments

Kongjian Yu, ESRI GeoDesign Summit 2014

Kongjian Yu, ESRI GeoDesign Summit 2014

A couple weeks back,  I attended the 2014 GeoDesign Summit at ESRI, in Redlands. I was incredibly inspired by  examples of how GIS has been used by people in different fields from all over the country and all over the world to aid in analysis of a wide range of issues. Presentation topics ranged from urban economic development, to  vegetation patterns that maximize passage of wildlife, to the layout of services in Latin American favelas.

One of the most memorable talks was the keynote address by Kong Jian Yu, founder of Turenscape.

Yu is a rock star of Landscape Architecture. Most of his firm’s work is in China. My favorite are the wetland landscapes that merge urban form with  ecological esthetics. These landscapes have strong visual and experiential component but also are designed to maximize ecosystem services. Central to the provision of ecosystem services in a country where 75% of surface water is polluted, is the cleaning ability of wetlands. Other ecosystem services provided by wetlands include flood control, habitat, photosynthetic output, carbon sequestration, sediment retention and cultural and recreational value. Wetlands are only one component of “ecological infrastructure,” an infrastructure that promises to minimize management intervention while providing this wide range of benefits. Where natural wetlands have been removed, restored or constructed wetlands can still provide some of these services. This is in contrast to built infrastructure projects of the last century, typified by encasing rivers in concrete channels, which are designed to maximize one single thing: transporting stormwater quickly to the ocean.

Ecological Infrastructure. Kong Jian Yu at ESRI's 2014 GeoDesign Summit

Ecological Infrastructure. Kong Jian Yu at ESRI’s 2014 GeoDesign Summit

Kong Jian Yu at ESRI's 2014 GeoDesign Summit

Kong Jian Yu at ESRI’s 2014 GeoDesign Summit

In China, Yu advocates that ecological security is a matter of national security. Landscape planning is a matter of national defense. Ecological infrastructure must be invested in, developed and maintained.

Over thousands of years, China has struggled with devastation caused by flooding. Like in southern California, China’s flooding issues have been related to population growth, devegetation, and pressure to develop the landscape in a way that compromises its ability to provide flood control.

In his doctoral dissertation work at Harvard, Yu used GIS mapping and analysis to show that despite the country’s recurrent struggles with flooding, that flooding actually only affects 2.2% of China’s surface area. If flooding only takes up 2.2% of the land, then is it possible to simply “make friends with floods” and accept the fact of flooding? One could simply reserve these zones for flooding, develop elsewhere, and not have to worry about flood damage anymore.

Yu made it sound so simple. Though comments from the audience acknowledged the perils of the top-down style of planning that occurs in China, I was still inspired by Yu’s ideal of how ecological infrastructure can integrate science-based approaches to land management with a new esthetic that embodies ecological values. 

What would an ecological esthetic look like in Southern California? Our plants and seasonal cycles are charismatic– but in a subtle way. Our esthetic might be about how shades of  rust and silver transform into various shades of green after the winter rains.  Or  how every rainy season tells a different story, and how that story is told through the composition of wildflowers we see in the spring as well as in the way water chooses its own path through the alluvial plains. How can southern California make friends with floods?

Proceedings from the 2014 GeoDesign summit can be viewed online. Yu’s presentation can be downloaded here.

§ 6 Responses to “Make Friends with Floods”

  • IMO, greening of the L.A., San Gabriel and Santa Ana rivers inherently begs the issue of debris flow out of the mountains and into the urban flood control system. The San Gabriel mountain range is the youngest, most precipitous and highly fractured range in North America. As well, the beaches along the southern California coast are eroding; there is a lack of sand. Why should the fiscal cost of greening the rivers not include resolving the issue of disposing flood debris ejected from the mountains? The cost of a decorative greening of the flood control channels is one thing; the annual cost of removing and disposing ejected debris ad infinitum is quite another.

    • Jane Tsong says:

      Yes! thank you. Breaking up all these related processes (debris accumulation, beach replenishment, flood control) so that maintenance of each is treated as a separate issue leads to an incredible expenditure of energy and labor and administration. It would be interesting to do a comprehensive accounting of all the costs on all these separate fronts. Maybe someone already has done this?

      Funding the decorative greening of the flood control channels with money saved from debris removal would seem incredibly ironic.

      In this previous post, I talked about how LA area beaches were artificially widened using sediment dredged from our harbors and other infrastructure projects:


      As I understand it, the natural condition that is sustainable given local currents and sources of sediment (even from unchannelized rivers) would have been narrower beaches than we know today.

  • I downloaded the presentation that’s discussed, and particularly like how he talks about development zoning based on ecological infrastructure, and landscape security patterns that begin with water patterns, then add disaster avoidance, biodiversity, cultural heritage and recreation as layers. The folks at re:code LA need to look at this (not to mention everyone blindly riding the bandwagon for the Army Corps’ river redevelopment plans).

    If we’re going to seriously address climate impacts, local water supply and public safety, ecosystem function must be returned to our rivers. That necessitates a clear look at what constitutes a floodplain and appreciation of its inherent values.

    It’s difficult to get the full benefit without an audio or transcript, but it does seem to present some interesting projects and significant gov’t support. And this is China – so you know that development to accommodate population isn’t being sacrificed. Rather, priorities are being righted and the city grid re-shaped accordingly.

    He uses feng-shui as his analogy, we (at The River Project) have been using urban acupuncture. We’re both trying to communicate that bio-mimicry is a more cost-effective, beneficial, and resilient strategy for the challenges we face in the 21st century than clinging to the 20th century paradigm.

  • Jane Tsong says:


    I am SO glad you bring up the issue of ecosystem function in regard to our own river ‘restorations’– that issue has certainly gotten overshadowed in many discussions about the LA River. I think your acupuncture metaphor is really great.

    I loved Yu’s framing of ecological infrastructure (EI) as a national security issue– a brilliant way to be heard in China. In the US, maybe we should treat ecological infrastructure & hard core hydrological functioning as a public utility. Scott Wilson used to ask, why do we ask property owners if they want trees in front of their property? Do we ask them if they want street lights or utilities?

    Since people have to be rescued all the time from our channelized rivers, hydrological functioning throughout the watershed is a human safety issue as well as ecological one.

    I’m hoping ESRI eventually posts the full video online, as they have for past conferences. Kong Jian Yu is a lot of fun!

  • Emily Richards says:

    brilliant article. thanks for sharing. i just returned from san diego where many of the wetlands where the runoff and oceans met are still thriving. making my way back into LA yesterday greeted me with the typified river scenario he mentions below, cement-sided rivers where runoff is rushed to the ocean. john and i are blessed to have a natural creek behind our home and we are working to keep its health.



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