“Make Friends with Floods”
March 15, 2014 § 6 Comments
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.
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?