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How is Virginia responding to the potential for climate change?

Given the impressive presentations from London, Rotterdam, Hamburg, and Beijing at the Adaptive Infrastructure Symposium,  how is the United States preparing for climate change?  Does Virginia, with barrier islands and the long coastline of the Chesapeake Bay, have a coordinated plan to cope with sea-level rise and storm surges? Here is a very quick investigation of governmental climate change studies from the UK,  London, the US, and Virginia.

The documentation for London and the UK is accessible and covers questions such as: How do we know that climate change exists and is caused by human action?  How were computer projections made for the future climate of the UK?  What probability exists that the projected scenarios will take place? How can we reduce the impact of climate change?  What are the best means to adapt?  What actions can individuals take?  The projections are thoroughly researched and clearly presented.  The adaptive actions are already well underway.

The US report, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, presents a set of projections for the future, yet expends much effort in proving the existence of climate change.  Strategies for adaptation do not appear to be part of this report.  The Virginia report, Governor’s Commission on Climate Change, concentrates on means to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and presents a set of  recommendations for specific state and local agencies.   Essentially the report gives these agencies instructions to take responsibility for adaptive strategies (pages 34-39). The report recommends that the Virginia “Secretary of Natural Resources should lead an inter-agency and intergovernmental effort to develop a Sea Level Rise Adaptation Strategy by January 1, 2011.”

In a summary of the Virginia report, Skip Stiles, Executive Director of Wetlands Watch and a member of the Virginia Commission on Climate Change, explains that  ”Virginia is one of only a handful of states that have put forth adaptation plans as part of their climate commission reports. It is farther ahead than most states in this regard, but remains a lagging state in actually taking action on these recommendations, with none having been introduced in the 2009 session of the General Assembly.”

Is there a reason to expect that the General Assembly will move forward with the Commission’s recommendations in 2010, or should we look to other means to jump-start Virginia’s infrastructural preparations for climate change?

Adaptive Infrastructure: Friday to Saturday

continued coverage of the Adaptive Infrastructure Symposium at the University of Virginia

Martin Prominski, Chair of Landscape Architecture at Leibniz University

Professor Prominski is making analytic studies as part of a “Topographical Atlas“ of European cities and rivers. He will include case studies of rivers (such as the Isar in Munich, the Birs in Basil, the Gallego in Zuera, Spain, and the Seine in Paris) that have very different constraints and opportunities.  This information will allow communities to make better design decisions for their rivers.  This effort is directed toward adapting to changing water levels as defined in the European Union white paper of 2009, “Adapting to Climate Change”.

Kongjian Yu, Dean of Landscape Architecture, University of Peking, Founder of Turenscape

Dean Kongjian Yu pointing out the massive brownfields of China

Dean Kongjian Yu noting the massive brownfields of China

Dean Yu presented two images of water from myth: water as a dragon, or the enemy; and water as the sacred mother.  He suggests that we might build water systems as sacred landscapes, or just simply “make friends with water” and abandon the maximum defense approach.  With the latter we might be safe in the near term, but we will have destroyed the ecosystem in the process.  What does “make friends with water” look like? Dean Yu started his presentation at the largest scale, showing the sources of major Chinese rivers on a plan of China.  He is recommending that this area become a national park, providing recreation, controlling floods, and creating a haven for biodiversity.  At the smaller scale, he outlined five principles:

1. Use the minimum intervention for the maximum effect. Turenscape project:  Red Ribbon

2. Productive landscapes.   Turenscape project: rice paddies at Shenyang University

3.  Let nature work.   Turenscape project: 21 ponds of differing pH at Tianjing Qiaoyuan Park

4. Landscape as Infrastructure to purify polluted water.  Turenscape project:  Houtan wetland park,  2010 Shanghai World Expo

5. from the art of survival to the art beyond survival.  Turenscape project:  competition entry for Grant Park in Chicago

Please follow the links, take a look at these projects, and see what he means by “making friends with water”.  Please imagine how the principles might be applied in the United States.

Antje Stokman, principal of Studio Urbane Landschaft, Hamburg, Germany

Antje Stokman presented a picture of living with water that would surprise an American.  People must be careful about where they park their car, because the tide might come in and cover it with water.  And the fish market floods at least three times per year.  They just open the doors and let the flood through!  People are accustomed to seeing buildings under water.  They expect it, they like it, and tourists come out to see it.  So Hamburg has no flood gate, and people are learning to cope.

The dynamic presence of water in the city is due to the dredging of the Elbe River to support larger ships, the building of embankments and dikes along the river, and the elimination of wetland overflow areas. The tidal range of the Elbe at Hamburg has changed from 1.5 meters in 1850 to about 3.5 meters now.  The new HafenCity quarter, on the site of the old port, contends with this range inventively, elevating the ground level above the tide, with sealed car parks below, and double bridges for both water level and emergency access.

What issues are challenging Hamburg?  The river at Hamburg is subject to both upstream (fluvial) and downstream (tidal) sediment deposition, necessitating an increased need for dredging.  Given that the port is central to the economic and social life of the city, the big challenge is to keep the tidal range from growing, to reduce the height of flooding, and to discover the best locations to place the contaminated fluvial sedment.

Here is an exciting new technique.  Professor Stokman has her students build “landscape machines” to simulate and demonstrate water processes.  Look for versions of this technique to appear at the University of Virginia in the near future…

Antje Stokman’s new book, Wasseratlas, in German with English summaries, is full of beautiful diagrams.

Jane Wolff, Director of Landscape Architecture, University of Toronto

Jane Wolff talked about the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt delta in the Netherlands, the Mississippi River delta in Louisiana, and the California Delta, site for her 2003 book Delta Primer.

Much of the Netherlands is flat and low.  Half of the land area is within 1 meter of sea level.  This is a place in which a landowner’s careless actions might jeopardize the safety of all of his neighbors, and Dutch culture incorporates a series of pervasive social structures that mitigate the potential for mayhem.  Children are taught about water from an early age with characters such as the heroic “water drop”. People understand that their living condition demands a continuing active attitude towards the North Sea.  In this context the relationship between people and water is highly developed and well maintained.  After the devastating 1953 flooding, the government made the “never again” decision, and initiated a 50 year strategy to secure the safety of the Dutch people.

In contrast to the Netherlands, the safety of New Orleans in the Mississippi Delta has been impaired by racism, neglect, and fear.  The mitigating social structures are not in place, and the “never again” decision has not been made.  How, then, can protection and help be offered to the citizens of New Orleans?  In the absence of official attention, Jane Wolff spoke about the potential for mobilization at the grass roots level. She mentioned three grass roots initiatives that are underway in the city:

The Pontchartrain Park + Gentilly Woods Landscape Manual This manual lays out the important cultural history of the neighborhood, and proposes things that individuals and neighborhoods can do to mitigate risk.  Many of the proposals are now under construction.

Gutter to Gulf is a weblog coordinating student contributions to the Dutch Dialogues, the purpose of which is “to examine, research and speculate on integrated water management and infrastructural strategies for New Orleans and the surrounding region”.  Jane Wolff thinks that residents and students both gain as a result of this collaboration.

Most Wanted in the Lower 9th is a list, by local residents of the most urgent/most simple-to-achieve actions to secure a modicum of safety for Lower 9th Ward residents. The Dutch maximum response, “never again” and “what is the most that we can do?” has not happened here. This alternative proposal, at least offering a way forward, is to discover minimal things to change the situation.

Anne Spirn at Adaptive Infrastrucures

Anne Spirn talks with Craig Barton

Anne Spirn, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

As gauged by questions from the floor, many in the audience were reaching the troubling conclusion that at the scale of national and state government, the United States is not working effectively to mitigate climate change.  We lag depressingly behind most other developed countries in Europe and Asia.  Author and teacher Anne Spirn offered sage advice about this problematic situation.  In her seminal book, The Granite Garden, she studied the best urban landscape projects to determine how they had been accomplished.  While she expected to find an inspired leader behind most projects, instead she found that a crisis or disaster had occurred, and that someone had arrived at the opportune moment with a plan of action.  So her advice was that crises and disasters (such as climate change) offer opportunities. We should know the catastrophe to which our regions are prone, and we should get ready to help  through a combination of research and design.  She spoke of the potential for design practice as a form of collaborative research between designers and scientists.  She recommended broad thinking, multi-functional solutions that incorporate bio-diversity, and the importance of bringing design into the mainstream by writing for general public.

Adaptive Infrastructure: Thursday to Friday

coverage of the Adaptive Infrastructure Symposium at the University of Virginia  October 8-10   2009

I have just attended a powerful symposium:  full of hope along with interestingly dire warnings.  “Adaptive Infrastructure” was organized by Kristina Hill, Program Director of Landscape Architecture at the University of Virginia.  She located the best and most innovative urban water infrastructure projects from around the world, then brought the people responsible for this work to the University of Virginia.

Here is a ridiculously fast account of the three-day event.  I will skip from highlight to highlight.

William Hudnut III, former 4 term Republican mayor of Indianapolis

US infrastructure is in terrible shape.  Across the country citizens are voting down measures that would help to fund maintenance. These measures are called taxes.

Matthew Gandy, Urban Geographer from University College, London

About sustainability he asks,   “What is being sustained?”  The current political and economic reality? Sustaining a modern city is a continuous and adaptive process rather than a task that can be completed.  He notes with objective interest that some Londoners respond “Yes, so what” to the information that some cities might not survive global climate change. He  shows some dark, possibly romanticized images of a London transformed  by the rising water levels. Here are a few of these images (from Squint/Opera, a film and media production studio). Here are his publications, some of which are available online.

Alex Nickson, City of London Strategy Manager for Climate Change Adaptation and Water, spoke to us via Skype/video from London.

Alex Nickson by Skype

Here I was most impressed by the scope of the London/United Kingdom investigation of future possibilities, “the best in the world” according to Nickson.  Funded by the UK Department of Food, Environment, and Rural Affairs, the UK Climate Impact Programme 2009 projections are based on an ensemble of 400 computer models to create over 100,000 possible outcomes.  “Using an ensemble of a large number of model projections, probabilistic projections can be generated, allowing the uncertainty in projections to be quantified by giving the relative probability of different climate change outcomes.” Most probable threats to London are:  flooding, over-heating, and water resources.  By 2080 the temperature on the hottest day of the year could increase by up to 10ºC, or 18ºF. That’s a lot!

Michael Pace, from University of Virginia’s Department of Environmental Sciences spoke about “Regime Shifts, climate change, and freshwater ecosystems”. Michael Pace defined regime shifts as very large catastrophic and irreversible changes in an ecosystem due to a small forcing event.  He defined resilience as a quality of an ecosystem that can withstand shocks and rebuild itself.  His advice was that climate change will dramatically alter freshwater ecosystems and regime shifts will challenge our ability to adapt and manage, and that we need to develop a stronger science oriented to understand ecosystem services. For adults, recommended reading is “Science for a Crowded Planet” by Palmer, et al.  Science Magazine  28 May 2004.  For children he recommends My Water Comes From the Mountains by Tiffany Fourment.

Piet Dircke, Section Head for Global Water, ARCADIS, the Netherlands

Piet Dircke explained the climate change adaptation program for Rotterdam. Following the interest generated by the 2005 Architecture Biennial held in Rotterdam in 2005, the city produced the 2007 Water Plan: Water City 2035.  This plan views impending climate change as an opportunity. Structures needed for climate change could also be designed to produce favorable social or economic outcomes.  New hybrid constructs were planned from this point of view:  multi-functional urban dikes, water storage in parking structures, water plazas, adaptive houses.  Like the rest of the Netherlands, Rotterdam requires an extremely high 1025 year flood protection standard. (US protection levels are in the 75-100 year range.)  This protection is for everyone, and flood insurance is illegal.

Jane Wolff with students

Captured by iPhone, here are students and faculty from the Architecture School talking to our amazing guests. These events are open to the public!

Will Travis, Executive Director, San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development  Commission

Mr. Travis noted that it is too late to stop warming and sea level rise.  Even if we turned off all the lights, parked all vehicles and shut down the factories, the consequences of the last 150 years of industrialized society would still be felt for the next 1200 years.  In this context, the BCDC realizes that the San Francisco Bay must be re-imagined.  Seeking to discover what resiliency and sustainability might look like, they held the 2009 international design competition, Rising Tides, for ideas responding to sea level rise in the bay.


weblog launch date: 1 October 2009

Northern Guilford Middle School  Greensboro North Carolina

the Living Machine at Northern Guilford Middle School in Greensboro North Carolina

Constructed by Worrell Water Technologies in Charlottesville, Virginia, this hybrid living machine naturally cleans the school’s wastewater through a series of wetland installations. That water is then used to irrigate athletic fields and to re-charge the aquifer.

photo credit:  Robin Dripps