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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.