This example of one of our recent projects explored ways to clean up an urban area, enhance natural systems, embed resilience, stimulate the local economy, provide employment opportunities and support local education. We needed to be creative in considering holistic solutions that would embrace the challenges to become opportunities.
As with many urban areas, this location is in a rapidly urbanizing, low lying coastal area. Land subsidence caused in part by excessive ground water extraction, canalization of waterways, rising sea levels and incredible amounts of solid waste pollution (reducing water storage capacity) increasing the vulnerability of this area to flooding. The urban canals have steep, hard edges. They are designed to transport water speedily away. In a few places shops face onto the waterside but in many places, shops and residences turn their back to the water. In the absence of proper drainage and waste water systems, people discharge and dump into the waterways. Rather than being the lifeblood of the environment and community (as waterways should be) the canals are diseased, polluted, neglected, dangerous. It’s catch 22. A dirty place no-one owns is not respected and is prone to the abuse we see here.
So how can we address these challenges and make the waterways valued and valuable places?
For many of the roadside businesses, they rely on passing trade and it is logical that they open up to face the street rather than the waterside. However there are also many food outlets, places to eat and so on, who do not rely on the same amount of street-side interaction, and who may even benefit from a waterside setting. The area is filled with informal, semi-formal and formal street vendors, markets and stalls. These vary greatly in built quality. They contribute hugely to the liveliness of the communities and generate footfall that is essential for creating activated public spaces but they do not have a strong relationship with the existing open spaces and, as mentioned, often turn their backs to the waterways. These commercial activities are also massive contributor to the waste generation in the area. At the same time many of the structures and buildings are poorly constructed. We can look for synergies that link waste to building materials to structural improvements. We can perhaps utilize roof spaces for energy generation and water collection. We can utilize the energy of markets and the community spirit to re-energize the open spaces.
Local energy and water generation is a key part of creating cleaner, healthier communities. Clean energy can reduce the need for diesel based power (dirty emissions, spills and ground / water contamination). Clean energy can become a source of supplementary income for large roof owners. Device charging stations can be created, local lighting powered etc. By harvesting and cleaning rainwater to produce drinking water, it is possible to provide people with better quality water and also to vastly reduce bottle water demand and thus bottle waste / pollution.
Green-blue spaces within our urban areas are of great importance for nature but also for the physical and mental well-being of citizens. In dense urban areas, heat islands quickly develop and open spaces provide sanctuaries where people can ‘escape’ and find cooler shade, relaxing green and space to get away from the intensity of urban life.
When we neglect these spaces we are missing out on many opportunities and as mentioned previously, we allow spaces to fall into neglect and become abused as no one values or takes ownership.
Creating community focus points along the watersides can help to active them and make people aware of their importance, part of their ownership and engaged in ensuring that they become and remain valuable community assets.
People have real concerns about the cost of living and the cost and quality of food in particular but the waterways that once supported eco- and agri-systems, are now contaminated and unproductive. Finding ways to prevent their ongoing pollution and restore them to become valuable habitats, recreational spaces, commercial assets and perhaps even food producing spaces as part of community building and grass roots urban upgrading is a powerful tool in building livable, future-appropriate cities.