This paper briefly comments on the effects on community health because of urban design perspectives leading to flood conditions in central business districts in some major centres. As well as climate change factors, the paper suggests that previous human design intervention and a possible lack of insight, investment and affirmative action are one of the major overall cause for flooding, especially in low-lying inner town and city precincts.
Future papers by the author, who has been intimately involved in water, drought management, sustainable building and farming issues, will comment on a number of aspects concerning the role of the built environment and the farming sector’s impact on sustainability, where water, drought conditions and energy are concerned. However, challenges upon the integrity and distribution of water and its impacts is not limited to these sectors and as such, regularly influence the health and lifestyle of the general population.
The principle genre of, ‘out of sight and out of mind,’ affects the relationship between the built environment and water resources and has been the one that has unfortunately prevailed in modern times. This is where the outcome has been in some cases, ‘to concrete over’, streams and river systems in some major town and cities in the early beginnings of their development. Covering over mangrove swamps and associated natural wetland features results in higher levels of toxicity and flooding in inner-connecting streams and river systems.
The city of London is an example of this, which occurred in the pre-20th century, however recent proactive water management practises have achieved valuable outcomes in urban districts, (McHarg, 2002). Unfortunately, unsustainable practices are still in evidence in this period of the 21st century in other major population centres. Regional centres in a number of countries are not excluded from this attitude to the pre-existence of underground water systems and impacts upon it.
The outcome of hiding water under city precincts has resulted in impacts that include local flooding and natural sustainability issues. Experienced locals given the opportunity can assist planners in the determination of historical flood flows, analysis of alternative paths, overflow strategies and levels. Funding provided later to fix flooding issues is a very poor substitute for inadequate planning.
High water runoff across non-permeable pavements are also a factor in urban water management. Whereas streets in the city of Berlin has this water management feature, generally London does not. It is something they are trying to address, (McHarg, et al, 2012), however, pavement design is only part of the equation, as are grassed areas in verges and pocket parks!
Natural water is not helped by being shut away from direct sunlight and exposed to run-off from buildings and waste water. It is also the use of questionable cleaning methods with their associated chemical compounds finding their way into water systems that is of deep concern to community health and the local ecology, where toxicity is a critical issue!
The design of community and care housing by providers of aging centres is especially significant because they may accommodate some of the more fragile members of our society. Mobility is one of a number of critical factors in their survival*. In a society where older people are one of the major sectors in harm’s way, all risk minimisation strategies need to be taken into consideration in order to produce built environments that provide for their physical and cognitive health and safety. *Research by the author in NSW has identified that over 50% of the care accommodation for over the fifties that he investigated were built in flood prone areas and were constructed to reduce building costs and in such a way as to increase the risk of floods occurring.
According to experts, when regional communities are faced with on-going extremes in climate related conditions such as reoccurring floods and droughts, a profound sense of helplessness can occur. This is not helped by minimal government spending in regional areas on quality services and new infrastructure. It is these types of conditions that can have a serious impact upon the health and welfare of communities and especially on our older citizens, leading to increases in depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, (PTSD), suicide and possible conditions relating to dementia.
In a sample of urban renewal, regeneration projects that involved visionary statements designed to reveal and deal with hidden streams under cities, often came to nothing decades after the initial ideas were proposed. Critical aesthetic qualities, such as a sense of place and the quality of social cohesive qualities are necessary at this stage of the 21st century, as they are for all times. For example the presence of gently flowing water in nature provides an ideal backdrop for inhabitants of city centres under pressure from the artificiality and urgency of urban life.
One would not be surprised to notice that natural elements such as water features are not necessarily included in the ecology of city life, which largely remains excluded from the daily hustle and bustle of some of our more recent contemporary environments.
The desire to build cities and fully maintain them always challenges the natural terrain, which had to be overcome by attempts to work effectively within the restraints presented. This has featured throughout history, however, with these challenges come unknown future outcomes and this especially applies to inappropriate urban design practices in fragile environments.
This is because growth comes with increases in population and the need for sustainable resources and changes in the function of cities leads to the obvious dramatic consequence to their built environments. This is made more problematic when questionable land-use building practises are in place, which is partly reflected in a zone-by-zone approach to urban renewal, rather than one that is integrated and based on neighbourhood precincts.
In this respect, some lessons from the past have not been learned adequately enough. From a historical perspective, civilisations such as the Romans and Carthaginians, designed and built multifunctional water management systems, the remains of some of which, are still in existence, but unfortunately not in use in present desert conditions.
An almost total belief in the role of technology as the singular deciding factor in preventative flood management systems has seen dramatic events unfold. The Japanese Fukoshima nuclear disaster was a prime example.
The out of sight, out of mind, attitude changes when, ‘suddenly’, a prominent town or city centre and adjoining precincts becomes flooded, because of the effects of a climatic event.
In an Australian water management context, it easy to blame one of the key features of these drainage characteristics. Is it because rivers are non-perennial, (seasonally flowing), or perennial (permanently flowing?) Unlike many other parts of the world, some of Australia’s streams, rivers and lakes do not always have water flowing into them, even in the tropics. Further to the south of the continent Australia is also not well endowed with natural lakes containing plentiful supplies of water.
This makes it necessary to take a more holistic stance on how water is managed in Australia, which is after all a dry continent. This is without factoring in the influence of climate change and uncoordinated human activity. It is unfortunate that, preceding the 1974 Snowy Scheme, similar large projects, (apart from the recent expansion of the Snowy Scheme), although discussed by some government agencies, did not proceed.
Despite both rainfall and runoff that can be highly variable across the continent, recent events, however, have seen a greater focus for considering the provision of more reservoirs to meet water and power supply needs. Striking a balance between over development and little or no development requires an integrated perspective to defining what our needs are and ensuring that the supply of water and minimising the effects of drought, are two of them.
Notwithstanding, the regulation of rivers through dams, and extractions for irrigation, have had profound impacts. A sustainable balance can be achieved if a Top-down and Bottom-up approach to decisions concerning the use and management of natural resources was addressed. The genre of Top-down and Bottom-up philosophies is discussed further!
Unfortunately, the lack of a greater proactive and inter-linked approach to managing our resources came with the beginnings of a large expansion of the built environment, especially on Australia’s eastern coast, where the focus is mainly on residential dwellings.
This is also due in part to high levels of migration for settlement in our major cities in more recent times, with questionable skill levels. This was not necessarily supported by building appropriate infrastructure services, such as efficient integrated transport and distribution systems, which has not been helped by the closure of some railway lines and stations in regional centres.
All of which does not support the view that government is dedicated to the positive development of regional centres. This is especially the situation in New South Wales.
The expertise relating to the management of surface and ground water assets is problematic, particularly with ground water, because it is difficult to assess how quickly ground water is replenished. Suggestions that ground water assets in some areas are underutilised is common knowledge is some circles. This may also include, ‘water held back’, for future use!
Despite having over two hundred organisations contributing to our knowledge on water resources, decision making does not only have to exist in the various levels of government and quasi-government agencies. Indeed the integration of Bottom-up expertise in a collaborative and participative approach would help to ensure a greater success of a holistic agenda. This is especially significant where ground water use is concerned as part of a strategic partnership between bioscience, other interested parties and natural elements.
A Top-down process engaged by some agencies, without the strategic participation of informed Bottom-up resources, vitally ensures that the design and function of the majority of Australian cities and major provincial centres may not meet the expectations and wide-ranging needs of their citizens. This especially applies to the management of water, air and in choices in the types of crops we grow that do not unduly impact on water and other natural resources!
There are some crops that are not really suitable for Australian conditions because of their dependency on high water usage. Indeed, are we fully utilising investment in, (with the full support of government), in other ways of, ‘growing crops’, such as hydroponics, aquaponics and associated techniques for example? Some New South Wales, Northern Rivers Farmers have already turned to these growing techniques to help manage the influence of climate change, while other regions in Australia are also involved in producing foods using organic techniques.
The outcomes associated with the questionable construction in the quality of urban space and the more efficient management of Australia’s resources are more often or not unresolved. Usually, the solution is achievable, however, ignoring the input and participation of a wide number of stakeholders in the planning and design of water resource management , does not lead to a beneficial outcome for the community, especially in the short to medium term.
This usually has taken many years of turmoil, when flooding has taken its toll on citizens from all perspectives, such as on their residences, businesses, health and lifestyle related areas. In establishing the reasons as to why flooding occurred apart from, (climate factors) and what to do about it, many people have had to compete with local councils, state jurisdictions and unelected quasi-bureaucratically aligned decision making processes. The impact of drought conditions on regional areas are severely impacted by the lack of investment by Federal and State governments in minimising its effects. Unfortunately a city-centric focus does not help in providing the assets needed to address local rural conditions, such as transportation issues.
There is also a view that a, ‘leave all aspects of our natural ecology alone’, perspective that in some cases allows our water to flow into rivers and oceans without capturing and harvesting it. Although drought conditions are inevitable in Australia, that does not mean that every effort should not be explored to reduce the impacts of both flooding and drought conditions.
This may have been understandable in Australia’s earlier 20th century existence, because of low population levels and a smaller economy. However the extra demand for water in the 21st century needs to be considered by a longer term view, together with all residential, commercial, industrial projects and perhaps questionable crop selection. This requires partnering with a holistic perspective to help to achieve sustainable outcomes. This is needed because of short term planning and design issues, as well as the later impact of new building on established floodway corridors, which may have been approved and or ignored by other earlier jurisdictions.
In a number of cases, flooding in town centres has been because of previous failures to provide large enough pipes and associated storage and distribution infrastructure facilities, to redistribute and store storm water in wetlands and associated areas before it damages community assets and causes injury to people as well as wild, farm and domestic animals.
The extraction of risk affected people and assets is often compromised by problems in efficiently communicating and engaging seamlessly with the appropriate emergency agencies quickly enough. Obviously, this is not the fault of front-line emergency personnel and immediate supervisory staff!
In the beginning, this dilemma could have been resolved using a participative approach to the building of local infrastructure and not a consultative one, which is usually favoured by government authorities and one which may involve a wide selection of private consultants. This is rather than using the involvement of informed citizens in the design and management of resources. The effects of huge re-engineering, construction, associated social costs and the disruptive nature of surface and below street level projects in town centre locations could have been minimised by implementing visionary perspectives that could have been coordinated at the beginning of a project.
The inclusion of a river-bridge approach in regional areas into smaller dam storage facilities for use in drought conditions and other longer term re-use and cycling strategies may have reduced the impacts of under applied underground water systems. Perhaps a re-visit to how Ancient Rome and other older cities designed its water management systems would have provided a valuable insight into how water can be used wisely instead of being disposed of recklessly in some instances.
Whilst it is obvious to comment that environmental and other impacts on the health and wellbeing of the Australian community does not end in its major population centres because approximately 87% of its population reside there. The reality is that government spending on programmes of many types, (especially energy related), may not appear to be directed to regional Australia adequately enough. There is also the question of competing ideologies between different political factors, which often leads to an indecisive attitude towards how to choose and manage Australia’s energy requirements.
Dr Alec McHarg (PhD), August 26, 2018
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