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science up design

Water and habitation are inextricably linked. First we built our homes near water for survival. Then we built our cities on great rivers and sea-ports for reasons of security and trade.

For centuries now the men and women who have designed our cities have understood the role water plays in forming a city’s spatial and environmental condition. We’ve understood the role it plays in framing the interstitial spaces within a city – the places that help make a city livable.

But is that all about to change?

Our green bio-systems of cool temperatures, colour, access and enjoyment that support the livable city are under serious threat as climate change delivers increasingly varied weather patterns and a decreased availability of water.

We are now experiencing an extreme challenge to our urban fabric, right across the myriad systems that support our urban existence. To use water as one example, the existing infrastructure is already under stress:

Underground infrastructure is under increased pressure due to run-off from higher volume rain events, which accelerates infrastructure deterioration and at the same time augments system requirements, andAbove ground bio mass (trees) is senescing (dying) as we continue to starve it of water by channeling and piping polluted water to our creeks, rivers and estuaries.

Put simply, we’re doing it wrong. We’ve been focusing on the provision of traditional infrastructure rather than considering a dispersed and multivalent system. A more modern, integrated, design approach would create a solution that at once cleans water for reuse, removes the pressure from the aging infrastructure, provides for clean discharge into natural local water systems and, at the same time, moderates our challenged urban spaces.

We should look at the problem from a science ‘up’ rather than a spatial/planning framework ‘down’ approach. This is the future for livable cities. And we know it works because the City of Melbourne has been demonstrating the benefits of this approach over a number of years. In Melbourne (one of the world’s most livable cities) design interventions have been used across the city centre to provide for water harvesting and filtration – from laneway tree pits where available space is limited and critical but so too are the trees, to cooling, art-based therapeutic places of social engagement. They make the city a more comfortable place, they make it a more desirable destination for both locals and tourists, and therefore they contribute to a strong city-based economy.

Singapore has already been investing significantly in the science of the city. The city’s water and its ‘place’ have become inseparable in their design and association. Water supply and water cleansing processes have become central to the imageability of the city (how easy it is to visually imagine) and its many new city branding projects (such as Gardens by the Bay).

Here the design of hard and soft infrastructure, architectural and landscape features, sporting and entertainment amenities, are all integrated as part of their water and environmental catchments, painting the city as ‘green’ and providing the city with a clean, potable water supply.

This is where design, science and policy intersect and frame the potential of a city, informing its movement patterns, its architectural footprint, its character and social priority.

Another example of economic and cultural benefits to be gained through taking an integrated design response (but at the smaller intervention scale) is the Highline, in New York City. It is a transformative project where the thoughtful reconsideration of ageing infrastructure and ecologies have registered on the world stage of city making.

The city is a system in motion – an urban ecology of a constant information feed and corresponding change. The design of its urban systems are best understood across a variety of scales (capturing both the macro and the micro) because, regardless of scale, it must once again be understood in the context of the broader catchment.

This design represents a “science up” approach. It involved not only deep research but, importantly, applying that newly acquired knowledge to help find the appropriate mix of technologies (and their possible applications) to resolve the problems at hand. They considered both the broad scale and the local – in water harvesting, in energy generation and consumption, in mobility and accessibility, and in ecology.  That is to say, in the capture, storage, treatment, use and reuse for all of these systems in a ‘city or place as catchment’ approach.

Through design consideration at both the macro and micro there is a great opportunity to explore and influence the quality of our city spaces, our urban ‘health’, the livability and desirability of a place, the mitigation of climate change impacts on the urban microclimate, social wellbeing and, ultimately, the economic performance of the city.


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