How many times when we walk in the city, we find the canals almost non-existent and treated as drains? Our monsoon comes with waterlogging and summer with water shortage. Our cities now grow blindly for the sake of the economy and our ecology often takes backstage. As a result, we lack resilience.

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©book- Towards Water Smart Cities

It’s high time that we think of water as the driving force of urban development, which includes the context, topography, ecology, and the people living in cities. This approach, known as “Water Urbanism”, opens an avenue leading to the sustainability of the new age, where we care for nature and solve urban issues by creating a synergy. In the age where many cities worldwide face natural disasters regarding climate change, resiliency matters the most. Water urbanism, thus, provides a unique toolset to the architects to make a resilient future.

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Proposal of ‘Wild Mile’ along the formal industrial stretch of Chicago River by SOM ©SOM
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Proposal of India Basin in San Francisco Bay by SOM ©SOM

Water and Urbanism

Water is one of the most important elements of survival, and undoubtedly, for growth. And that’s why whenever we see traces of ancient cities, business centers, and the growth of modern cities, we see their unequivocal connection with water. But somehow, this thread snapped somewhere in history.

We now see a break in the symbiosis between us and our surroundings. Why is it that urban life halts when we face seasonal floods which we know return every year? And in severe cases, like the flooding of Mumbai in 2005, why do all our protective measures fail? And at the same time, our rural population still can sustain their lifestyle in times of seasonal floods as they still maintain that connection. Water urbanism kind of points out this irony and urges to take measures from micro to macro level to establish that connection again.

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Mumbai in 2005 ©Sebastian D’Souza/AFP

Resistance or Resilience

For a long time, our approach against storms, floods, and surges was to build dams and dikes. The more climate change is occurring, the bigger the dams and dikes are built. Now it has come to the tipping point where our approach of resistance no longer can support, it will fail sooner and later.

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©book- Towards Water Smart Cities

This questions the validity of considering water as the enemy, rather our lifestyle should incorporate these changes. Water urbanism promotes that our architecture and urban interventions must consider the changing climate as the new ‘normal’. The global trend of urban change should respond to our historical and cultural aspects. An alternative solution should be taken in the long run.

Undoing and Unthinking

“Thinking about anything is hard. But unthinking- undoing the way we have thought about anything is infinitely harder”. (from ‘Soak- Mumbai in an Estuary’).

This quote essentially captures one of the most prevailing and fundamental problems in the practice of modern urbanism. We are opting for measures practiced traditionally, and our mentality regarding urban development still is residing in the past.

Water Urbanism is a bold step to evolve from that. Our land and ecology are formed considering the fluidity of the elements. If we try to impose infrastructure, problems like water-logging, water scarcity, etc. plaguing our city will begin to grow more and more sinister. What water urbanism proposes is to intervene by merging with our environmental factors, not impeding them.

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Singapore’s Bishan Park is a testament what Undoing means, transforming a concrete drain into an urban hydrological model ©asla.org

Road-Based to Water-Based Urbanity

History tells the importance of roads and railways in the formation and growth of cities. We thought of going from point A to point B in the shortest distance, but never thought what harm it might cause in the future. As we began to depend on roads, we started building them disrupting the natural water flow.

Before the massive urbanization started, roads were built parallel to the streams of rivers or canals; the moment we started burying and stopping those streams by intersecting roads in between, the cycle of synergy started to break. Canals were considered as drainage, rivers started to shrink. As a result, the economy of those depending on these sources was disrupted. Reviving these resources and prioritizing them should come first in making the policies regarding urbanization, not the other way around.

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©book- Towards Water Smart Cities

Hard Edge vs Soft Edge

The more we expand our impermeable surface like concrete, the more we lack soakable surfaces, cities’ groundwater resource begins to shorten day by day, runoff rainwater cannot be drained quickly resulting in a severe waterlogging crisis. The harder engineering strategy we take or not, in the long term the softer strategies like permeable green, revitalizing urban water streams, creating more public green areas, etc. are what make our cities more livable.

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Quinly Stormwater Wetland Park: a model for preserving a protected wetland from surrounding urban threat ©archdaily.com
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Urban Recreation amidst nature ©archdaily.com
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The Paths and Platforms ©archdaily.com
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Masterplan- protecting the central wetland ©archdaily.com
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Design Concept ©archdaily.com

Roadmap to a Water-Smart City

Density is a common factor in modern cities, especially in the global south. Often, we trade our sustainability in exchange for more development, not regarding the hydrological system or geography. As a result, more and more unlivable slums grow, homogenous apartment complexes begin to create gentrification all around the city.

From micro-level like houses to the macro level like cities, the scope of incorporating a water-smart system is manifold. Revisiting the masterplan of the city to make it more responsive to its need is a paramount task, but it is the one task that sooner or later has to be taken before the whole system starts to crumble before our own eyes.

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Micro Level Interventions- Building ©book- Towards Water Smart Cities
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Meso Level Interventions- District ©book- Towards Water Smart Cities
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Macro Level Interventions- City ©book- Towards Water Smart Cities

From Bogota to Varanasi, Dhaka to Kerala, Mumbai to Amman, every context of the cities all around the world can generate its approach to water urbanism. Being free from hard and fast rules to follow, we can observe and formulate our strategies. Our history, vernacular architecture, weather pattern, etc. can provide us the constraints and guidelines; on which a sustainable city development program unique to its particular context can be generated. It’s a fight to build resilient and responsive architecture, making livability the topmost priority.

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