Water: design champions needed

Collaboration critical for water-sensitive urban design, Ecobuild Future Cities seminar hears.

Barrett: WSUD lead for Aecom
Barrett: WSUD lead for Aecom

Water-sensitive urban design (WSUD) needs champions and increased collaboration to succeed but things are slowly improving, a seminar about the subject has heard.

Four experts outlined their experience and designs before participating in a debate chaired by Landscape Institute president Sue Illman at the institute-sponsored Future Cities space at the Ecobuild trade show in London last month.

They agreed that a less risk-averse attitude to living with water should be encouraged in the face of climate change and twice as many UK homes now being at risk from flooding as there were in 2008.

Australia's WSUD revolution came after it experienced its own flood crisis. Now Australians recycle rainwater for laundry and toilets, with rainwater tanks and special purple taps a standard feature, Tony Barrett told the gathering.

Barrett, who worked for local government in Australia and is now Aecom WSUD lead for south-west England, outlined his "three pillars of water sensitivity"

- cities as water-supply catchments, cities providing ecosystem services and cities comprising water-sensitive communities, the latter being the most overlooked, he said.

"The community has to be water literate," Barrett added. "They have to understand that they are living in a water-sensitive community so they can use it and love it."

He showed projects where WSUD was incorporated into tree pits, at the side of streets or as part of green tram tracks in France, these primarily designed to dampen noise.

"Putting water back in the urban landscape is about collaborating. This is starting to happen around the world. We tend to put water behind barriers but in the countryside we live with rivers. There's a danger of risk but you need to understand and accept it."

He said integrated water management is "a wicked problem" and urged people not to wait for regulation and "remember the business case stacks up".

Arup director Justin Abbott agreed that more collaboration and encouraging understanding of the wider community benefits of WSUD is key. An example is Beam Parklands in Dagenham, a "win-win on a number of fronts". He said Arup is now talking to water companies to try and establish best practice and put down business cases.

University of Cambridge deputy project director Heather Topel outlined the WSUD being incorporated into the 150ha North West Cambridge regeneration on university land with the aim of cutting water use by half compared to the average level in Cambridge.

"Our aim is to encourage behavioural change," she added. "From my point of view it's just good design and responsible development."

Baca Architects director Robert Barker showed a number of examples of "aquatecture" - building designs that incorporate water or allow controlled flooding, with water used to provide cooling. "We don't know what will happen with the weather so solutions have to be flexible," he said.

WSUD - How to convince the general public

Audience members wanted to know how the public can be convinced on WSUD, with one landscape architect saying they worry about health and safety.

Landscape Institute president Sue Illman agreed this is "a big problem" but said: "We must accept that and deal with it. Nobody has ever died from a SUDS scheme." She said younger people are more receptive and the institute wants to encourage children's play in sustainable urban drainage systems.

Robert Barker's view was that policy is "definitely needed", while Tony Barrett said more champions are needed "to share the vision".

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