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  • Guest Editor collection: 26 Aug 2015 Nanco Dolman
    Leading Professional in Water Resilience in Urban Areas
    Royal HaskoningDHV

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Nanco DolmanLeading Professional in Water Resilience in Urban Areas Royal HaskoningDHV

Transitioning towards a water-resilient city: Coping with climate change, urban densification and water management.

How can we make cities less vulnerable to extreme flooding, drought, urban heat and ongoing urbanization? This is a pressing and relevant question related to global climate change, and is particularly relevant to densely populated deltas. If we want to keep our cities safe and liveable in the future, then we should deal with climate change, urban densification and water management in the right way. This requires creativity and making the right choices. The ambitions are there, as are the available technologies. It is now time for the last fundamental step: a different approach to water. A difficult step because of socio-economic and governance barriers. Yet, we must take this step.


With most densely populated cities in deltas, along coasts and next to rivers, nearly 90% of all natural disasters in urban areas are water related (World Bank, 2013). It seems obvious that the attention is often given to dealing with floods in urban areas. Rising sea levels, increased river flows and extreme rainfall in conjunction with the fact that over the past half century cities have grown considerably and with and increase impervious surfaces, creates more nuisance, damage and even casualties.

How do we deal with this, what is the price of vulnerability reduction, and should we only think in terms of technical solutions?

Urban areas are not only vulnerable to floods and heavy rain, but often have to deal with drought, heat, erosion and subsidence of the soil as well. In connection with the decline of natural resources, the growing vulnerability of urban areas including vital and vulnerable infrastructure, gains more and more attention.

The Netherlands is working on measures to reduce urban vulnerability through the implementation of the Spatial Adaptation Delta Decision (Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, September 2014). In the Spatial Adaptation Delta Decision, the Delta Programme has included proposals for making the spatial design of the Netherlands more “water robust”. And worldwide various networks are active, such as Connecting Delta Cities (C40), 100 Resilient Cities (Rockefeller Foundation) and Making Cities Resilient (UN-ISDR). From 14 to 18 March 2015 in Sendai (Japan), the Third United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) was organized by UNISDR. But is this mostly talk and little action?

A shift towards water sensitive approaches in the USA

The delta cities of the United States of America were heavily impacted in the last decade by flooding as result of hurricanes. Hurricane Katrina (2005) and Hurricane Sandy (2012) were the two costliest hurricanes to hit the USA. This caused politicians and city planners to re-think how to address this flood challenge, but also from a larger perspective re-think how to achieve resiliency and move towards more sustainable city planning. Following limited successes in New Orleans, the Sandy-impacted region (including New York City) engaged in a dialogue with international actors on how to increase the resilience of communities to environmental extremes. This is evolving within the context of integration with spatial planning, and wider sustainability insurance provision. The experiences of two of these dialogues and the resulting plans are presented below.

New Orleans is now starting its transition from having only flood defenses to becoming more water resilient by implementing “living with water” principles in the Greater New Orleans NGO Water Management Strategy (Waggonner & Ball Architects et al, 2013). Before modern drainage and floodwalls, New Orleans existed in a delicate balance with its natural surroundings. Over time New Orleans has reshaped itself with new technologies and shifting attitudes toward water. Heavy infrastructure pushed water out of sight and out of mind. Long term resilience now requires adapting the available systems to work with nature and using the available water resources to improve safety and create value. The GNO Water Management Strategy not only creates more safety against flooding, but also contributes to the development of new spatial, economic and social perspectives for the city. This long term perspective means a radical break with the previous city planning and the technocratic system of discharge driven drainage infrastructure. Instead, the Urban Water Plan is based on the “living with water” principles of ‘delay - store - drain’, which is only possible under the condition of a close collaboration among scientific knowledge, hydraulic engineering and urban and landscape design. The new aspect in this strategy is the focus on the small, medium and large scale. Taking its position as a delta city seriously, New Orleans will develop a new relationship with the delta which influences the composition and meaning of local public spaces as well as the regional spatial structure in the long term.

The response to the flood disaster in New York and (urban) New Jersey caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 resulted in a set of approaches proposing a transition towards water resilient cities on the United States east coast, including the urbanized areas around the Hudson River, like the New York metropolitan region. In the wake of the flooding of Hurricane Sandy, New York City produced a significant study with a set of concrete measures: “A stronger, more resilient New York”. This body of work includes an assessment of the challenges the city faces, how these are expected to increase as a result of climate change and what type of measures can be implemented to ensure a more resilient New York City. The report has a strong scientific basis and has a focus on local, small scale, green infrastructure measures. The elements presented can contribute to a transition towards a Water Resilient City, although there is still a need for a larger framework and overarching vision. It is too early to see the implementation of the proposed measures, yet the strategy is a valuable first step.

A design approach to achieve resiliency was initiated on a larger scale in the Sandy-affected region (including New York, New Jersey and Connecticut) a by the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force. As part of their activities the Task Force invited the world’s leading engineers and architects to participate in a design competition: “Rebuild by Design”. Other than building back to pre-Sandy state the emphasis was put on building back smarter. Multidisciplinary teams engaged with local stakeholders to analyze the region and propose new concepts to deal with new climate extremes. One of the tracks included approaches for high-density urban areas.

Role model city Hoboken

As part of the Rebuild by Design competition the team led by OMA, proposed a Comprehensive Water Strategy for “high-density urban environments”, with the City of Hoboken (New Jersey) as a demonstration project area. Hoboken lies on the west bank of the Hudson River in the New York metropolitan, directly across Manhattan. It is the fourth-densest city of the USA, contains a major transportation hub for the region and due to its high-density urban environment and low elevation, and is very vulnerable to both flash floods and storm surges. Its single water shed, single jurisdiction, and combination of high impact factors (high density, value, influence, and potential) lend themselves to creating a multi-faceted solution that both defends the entirety of the city, and enables commercial, civic, and recreational amenities to take shape.

The proposed comprehensive urban water strategy deploys programmed hard infrastructure and soft landscape for coastal defense (resist); policy recommendations, guidelines, and urban infrastructure to slow rainwater runoff (delay); a circuit of interconnected green infrastructure to store and direct excess rainwater (store); and water pumps and alternative routes to support drainage (discharge). The proposed set of measures which make up the comprehensive urban water strategy can be summarized by their actions: “Resist-Delay-Store-Discharge”. The objectives of this manifold strategy are to manage water, for both disaster and for long-term growth and the delivery of co-benefits―including: civic, cultural, recreational, and commercial amenities―that enhance the quality of the built environment.

It is a strategy which addresses all aspects of a Water Resilient City: a comprehensive approach to flood risk; a coalition of stakeholders and collaborative funding framework; an umbrella of communication and education; and integrated multi-faceted design solutions. The initiatives in urban New York and New Jersey show great ambition and the potential to transform vulnerable megacities to leading examples of water sensitive communities. To what extent the implementation will follow the outlined approach remains uncertain.


Many cities are struggling to actually implement measures to reduce flood risks, safeguard fresh water resources and to regulate urban heat stress. To achieve a water resilient and climate proof city, we need to get started immediately. An integrated approach is required. By involving design, engineering and governance in the spatial planning process, we bring the built and the natural environment into balance. Often there is not enough sense of urgency and political commitment to build the required capacity and generate the necessary funds. The policies and investments that get this rapid urbanization right hold the key to resilient and sustainable development.

In early 2013, the World Bank presented a practical framework for sustainable urbanization, which is organized around the three policy pillars: planning, connecting, and financing. The coordination among these pillars is critical, particularly the relationship between land use planning and hazard risk, housing, infrastructure, and urban transport. This matches the Water Sensitive City framework (Brown et al, 2008) which showcases how cities can move forward and this framework was adopted by the Asian Development Bank in their Asian Water Development Outlook 2013. In these guidelines it is stated that a dialogue between stakeholders is needed which results in a water management strategy.

Importantly, cities can build on successful case studies such as Hoboken, applying the knowledge of those before them and combine these insights with home-grown innovations. The ambition and the technology to ensure our urban environment remains a good and safe place to live in are there. And yet, planning for water resilient cities is always tailored. Based on frameworks like the Water Sensitive City,

ADB’s National Water Security (2013) and the Urbanization Policy of the World Bank (2013), we believe the three A’s for the transitioning towards water resilient cities are key: Analyse, Aim and Act. At first, cities have to be aware of their urban challenges and analyze their vulnerabilities and opportunities.

Next cities need to start a dialogue with their communities and other stakeholders, and especially dare to ask: at what price will we mitigate risks? After agreement on their ambitions cities have to act and cooperate with others. What (design & engineering) solutions are there and what (financial & governance) arrangements are we agreeing on? To assess the effectiveness of these solutions and arrangements, design & engineering tools are essential with regard to (1) restricting the impacts of flood risks, (2) smarter use of rainwater and drainage (limit subsidence) (3) promoting green infrastructure, (4) increasing regional self-sufficiency, and (5) providing ecosystem services.

Achieving a water resilient and climate proof city is above all about achieving a healthy and liveable city. Involving our living environment and social values is vital. After all we are part of the urban ecosystem or ‘ecopolis’ (Tjallingii, 1992-1996).

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Nanco DolmanLeading Professional in Water Resilience in Urban Areas Royal HaskoningDHV

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