The New Wave of Water Management

Climate change means that water will have a significant impact on the built environment, our daily lives and the economy. If we are to avoid a deluge, innovative thinking and bold changes in behaviour will be needed - sooner rather than later.

Climate change means that water will have a significant impact on the built environment, our daily lives and the economy. 5.2 million properties in England - around one in six - are at risk of flooding.

The world is getting wetter - and if we are to avoid a deluge, innovative thinking and bold changes in behaviour will be needed. Sooner rather than later.

"By the middle of this century, the average winter is projected to be 15% wetter - and the wettest winter 33% wetter than the baseline average… there is a 'gap' between what we can cope with today and what we may need to cope with in the future"

"The unchecked 'hardening' of surfaces through development could lead to a higher likelihood of flooding. But there is scope for a better-considered built environment to actively help reduce the impact of severe weather."

"Water management represents a genuine opportunity for innovative thinking. Effectively managing all these risks will only be achieved through bold changes in behaviour"

Looking Back

When we first looked into the issues driving changes in water management, we never imagined that urban flooding would become the 'new normal' within three years.

Recent data from global reinsurance giant Munich Re records 30 major flood events in Europe in 2017 - up from just 12 in 1980 - with flash-flooding out-stripping river floods. EU scientists now believe that at least half a million Europeans will be affected by floods every year by 2050.

But maybe we should have seen it coming. December 2015 - the month that the research-phase of the Future Spaces project was completed - went on to be the wettest month ever recorded.

Where we are now

In a statement in February 2018, The Environment Agency warned people to be prepared for more flooding. The agency said that the recent pattern of severe flooding is linked to an increase in extreme weather events - and these intense bouts of flooding are set to become even more frequent.

At the behest of the National Flood Resilience Review, the Met Office published startling research this year. It found that there is one in three chance of record-breaking rainfall every year in at least one region in England and Wales between October and March - for the next ten years! Report author Nick Dunstone said of the findings "We shouldn't be surprised if events like this occur... models like this aren't perfect, but they give better estimations than observations alone - which are now largely outdated due to the changing climate."

This is a change that's being seen across Europe. A 2018 study of 600 EU cities by climate experts at Newcastle University forecast that - even in the least severe scenario - almost 90% of cities with a river - including London - will face increased flooding. Richard Dawson, professor of earth systems engineering at Newcastle University was forthright in his assessment: "The research highlights the urgent need to design and adapt our cities to cope with these future conditions."

Despite all the evidence, spending by Defra and the Environment Agency on flood prevention and coastal erosion fell by £32M in 2016/17.

What's changing?

Around the world engineers and landscape designers are developing innovative solutions to combat the effects of climate change-driven flooding.

Backed by the Chinese Government, Chicago architectural firm UrbanLab is pioneering the concept of 'Sponge Cities' - piloting a fully integrated flood-proof infrastructure that mitigates freshwater scarcity and flooding in cities struggling with the effects of rapid urbanisation.

UrbanLab's vision sets a dense metropolis within a nature setting that combines permeable surfaces and green infrastructures. This initiative has set an ambitious target that, by 2020, 80% of urban areas should be able to absorb and re-use at least 70% of rainwater. Techniques include green rooftops, scenic wetlands for rainwater storage. 'Eco-Boulevards' with permeable pavements that store excess run-off - and the creation of a network of urban waterways. UrbanLab describe it as: "a new way of thinking about the city of the future."

In an innovative strategy for living with increased flood risk Dutch architects Waterstudio work with nature, rather than treating it as a threat. They are developing 'amphibious architecture' - adapting buildings to cope with the new reality of rising water levels. Amphibious houses look like regular buildings. - except that their foundations are designed to allow the house to float when water levels rise. The UK's first amphibious house sits on an island in the Thames at Marlow, Buckinghamshire.

The site is designated Flood Zone 3b and sits within a Conservation Area.

How the story has developed