'Rising' Seafronts

By Jaime Parsons.

I must confess that I have a morbid fascination for dystopian urban environments and fantasy architecture, even when I would rather not have to live in these imagined spaces. But there is a strong possibility that many of us will actually experience a powerful shift in the form and experience our built environment because of climate change and its scion sea level rise.

Following on from Must See Films for Urban Planners and Designers in last month’s newsletter and in a severe case of Blade Runner 2049 visual hangover and heartbreak it dawned on me that in the next few decades a significant percentage of the global population may find itself displaced or behind massive sea walls.

Figure 1. Blade Runner 2049 (source: Blade Runner trailer by Warner Bros Pictures)
 It is estimated by the United Nations that approximately 40% of the global population is within 100 Km of the coast and, with most of the largest metropolises and urban mega-regions located along the coasts of China, Japan, USA, this percentage is likely an underestimation. This means that the impact of sea level rise will likely alter our urban civilisation indelibly.

Closer to home many Melbourne suburbs will be either under water or constantly affected by tidal flooding, as the worse case scenario put forth in a 2017 report, is a rise of 2m by 2100 the result of the melting ice caps of Greenland and Antarctica.

Our great global cities are likely already suffering the consequences as increasing storm surges are severely affecting our infrastructure and communities. We probably all remember how the great city of New York was brought to its knees in 2012 during Hurricane Sandy, with powerful images of Manhattan ‘drowning’. But that will pale in comparison with the effects of a 2m sea level rise which will completely submerge lower Manhattan including the economic powerhouse of Wall Street.

Figure 2. Google and NOOA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) sea level rise modelling
Not only cities but whole islands and nations are being swallowed by the sea. In the case of the Solomon Islands, one of our northern neighbours, at least five reef islands have already been lost to sea level rise and coastal erosion. But for some people it may even mean the loss of their whole country, as is the case with the Marshall Islands, where sea level rise is likely to engulf the whole nation in the years to come and create a new caste of climate change refugees.

Figure 3. Coral island submerged by sea level rise (source: The ABC)
Maybe there is a better option than mass resettlement and living behind the new ‘prison’ walls of massive sea walls, disconnecting us from the sea that has brought us so much bounty and exchange throughout history. 

Many built environment designers around the world are attempting to creatively address this looming human catastrophe. One of the most powerful responses has been to create liminal buffer spaces between the sea and the places of habitation and business that are more than just sea walls. Such spaces are not conceived as barriers but as true public spaces that bring multifaceted community benefits.

Architect Bjarke Ingels has proposed one of the most ambitious of all climate change resilient projects with the 10 mile long Dryline. A long string of parks, paths and public open space interventions along the jagged edge of Manhattan partially reclaiming private docks, sea and a wild assortment of existing vulnerable infrastructure.

Figure 4. Dryline plan by Bjarke Ingels Group (source: The Guardian)

This all presented with a seductive narrative and visuals by London visual maverick’s Squint Opera. But behind it there is one of the seeds of the necessary re-conceptualisation of the built environment that we will need to have to address climate change.

The Dryline is but one project of an emerging trend of how to do more with less in a time of ever greater changes. Have parks that are also provide flood mitigation, link hereto separate areas of the city in a cycle and pedestrian friendly manner and connect back to the sea.

The range of design responses is as varied as the cultures and character of the cities they are responding to. The recently completed, in 2013, sea promenade along the Avenue of Ribeira das Naus in Lisbon is an unlikely gathering place but that is what is has become. The project provides a series of inclined steps along a sea wall that dissipate the energy of the ever increasing sea waves and, equally important, also provide a gathering space for locals and visitors to view the estuary of the of Tajo/Tagus River as it flows into the Atlantic Ocean, an ocean intimately tied with Portugal’s rise a maritime power in the 16th century.

Figure 5. Ribeira Das Naus, Lisbon by João Nunes (source: Skyscraper City)
Flooding does only affect urban seafronts; other waterfronts are also increasingly affected by the massive urban infrastructure pressures that completely reshape their floodplains. One of the more striking projects is that by Chinese landscape architecture firm Turenscape in the Chinese city of Jinhua. a remanent riparian wetland is preserved from greater disruption and brought into the awareness of the community by creating public park close by and access through pedestrian bridges. The whole park is submerged during the annual flooding brought on by the Monsoon rains but the colourful wavy pedestrian bridges remain above the water level provide good connectivity throughout the year. It is precisely this environmentally aware and responsive design thinking that will need to be used in the coming years and decades.

Figure 6. Yanweizhou Park, Jinhua city, China by Turenscape non- flooded state (source: Landezine)
In a recent project that I led as the Planning and Urban Design Advisor at the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Survey of the Solomon Islands we applied similar thinking but on at a much humbler scale. 

In doing the strategic planning and statutory controls for the town of Auki as part of the Physical Planning team of the Ministry it become apparent that the seafront provided a strong community focus that now mostly taken over by ad-hoc private interests. The traditional landowners felt a strong affinity with the seafront but had mostly lack a cohesive vision to articulate their desire for regaining its traditional role as a place of community exchange. Furthermore, the increase flooding brought on by cyclones and tropical storms are a serious and growing risk. It was also a place where the emerging tourism industry could provide some early impetus.

In light of the socio-cultural significance of the sea front and the need to address climate change weather pattern shifts we produced a concept design for the Auki seafront. It is also a mandated buffer to mitigate the worst effect of sea level rise to protect to habitable buildings that becomes an linear park in its own right. It provides a continuous pedestrian and cycle link from the new port facilities to the Kwaibala River shore increasing the permeability of the town centre and linking existing and proposed nodes of activity. It turns out that we tapped into a strong sentiment as there was a nearly universal political and community backing for the proposal, probably because it reconnects the people of Auki with their nurturing sea.

Figure 8. Auki Waterfront Master Plan (source: Auki Local Planning Scheme and Structure Plan)
Ideally, we should contain greenhouse gas emissions to a level that keeps global temperature rise below 2 0C but this may not occur. As designers and planners we may not be able to stop climate change and sea level rise but we can influence how we shape our towns and cities to respond to our ‘rising’ seafronts otherwise I feel we may yet all have to live in the stark, bleak future of Blade Runner 2049.


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