The path to regeneration – why we need to take the road less travelled in the flood and coast sector

Will McBain

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference”. Robert Frost.

Our landscape was originally shaped by water, in its solid and liquid forms. In the more recent past, the landscape has been radically transformed once again, this time by humans - in an ongoing battle with water. Indeed, the struggle between human civilisation and water gave rise to the dragon myth - the dragon’s forked tongue representing the twin threats of flood and drought.

With the advent of the industrial age, this landscape transformation, that had been underway since the Neolithic with the advent of settled life and agriculture, went into overdrive, as described by George P Marsel, in his 1867 book, ‘Man and nature; or, physical geography as modified by human action’:

"Lands won from the woods must be both drained and irrigated; riverbanks and maritime coasts must be secured by means of artificial bulwarks against inundation by inland and by ocean floods; and the needs of commerce require the improvement of natural, and the construction of artificial channels of navigation. Thus, man is compelled to extend over the unstable waters the empire he had already founded upon the solid land".

Human development continued apace in this vein throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries, leaving the natural water environment barely recognisable. And this is our legacy. A drained landscape in which our aquifers, wetlands, lakes, ponds, streams and rivers have either been lost altogether, or else optimised for narrowly defined human utility - primarily food, potable water and energy production, waste disposal, industry and transport.

It is the second law of thermodynamics that all systems spontaneously evolve into states of higher entropy, i.e they collapse into disorder. In a natural system, such as a river, entropy is an essential driver of morphological diversity. It’s what makes rivers special and a home to such a vast array of life. Natural assets, given the right enabling environment, are regenerative. They grow and mature with time. Man-made assets, on the other hand, slowly but surely fall apart. Their condition deteriorates with time, unless they are carefully renewed and maintained.

This is our first great challenge. The challenge of the asset manager tasked with sustaining the infrastructure systems critical to a functioning society.

Challenge #2

Our second great challenge is that the very activities that facilitated this landscape transformation - and human development - are precipitating a climate and ecological emergency that has potential to be an existential threat to our species. Climate change is already accelerating the rate at which artificial assets decline, exposing them to ever-more-severe climatic conditions. And this in turn has potential to ramp up rates of resource use and ecological destruction, as we effect repairs and plan bigger and stronger infrastructure to withstand the growing onslaught.

So, the second great challenge is that of the planner, tasked with identifying how best to achieve future societal needs in the face of limited resources, rising net sea levels and a changing climate.

We now stand at a figurative fork in the road. One road - the one society is currently on - is arguably leading us in the direction of system collapse; the other road - currently less travelled - would comprise a shift towards a more regenerative approach. So, what might such an approach to flood and coastal management look like?

What next for asset managers?

Well, firstly, as asset managers, we would need to halt all activities that don’t, in the words of Aldo Leopold, “preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community”. This is fundamental to halting the decline in biodiversity that has characterised business as usual over recent decades. It would also require us to ensure that, before we build anything new, the existing assets we need are fully functional, are safe to operate, are well-maintained and are capable of performing well in circumstances of design exceedance.

And also, that we have a robust understanding of the resources required to sustain them in good condition for as long as they are required. Only when we are confident that these activities are sustainable in the longterm, should we be considering the creation of next generation assets to meet future challenges. Where this confidence is lacking, new approaches will ultimately be required.

The assets most likely to perform well based on these criteria are the ones that work with, rather than against, nature, or which at least make more space for water, dissipating energy and slowing the flow.

As the planners of these next generation assets, we need to think more creatively about the long-term outcome we really want, for our own and future generations. That outcome is surely one of thriving communities living in a healthy natural environment, adapted to a low carbon future. And realistically, this will require them to be made safe from flooding by passive assets that work in harmony with natural processes to as great an extent as possible and which can be operated, maintained and renewed in perpetuity using renewable resources.

Solutions for people and the planet

Spatial planning will continue to be key to this process. We have the tools – in the form of the sequential and exception tests – to ensure that all new development is fit for the future. But we also need to adapt our existing built environment. This will involve working with communities to plan adaptation and resilience approaches progressively, based on what we know now, but also taking account of the many uncertainties. It will be necessary to avoid narrowly focused "silver bullet" solutions, instead recognising the resilience inherent in distributed, ideally nature-based, remedies.

To achieve truly regenerative outcomes, it will be necessary to form progressive partnerships with all those who have a stake in better managing the water environment.

This road will involve delivering on earlier promises to make space for water, restoring floodplains through cities and towns, allowing blue-green urban spaces to flood in a controlled manner, retrofitting paved surfaces with rain gardens, kick-starting long lost fluvial, estuarine and coastal processes to encourage the regeneration of natural, passive defences such as braided channels, floodplain wetlands, salt marshes and dunes.

These are the types of remedy that are likely to work best for people and planet. These are the types of regenerative solution that asset managers and planners will need to consider far more purposefully if we are to build the resilience required to weather the storms ahead.

Author: Will McBain, Director - Arup