‘Climate change’, ‘melting polar ice caps’, ‘rising of the sea water’. All this phrases are becoming so ubiquitous now that they are almost loosing their meaning. In the last few decades, we are bombarded daily by the media with images and news on the consequences of this huge global problem: earthquakes, storms, tornados, eruptions and most of all floods.
The last tragic natural disasters in the world are suggesting more and more apocalyptic scenarios in which the whole world could become a global Venice.
In this visions sometimes humans give up and leave the cities, like in the visionary creepy video by O. Campagne & V. Balzi in which they re-stage the flood in Paris of the 1910 in the present; here the rowboats and gondolas are absent, life does not go on as it does in the photos from 1910.
In the hauntingly post-flood visions by Studio Landfords the inhabitants of the cities don’t escape or don’t fight against the water but they learn to live together with it and adapt, New York and Tokyo are inhabited by humans moving in gondolas trough riverside plants and aquaculture blooms under bridges.
But what about the present? Why cities are flooding more and more often? Where is the thin line between the climate change and human mistakes? How cities are dealing with what once gave them life and now is rebelling? How close are we to this apocalyptic visions?
The threat of ﬂooding has been present since people began to settle close to water streams and coasts in order to maintain trade and communication links. For centuries, therefore, it has been necessary to protect these areas from ﬂooding, by building defences that supplement natural features such as river banks.
The last tragic floods of recent years such as the Katrina hurricane in New Orleans, Sandy hurricane in New York, the Tsunami in Japan and so on, show us the failures of these ‘hard infrastructures’ such as dikes, levees, embankments). That is why in the last debates on climate change and cities’ resilience, public opinion is divided between two main lines of thought: keep on using and enhancing the hard approach of the barriers that demarcate land on one side and water on the other, or start re-thinking cities in a more ecological way, with a soft approach design, dealing not against the water but with it. As Eco W. Bijker in his article ‘History and Heritage in Coastal Engineering in the Netherlands’ would say: don’t fight the sea with brute force but with soft persuasion’.
In Venice the flood itself, ‘acqua alta’, becomes part of the ‘dream’ that attracts 60,000 tourists a day from all over the world. The phenomenon of the high water has increased from fewer than 10 times a year to more than 60 times a year in the last century. Here, the inhabitants keep living together with the water with small scale design interventions such as the famous elevated walkways while the Italian state continues to deploy hard infrastructure to create the expensive and controversial MOSE project, a barrier that automatically springs into place with the influx of high tides; another human intervention that, like many experts argue, once again will upset the lagoon’s hydro geological balance and interrelated habitats that change continuously through time.
‘The Moses Project does nothing to eliminate the source of the sinking and the industrial exhaustion of the lagoon, and it remains an absurdly expensive technique for saving a city that in so many ways has already lost its capacity to support life’ (The Death of the City and the Survival of Urban Life, Richard Ingersoll, 2004).
Some researchers even suggest that in 200 years, Manhattan could look like Venice.
In 29 August 2005 there were over 50 failures of the levees and flood walls protecting New Orleans, Louisiana, and its suburbs following passage of Hurricane Katrina and landfall in Mississippi. All the investigations conducted by civil engineers conclude that the primary cause of the flooding was inadequate design and construction by the Corps of Engineers. Learning from this and from the aftermath of the Sandy Hurricane in New York, the group of architects Architecture Research Office (ARO) have created ‘soft infrastructure’, a design concept based on priming the city to ‘deal with storms instead of fortifying itself against them’ by restoring wetlands, new barrier islands and oyster beds could project out into New York Harbor from the waterfronts on all sides, breaking up storm surges. Adam Yarinsky, leader of the ARO, believes that a greener, more natural solution is just what we need. The most potent message: storm protection measures as a part of normal life.
On the other hand there is the other inclination of still considering the hard barriers against the water as solution for the next floods, taking the example of The ‘Maelstrom Barrier’ in the Netherlands, the proof that barriers are still appealing.
While all the world thinks of the Netherlands as the best example for the construction of new dykes, the Dutch government, as early as 1996, decided to abandon the traditional water policy of dyke reinforcement in favour of a new policy oriented on creating more space through the creation of new wetlands along rivers as an instrument to mitigate flood risks in times of climate change.
The completed Maelstrom Barrier is the last piece in a decades-long project initiated after a 1953 flood killed more than 2,000 people in the Netherlands. Now barriers are huge, expensive, they take a long time and kill off the ecosystem. Dikes are the ultimate example of effective hard infrastructure, basically making the Netherlands possible. The Netherlands teach us that in this historical moment there needs to be a general acceptance that water management is a daily, not an emergency, reality, and that maybe the real emergency is preserving the ecosystem and then our own lives.
Further more looking at the future new questions appear for the cities: how can one prevent that these new landscapes become strange non-places, devoid of meaning and with no real connection to our habitable world? How these soft infrastructures will change the historical and natural landscape? What will it be of the old broken hard infrastructures? Will they become objects of a new romantic aesthetic of ruins or they will merely sink together with the whole world?