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A green look for hard infrastructure

A green look for hard infrastructure

Aug 5, 2014

By Kathy Gibson at #UIA2014Durban

In the 1930, US president Roosevelt established the WPA which created new buildings and infrastructure throughout the country, changing the face of the US though new buildings and the highway system.

“These highways were designed to bring people into the cities,” says Susannah Drake, founder of Dlandstudio. “There was no plan for how the highways meet the cities.” She is proposing a “WPA 2.0” project to address the needs of urban infrastructure in the 21st century.

The problems with infrastructure are not limited to highways, she says, but also with waterways, which are combined with sewer systems that pollute streams and seas; and are often the cause of flooding and destructive run-off.

To address the problems of water, Drake’s company is working on creating wetlands, or urban sponge parks that can channel and filter run-off water before introducing it into New York City’s waterways.

The pilot site was an abandoned industrial area, with city planning originally hoping to create an esplanade along the old canal. Dlandstudio felt that this would benefit few people and proposed instead to threat the waterways back through the whole area. After seven years of planning and permit gathering the project is now going live. Sponge parks are installed at street ends, that filter and trap storm water to grow parks. Further rainfall then pushes filtered water over a spillway back into the canal.

Another infrastructure project that Drake has worked on is transforming a section of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway in New York. No developed country can get away from the ubiquitous highway – in fact, about 35-million US residents live within 100 meters of a four plane highway.

The highways divide cities, with different inner city gangs located on either side. They also split the population in terms of healthcare, access to facilities and education,

Consultation with the communities determined that the spaces people most wanted were recreational areas, places where children could play rather than getting involved with gangs.

The project looked at creating decks over the highway and to use the spaces to develop parts and recreational areas. To quantify the project, it was calculated that planting 350 tress would generate $50-million within 10 years in terms of pollution control, oxygen creation and carbon offsets.

On a more pragmatic level, it was realised that the 60-year old highways were well past their 50-year lifespan and the funds that had to be used to refurbish them could be leveraged for the new urban projects. “The idea was to transform single-use systems into multi-use spaces,” Drake says.

Infrastructure has transformed the New York City waterfront, but it also poses a danger to the city in case of a hurricane or even over the next couple of decades as the sea level rises.

Drake has done some planning to protect the city from a category 2 hurricane – sadly, she didn’t receive permission to carry out any of the plans before Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 and amply demonstrated that there is a dire need for this kind of protection.

New York City is confronted with two problems relating to water: a raised sea level and storms bring water flooding into the city; and rainfall in the form of normal precipitation and storms floods the streets inside the city, where it cause damage before being able to run off.
So the solution, says Drake, is to create an environment where water can flow in, and can flow out.

Moving under-street utilities into waterproof vaults would free up the streetscape to permeable ground where stormwater can sink in. Creating spaces or reservoirs under the streets would also store water from bigger storms.

A new six-foot hardened edge on the waterfront would stave off the rising sea level, while salt water marshes could be developed to dissipate the force of big waves. Underwater breakwaters in strategic positions would also minimise storm damage, while sponge slips could use excess water to create urban parks. “The whole idea is to create a more resilient city,” Drake says.

Since Hurricane Sandy devastated the area, plans have been put in place for flood gates in the city, and Drake is proposing that these be integrated with green initiatives in a hybrid system that will ensure the city’s resilience.

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