Radical redesign of our cities will lower the flood risk – II of IV, turn the dikes

Conventional dike in Gretna, Mississippi. Photo: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Infrogmation

Conventional dike in Gretna, Mississippi.
Photo: Infrogmation

Turn flood dikes perpendicular to the coast, so they point at the sea. Stop to fight against the nature and let nature rule your city. This was the radical message when Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha visited Malmö in March 2014. The new ideas are now discussed among city planners and architects.

There is a saying that ‘there are two kinds of dikes – the ones that did break down and the ones that will break down in the future’. We design dikes with standards that should lower the risk of failure and we choose a safety level for the dike. But, there is always a limit for the construction. One day the dike will break down or water will overtop it during an extreme storm. The clear message from Mathur and da Cunha is that we should stop to fight the nature with dikes.

Their idea is to turn the dikes or levees around and use them for evacuation when a flood comes. On top of the levee buildings could be constructed. Here is a good and safe place for vulnerable buildings, but also for schools. During a flood – because flood will come, these buildings will be used as evacuation centre.

Rising sea water level will flood cities

In the future, we will see higher sea water level due to climate change. Mathur and da Cunha claims that the future sea level rise challenge our understanding of the sea. We need to rethink the urban design fundamentally, as the sea will eat a lot of urban areas along the coast lines. It is not possible to compete with nature.

As the city will be flooded more often with the new turn-around dikes, people will get more aware of the risk and therefore construct the city in a smarter and less risky way. This awareness contributes to flood resilience for the city.

Nature is not like engineering

Sometimes people claim that we should ‘construct natural dikes’. This is an engineering approach to nature, says Mathur and da Cunha. The nature works in systems and not in functions. In Norfolk (USA), where they currently are working with the sea level rise problem, the military base is dominating and the military way of thinking is wide-spread: Conquer the fronts. Conquer the land from east to west. This thinking also transfers to the cities fight against the rising sea. Mathur and da Cunha explained how they work with this idea on conquering and that they could see a shift in people’s idea when they gave workshops about it. In their workshop people would learn how natural systems could be used in an effective way for protection. We should work together with nature and see the sea as a friend, they say. It is time to stop fight against nature.