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Integrating Natural Water Management and River Systems into Urban Development


Sophie McCabe discusses the benefits provided through the integration of natural water management and river systems within urban developments

Many towns and cities have grown up alongside watercourses, using water as a resource to sustain human lives. As cities grew, resources once coveted were often marginalised, and seen as a constraint to development. This led to realignment of watercourses, engineered concrete/brick lined channels and culverting, with these assets increasingly degraded and hidden from view.

Over the years policy has sought to redress that balance in various guises. Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) are now broadly recognised as essential within new planning applications, and the benefits of SuDS can be felt not only in new developments, but also when retrofitted within existing schemes. However, the integration of SuDS within developments is often where the consideration of natural water management ends.

Is this sufficient? Should we be striving for more?

In order to fully appreciate and respect water as a resource, communities need to be engaged with the water environment, through which the most meaningful outcomes will arise. We need to visibly bring back water within our cities, restoring watercourses with sensitivity for their urban setting (be this in-channel enhancements in its simplest form) and daylighting culverts so that these features can be seen and interaction can occur. This will enable human connection and appreciation.

To facilitate change, perceptions need to shift. Such features need to be identified as opportunities for development, rather than constraints to the quantity of developable land which has so often been the case.

Cities need to reconnect to the water environment in which they lie. Where opportunities present, daylighting and urban restoration can reinvigorate environments, improve ecological status, increase biodiversity, contribute to positive noise environments, breathe tranquillity and calmness into urban environments, alongside increasing capacity for flood storage. Incorporating water environments can also yield financial gain, enhancing land value and rent when they are adjacent to water settings.  Designing for water delivers a variety of multi-functional benefits.

With the current pandemic potentially seeing a resurgence across the globe, placemaking and the environments in which we live are becoming increasingly important for wellbeing. Our worlds and areas within which we live are shrinking in the short-term (and potentially long-term). Through decentralising natural environments, encouraging water without fear, and connecting with green infrastructure in our daily lives, improvements will be harnessed and felt by all.

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