William Verbek: «Urban Residents Need to Reconnect with Water».

Recently, William Verbek, an architect, a scientific consultant of UNESCO, a flood protection specialist who has worked not only in Holland, but also in many other countries of the world, visited St. Petersburg. At a lecture in Ohta Lab, he talked about how to make the relationship between water and the city harmonious. It turned out that Rotterdam and St. Petersburg have similar difficulties, and that we all step on the rake, neglecting the environment. But it's still not too late to fix it.

I work at the UNESCO-IHE International Institute, where the specialists in water resources receive higher education. Each year, we train 250 students, 95% of whom are from developing countries in Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia. Also we are engaged in scientific researches and innovations. But this is not an ordinary university, as one-third of the time and budget is spent on so-called capacity development projects, in which I actively participate. Their goal is consulting the governments of different countries and different organizations, support in solving problems related to water.

These problems can be caused by meteorological factors, climatic changes. It happens that a sudden increase in temperature leads to an outbreak of malaria in places where nothing like it used to be before - just the insects have moved there. We also address issues related to extremely low temperatures, with avalanches and floods around the world.

The climate, of course, is important. But much depends on the city itself - on how it is planned, how many green zones there are in it. For example, if many people settle near the river, the risk of a natural disaster will significantly increase.

I live in Rotterdam, where I was born. We often come across the fact that the water level in the river rises - because of melting snow or heavy rain. And we need protection from such phenomena. For St. Petersburg it is also relevant. It is built on water, very Dutch, and flood problems are inevitable. Like many other cities - Shanghai, Macau, New York - Rotterdam is located in the delta of the river. This means that we must also be protected from sea level rise, which is possible in the future.

The natural water balance changes radically with the appearance of cities. Usually, almost all sediments are absorbed into the ground. But in the city everything is different: most of the territory is covered with asphalt. Less water evaporates from the leaves of trees. In the end, despite the storm sewers, sometimes because of heavy rains, the streets are flooded.

Residents of cities spend a lot of water, and leave a significant "water footprint" - this is the amount of water that is required to produce food and things, for example, a hamburger or a shirt. Sewage is also part of the cycle: they disappear in the pipes, then to appear in some completely different place.

Most of the water in the city is hidden underground. It seems to us that it magically begins to flow from the tap. We do not feel connected with it.

In the development of cities, there are several stages directly related to water. The first step is to ensure water supply. If there is no source of drinking water, then there is no sense in building a city in this place. Quite quickly there is a transition to the second stage - the construction of sewage. This function is necessary to preserve the health of people. By the third stage - the construction of a drainage system - the city is moving more slowly. As a result, they are protected from flooding.

Only after that we begin to think about the reasonable water consumption, the protection of the environment, how we pollute the water and how to reduce this damage. To do this, we are developing increasingly complex methods, and finally, moving to the highest stage, to urban planning, taking into account water management and landscape planning. The cities in which this design is successfully implemented are designated by the term Water sensitive cities. This concept is relevant for different countries, and for Australia, where the main goal is water conservation, because of the drought problem, and for China, where the main task is to cope with heavy rain falls.

What is necessary to ensure that the relations between the city and the water are harmonized? Redirection and purification of rainwater, collection of water on roofs, more plants, arrangement of canals. More porous surfaces for drainage and more trees for moisture evaporation. Efforts should be directed to water conservation, rehabilitation of water bodies, reduction of runoff and use of rainwater in everyday life and in industry.

Is this approach fundamentally new? I would not say that. Look at the ancient stepped wells in India, created thousands of years ago and filled with rainwater. During drought periods, they were irreplaceable. Architectural form plus functionality - what is this, if not an example of the very urban design taking into account our relationship with water?

Residential buildings, office buildings, and pipes under the ground - all this is getting old. For example, sewer networks began to appear in our cities since the 1850s. This means that a lot needs to be updated. The question is how to do it. Do not just replace the pipes and continue to live as before, but to change the approach to water resources managing.

Infrastructure is wearing out, it's a fact. But money needs to be invested not only in underground communications, pipes, but also in what is above the surface - for example, in tanks on roofs. There must be more water in the city. There are many channels in St. Petersburg, but this does not mean that there are enough of them. It is necessary to create more parks and green areas, cooling the city and absorbing water. In Russia, there is great potential for this. In the summer in Moscow, the air is heavily polluted. And the trees will clean it - the most effective in this regard is spruce. Then we will benefit from all sides - new recreational zones, and the comfort of living improvement.

In some cities, landscapes are created that generate energy and allow you to receive food. I call them "hipster landscapes", because the younger generation is very much interested in the ecological way of life, especially in Scandinavia. Such unusual places also have an educational function, because children learn where food comes from, where it grows, they come into contact with nature, and this experience helps them to become more responsible towards the environment.

In third world countries urbanization is happening rapidly. The traditional way of urban development is the path of mistakes that lead to serious environmental problems and disasters, including devastating floods. All this we have to correct.

One of the cities in which I work is Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. The building density there is 10 times higher than in Rotterdam. The rivers flowing through the city are very heavily polluted. The Buriganga River is called the "Coca-Cola River", because the water in it is of a dark color - including because of the dyes for the fabric. But local people manage to swim there and wash clothes! And the groundwater in Dhaka, which is actively pumped out, is now at a depth of 30 meters, and it goes all the way down.

However, Holland also went the same way. Approximately in 1800, before the industrial revolution, the country was more agricultural. In the 1920s in our cities it was very bad with hygiene, with sewage, drainage system. The solution of these problems took decades.

Another vivid example is the history of Seoul. Hundreds of years ago it was much smaller, and when it began to grow, the Chongjeecheon River became very dirty, because people threw trash and merged waste. And then it was decided to hide it underground. Above a freeway was built, but the city continued to develop, and there were terrible traffic jams. And what do you think - the authorities decided to recreate the river. As a result, it became one of the main attractions of Seoul. People walk along the embankments, enjoy. The bus routes were laid on the banks, and more people began to use public transport. In addition, the river cools the city - a corridor with a cool wind is formed above it.

In China, in Harbin, a small park was created, on the site where before wetlands were. At first glance, this is just a good place to relax. But in fact, it is a complex mechanism that accumulates rainwater, cleans it from pollution and cools the air. It is a tool by which the climate in the city improves, and the water management system becomes more efficient.

In Rotterdam, much has changed in recent decades in terms of infrastructure. There were parks, which are storages of water flowing down from the roofs. There was an art space with sculptures for controlled flooding - thanks to it the city can function in the usual mode during the rainy weather. Near the building of the station there was an 8-storey parking lot with a roof area of ​​2400 square meters, and there are rainwater tanks on it. Protective walls and bypass channels are also in Holland, but such projects require political will and large financial investments.

In Hamburg, which stands on the Elbe River, where floods are also not uncommon, many zones for evacuation have been built, special platforms on which people can be located. And in Bangladesh, they began to build amphibian houses, which are built on pontoons: when the water level rises, the house rises with it, and the risk of suffering from flooding is reduced to zero.

We do not know how much rain will fall in the future, and all scientists claiming that they can predict it - are lying. We need to be flexible, able to adapt easily to changing conditions, to extremely dry or, on the contrary, wet periods. We should not put all the eggs in one basket. We must envisage different scenarios, present all possible alternatives to the development of events. The main rule is not to build in close proximity to rivers, in the possible flooding zone. Such construction must be stopped before it is too late.

It is necessary to improve early warning systems - this will help to gain time necessary for the evacuation of residents. The task of the authorities is to provide new housing. Sometimes people resist. This is a psychological factor. They are afraid that someone will enter their homes, steal their property. It is necessary to move them by force, and this is hard. The whole point is that human memory is weak. After the disaster people realize how serious the threat is, but if nothing like this happens within 10 years, there is no memory left, and people again do not want to leave the flooding zone.

In Japan, a couple of years ago there was a strong tsunami, which resulted in the death of many people. After that, they wanted to build a giant protective wall, a height of 7 meters. Local residents were against, because they had a natural, close connection with the sea. As a result, the engineers said that they do not have enough data to predict when and how the next tsunami will be. So the wall can be meaningless.

In Russia, at first glance, everything is ok. The density of building is low. To get from one end of the city to another, for example, in Ulyanovsk, where my wife comes from, it takes at least an hour. Lots of free space for landscaping and creating ponds. Many private houses with large gardens and unpaved roads. Public spaces are open and very green. But there are problems.

The density of development is likely to increase. Insufficient funds are invested in communal infrastructure, its maintenance, renewal. As a result, serious water losses on the way to the consumer. Storm sewage in Russia is also not in order: because of old pipes rainwater does not return to the regional water system, to the rivers. In addition, in cities there are fewer water-permeable surfaces due to the fact that more people are buying cars.

In the Russian cities there is a lot of transit, or temporary landscapes. Because developers have financial problems, and construction stops. After about five years the building site turns into a wasteland. But these territories could be used for the benefit of the city.

Perhaps you should hold project competitions, invite architects from abroad to participate. The state does not make the necessary efforts to change the situation. Every time when occures a serious flood in Russia, the state authorities say that they will find the guilty, who will be dismissed or arrested. As if that would solve the problem. And they are waiting for the next catastrophe.

In Europe, it is much easier for me to work and implement projects in small towns. There it is easier to organize management, and there are great opportunities for development. We create virtual networks that connect such cities, and they help each other. Something like this could begin in Russia. Small towns in the regions can become pioneers and leaders.

Ступенчатый колодец Чанд Баори в Джайпуре, Индия

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