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The Cities Of The 21st Century Will Be Defined By Water

Updated: Dec 20, 2019

[Photo: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images]

“If we only respond to the past, we will only get answers that fit the past,” says Dutch water expert Henk Ovink.


Rives Taylor, a principal at the architecture firm Gensler and a 40-plus-year resident of Houston, is lucky.

His home in Houston Heights, an older neighborhood northwest of downtown, was spared from Hurricane Harvey’s flooding. Part of that is due to the natural topography of the area–its elevation is few feet higher than downtown–and that his pier-and-beam house is three feet off the ground. But what’s also remarkable about his neighborhood is that it isn’t connected to the city’s vast network of underground storm sewers. Rainwater flows directly into nearby ditches where it eventually seeps back into the earth.

This type of flood management strategy more closely mimics the natural water cycle–an approach called “low-impact development.” Also known as “green infrastructure,” it means designing systems that allow urban runoff to naturally infiltrate the soil instead of channeling it into pipes and storm drains. This strategy isn’t new, but it’s still viewed as “alternative” to the way most cities were designed in the 19th and 20th centuries.

“Passive approaches [to flood management] are always the key,” Taylor says of low-impact development. “You can’t always have people putting in flood walls and pump systems–it has to be smart without an expert involvement. Our challenge is being passively smart.”

Now, as cities wrestle with the reality of more intense storms, more flooding, and more water to manage, low-impact development is earning renewed recognition as an essential mechanism to help them become more resilient. It’s emblematic of a broader philosophical shift in how architects, engineers, and planners think about water: as a resource to live with, instead of pushing away. And as Houston begins to recover, experts are pushing for the city–and others–to adopt the same ethos. Read the rest at

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