The moniker of North American modern and postmodern era cities has been to cut down trees and engineer “efficient” sprawling cityscapes across veined flood plains—with total disregard to the natural flow of water. Modernist and postmodern architects and engineers “vanquished” Nature. They trained the water and sealed the natural environment—vegetation, soil and groundwater—beneath a cap of asphalt, cement and other impervious surfaces. Large rivers and their tributaries—perceived as simple conduits of surface water—were forced into channels that collected and brought water where it was needed—usually in efficient straight lines (not the natural flow of water). Unwanted water puddles were efficiently removed through regarding and channelization. Everything made neat and tidy. The hegemony promoted the efficiency of the machine: humanity as user; water as commodity and resource.
The intimate connection of water to its landscape, vegetation and great canopies of trees that once absorbed seasonal torrential rains was not recognized. And our intimate connection—indeed our participation with—water’s great cycle was ignored. Groundwater’s need to recharge and its role as a filter was undervalued. The role of the water cycle in the wellness of humanity and our entire planet was overlooked. It is this cycle that the post-modern city has interrupted. With great cost.
Perhaps one of the greatest failings of our school system is that we do not learn this great lesson: that the entire water cycle—from regional to global—intimately connects sea to air to land and ground. Into us, through us, and out of us. Disturb one aspect of that cycle and you disturb the entire cycle. That’s what a cycle is: a Whole made of wholes; all connected in a single operating system. There is perhaps no place where we interrupt that cycle more than in the very heart of our cities.
Urban sprawl birthed urban runoff.
Recognized by governments as the leading source of water quality problems in urban settings, surface runoff of rainwater usually takes the form of storm water runoff; often contaminated by a cocktail of nasty heavy metals, motor oil, gasoline, PAHs and fertilizers and pesticides.
Urbanized landscapes of decreased natural vegetation cover and increased impervious surfaces exacerbate flash flooding and drought. The post-modern city is a desert with an extreme micro-climate and promotes an unruly hydrological cycle.
Post-modern engineering machine-efficiency failed to recognize the city as a thriving ecosystem.
Quantum physics and the unraveling of an entangled world of nature participating—and the recognition of climate change and our part in it—has helped prompt city planners and engineers to view cities within a natural infrastructure that is more resilient to water stress than human-engineered infrastructures.
Ecologically-driven infrastructures are more flexible and bend rather than break, says Erica Gies in the October 14 2015 issue of Corporate Knights. The goal is to create a system that “functions as a living organism,” says Tony Wong, an early advocate of green infrastructure and founder and CEO of the Cooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities in Australia. Green infrastructure “mimics the functions of forests and wetlands and open spaces to serve and cleanse our cities,” he says. “It’s a reversal from the 20th century model that collected rain in detention tanks and lined rivers with concrete to move water away from built infrastructure as quickly as possible,” says Gies. “That approach cut off rivers from their floodplains, raising water levels. And because concrete systems don’t flex, when they were inundated disaster struck.”
Just as Ma Yansong’s organic architecture reflects an evolution from the post-modern to the incorporation and integration of wholes within wholes; city infrastructure is realizing its own need for identity and connection with Nature. The human relationship to nature is one of Yansong’s tenets. Yansong, who designed the striking Marilyn Munro buildings of Mississauga, strives to transcend the technological determinism of modern architecture, writes Urban Photo. “More than anything, Ma’s architecture, as well as his conception of how we should live together in an urban setting, stems from a fascination with nature and human emotion that goes well beyond architectural theory.” Yansong quotes the early twentieth-century Beijing novelist Lao She, who wrote, “The beauty of old Beijing exists in the empty space between architecture, where trees grow and birds live.”
And water flows.
We are embracing a new age and new worldview, one of Nature Participating; no longer separate and machine-like, but vibrant, living and connected.
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.