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We need a joined-up solution to flooding

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Natural systems might show us the answer, says Laura Mark

Thousands of homes remain submerged following the wettest January in nearly 250 years and severe flood warnings are still in place across the UK. As the floodwaters begin to subside we are left with the fact that homes have been built on floodplains and our utilities and transport infrastructure cannot cope.

As leading economist and author of the 2006 government report on climate change, Nicholas Stern said the floods were a ‘clear sign that we are already experiencing the impacts of climate change’. Storms, flooding, heat waves - if the climate scientists have got it right, these are only likely to become more frequent. We need greater resilience.

In a major breakthrough case resulting from damage sustained to infrastructure during Hurricane Sandy, New York’s largest utility provider Consolidated Edison has been forced to prepare for extreme weather and consider its impact on operations and reliability. The hurricane resulted in massive power outages - a problem that was mirrored during the recent UK storms. Resilience is not just about how our buildings cope with the weather, but also about the surrounding areas and infrastructure.

The floods brought out imaginative, far-fetched ideas to tackle flood-resilient housing. During the past two months there have been more proposals for amphibious houses, houses on stilts and floating homes. But are these really going to catch on with residential developers? Do we need a more joined up solution?

The answer lies in green infrastructure - looking not just at our buildings as single entities, but in tandem with the areas surrounding them. This means more green spaces, areas for water storage, and permeable surfaces.

In an open letter sent to David Cameron last week, the president of the Landscape Institute Sue Illman said: ‘In the long-term, the way in which we manage, store and distribute our water, and how we rethink and plan both the natural environment, and the built environment of our towns and cities to make them more resilient, requires a clear strategy.’

This week, the organisation revealed 20 designs for the transformation of the Royal Docks to the east of Canary Wharf - all of which focused on how the redevelopment of the docks could help attenuate water flows, mitigating the risk of flooding. Yes, the entries featured a large number of houses on stilts and floating units, but there were also rain gardens, sustainable urban drainage systems, and wetlands.

These proposals are all well and good, but in an area where land values are so high, will developers really give over so much space to landscaping and wetlands? Yet in areas where flooding could happen, like on the bank of the river Thames, well-thought through, integrated flood mitigation could save thousands of pounds. What value do we put on natural systems? In the future it could be these that protect us.

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