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Written by: Samantha Miller

Edited by: Richard Perron

Designing around water is one of the most critical parts of enhancing public-interest in urban cities. Allowing people to engage with water supports environmental health, economic development, and physical well-being (Wilson, 2018). As water is essential for all forms of life and living, it is important to preserve, clean and re-use water and we must also continue to learn how to adapt to changing water dynamics such as coping with rising sea levels, surface flooding, droughts, as well as designing to prevent and cope with contaminated waters due to increasing urbanization. Architecture and urban planning practices have been increasingly emphasizing the importance of water in hopes to change and reinforce our relationship with it (Ryan, 2010).


Water is used in a vast variety of ways in the urban city; some methods are visible to inhabitants and some invisible. Designers and planners have to think about the ways in which we can develop sensitive and sensible infrastructures to deal with systems of sewage, drinking-water, surface water and stormwater runoff, and industrial uses of water. New approaches to the use of water in the design of buildings and landscapes can increase the aesthetic/economic value of the spaces, can be used to improve buildings functions (such as new approaches to heating and cooling, seeking carbon neutral solutions through green architecture approaches) and how developing new approaches to city infrastructure through ecosystem service models and encouraging circular economies.


Historically, canals, rivers, lakes, seas, and oceans were used for defense, trade, transportation, industrialization, and recreation. Cities were often founded in part because of an adjacency to water, and the pre-industrial urban dweller would have had regular contact with the water’s edge. During periods of rapid industrialization, waterfront use was adapted for transportation and other commercial uses including building infrastructure such as warehouses, piers, and docks. The individual became increasingly disconnected from the water’s edge, and the city itself would become increasingly disconnected from the ecosystem functions that the water and the riparian edge provided. In recent years many issues of concern relating to water have arisen including polluted waters, flooding, drought and the indiscriminate use of water, has led to new approaches and design strategies.


It is said that Rome was the first city to fully explore the use of water in great urban design and public engagement through fountains (such as the Trevi Fountain), which inspired some of the most famous gathering spaces all over the world (Ryan, 2010). In more recent times, there has been a trend to revitalize urban waterfronts as one of the most important aspects of rebuilding a healthier city. Data based or ‘smart cities,’ green infrastructures, post-industrial waterfront development and industrial-port site redevelopment projects, have begun to reimagine the water’s edge, creating new forms of social/economic spaces, healthier water bodies and new ecological infrastructure into the city. In current urban design, access to the water and the water’s edge is associated with quality of life, and new forms of everyday living are beginning to emerge. People are seeking new forms of recreation that link sophisticated commercial opportunities with everyday activities such as low-carbon commuting, urban beaches, fishing, picnics, etc. Water bodies, and waterways are increasingly becoming the structural backbones of urban revitalization. 


More recently, the issue of flood threats and the need to respond to rising sea levels has become a challenge for urban designers. Floods come in different forms in Canada, including storm surges on large water bodies, seasonal transitions resulting in significant run-off from snow and ice melting, and sudden floods caused by significant storm events. It is likely that the frequency of flood events will continue to increase as a result of climate change. Designers are responding to flooding by seeking new approaches resiliency. Instead of creating barriers that prevent flooding, or seeking ways to escape flood events, designers are looking for different ways of living with water. Increased urbanization results in a diminished holding capacity for urban water run-off. How do we design cities to hold more water? What is the relationship between water management and ecological functioning? Instead of building bigger infrastructure to drain cities, can we create green-infrastructure to hold water and mitigate the impact of water related disturbances.


Climate change results in extreme weather patterns and consequently urban designers must also be thinking about droughts. Droughts in Canada may result in dramatic consequences to both built infrastructure, and ecological infrastructure. In urban environments this may mean designing drought resistant landscapes (xeriscapes) and finding creative ways to hold and distribute water. Resilient cities may be about finding creative ways of creating comfortable microclimates in hot dry, dry conditions.


Designers have been looking to concepts of phytoremediation, ecological infrastructures, biomimicry, etc., to combat the issues of water pollution. Urban waterfronts may have the capacity to provide necessary and suitable habitats for a wide range of diverse marine populations, which are needed for ecological conservation and rehabilitation. Dyson and Yocom (2015) state that there are two broad approaches to reduce the impacts of these issues. The first is to design infrastructures that either mimic physical properties of natural habitats or uses natural materials of these habitats. The second approach is to design ecological infrastructure that references locally-specific shoreline’s microhabitat, surface orientation and nearshore habitats (Dyson & Yocom, 2015). 


Ryan, Z. (2010). Building with water concepts, typology, design. Basel: Birkhauser.


Wilson, B. (2018). Resilience for All Striving for Equity Through Community-Driven Design. Washington, DC: Island Press/Center for Resource Economics.


Dyson, K., & Yocom, K. (2015). Ecological design for urban waterfronts. Urban Ecosystems, 18(1), 189–208.

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