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Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

About Harvey, part 3: floodproofing

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A Bajau village on stilts

Harvey is a stark reminder: we need to learn to manage floods.

Houston has been much criticized for its laissez-faire approach to urban planning.  Yes, having more green ground and less paved ground would have helped – a bit.  The amount of water was just too big, flooding would have occurred no matter what, but maybe more slowly and not as high.

What was a surprise to me, though, was the extent to which planning rules were broken.  Houses were built in both of the reservoirs designed to collect the flood waters – so, naturally, they flooded as water rose in the Addicks and Barker reservoirs, as it was meant to do.

Now what, though?  These folks bought the land, it is still theirs.  If new rules are created (and enforced) to prevent further development, or rebuilding, on these sites, they are left holding the bag: destroyed homes, valueless properties.  Compassion dictates that they be helped – but rebuilding on the same lots, isn’t that the height of foolishness?  Rebuild somewhere else, but where is the money coming from?  Should taxpayers, the ones still dry and solvent, contribute?  Is it buyer beware – too bad – or should the developers who knew better, the city hall clerks who gave the permits, be sued?  Or the oil companies who enabled climate change (and lied about it)?  No matter how you look at it, it’s messy.

(And God knows, if any city should have known better, it’s Houston.  It was founded by the survivors of the hurricane that destroyed Galveston, still the worse disaster ever to hit the US in term of fatalities.  And yes, Galveston was eventually rebuilt, and it’s as much as sitting duck now as it was then.)

I don’t have solutions to offer, but the situation made me think of the approach adopted in Northern Europe, making room for the water.  As I posted before, in Hamburg’s HafenCity, for instance, that means buildings that can withstand having their ground floor flooded.  Could that approach be used in places like Houston? Or, for that matter, in the flood plains of Canadian cities like Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver? I read that we are still “not well prepared”.

Room for the water, in an ordinary subdivision?  That would be possible if the houses are on stilts.  This is not as foolish as it sounds.  I have collected some pictures of stilt buildings from a variety of sites, some modern, some not (see here, here, here, or here). As I looked around, I was surprised by the number of examples I found.  One of my discoveries is the site called “make wealth history”.  The tag line is “because the Earth can’t afford our lifestyle”; but despite the crunchy-granola sound of this, the site has a wealth of examples.  For instance, this is where I learned about the new hospital in Boston designed to withstand flooding and keep working (I trust that the architects of our own St-Paul’s Hospital, moving to the very floodable False Creek Flats, are taking a look).

The flood-proof Spaulding Hospital in Boston © Steinkamp Photography



A development in Charleston





A cabin in Washington State


Built to withstand a tsunami, Camano Island, WA









In Galveston, of all places…

In Florida









And it’s not like it’s a radical new lifestyle, either.  Stilt houses have been around since the Neolithic; their modern ram-shackle counterparts can be seen in the Tonle Sap lake or the Bajau community, or in Trondheim for a more northern version.  Enjoy the pictures; there’s something atavistic about them.



A reconstructed neolithic village in Lake Constance

Tonle Sap lake, Cambodia

Pic: Copyright Timothy Allen

Some say that an amphibian lifestyle is what humans evolved to have: like marine mammals, we have naked skin, we shed salt tears, we have the diving reflex.  And we have this great yearning to be near water, which gets us in trouble.  All I’m considering is – can we not make our buildings resilient?

Written by enviropaul

September 4, 2017 at 6:27 pm

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