Bridging Waters 1: What does water mean to landscape architects?

5 September 2017, UCT.


This event was held because of the concern that discussions on how to unlock water resources tend to be focused on infrastructure. This misses the role of how we shape the city. We have a problem with awareness: Water is hidden, it is piped, drained, invisible infrastructure. Can we work with public open space, blue-green infrastructure, detention ponds, even buildings themselves to change this perception? This conversation series aims to better integrate urbanists and engineers.

Wider context

This event was supported as part of the WRC WSD Community of Practice lighthouse project. The lighthouses are flagship programmes, trans-disciplinary, multi-KSA and inter-institutional mega-projects that examine priority water issues across the innovation value chain, hosted at UCT through the Urban Water Management group.

The event was hosted within the Future Water Research Institute at UCT, a transdisciplinary initiative that enables researchers to work collaboratively in water science, engineering and society, in order to think differently about water capture, use, handling, treatment and management. Water Sensitive Design is one of Future Water’s flagship projects. More info:

The conversation was sponsored by LivingLands, a project that is being implemented through SANBI, Dept. Science and Technology, Dept. of Environmental Affairs and the Water Research Commission. Living Lands are the coordinators and facilitators on behalf of SANBI and aims to connect stakeholders involved in landscapes.

This event also saw the soft launch of the AquaSavvy campaign to showcase implemented water sensitive projects at individual, neighbourhood, industry and catchment levels. AquaSavvy is all about creating liveable spaces, building connections, and showcasing water sensitive research. More info:

Different schools of thought

There are many. The one perhaps more relevant is considering cities as complex adaptive systems (CAS).  Others, which may be complementary:

  • Considering the city as a catchment, but an urban, highly engineered watershed.
  • Ecological urbanism: design as a space
  • Effective ecosystem intervention, through Clinton’s students a recurring observation was that water is a primary function in ecosystem function.

Some comments about design:

  • Mediate between qualitative and quantitative methods
  • Water seems to be a fundamental driver
  • How can we use water as the primary structuring element for the urban landscape?
  • How does water structure settlement, how is it a fundamental organising element?
  • Start with a landscape agenda (rather than a infrastructure or building agenda)

Find a way where we can let things grow.

Case studies presented:

(Presentations will be shared in due course)

Clinton Hindes, UCT: student projects in Hout Bay, Liesbeek (presentation, 14.5MB, pdf)

Tarna Klitzner: Mitchells Plain Hospital – recharging the Cape Flats Aquifer. (Villiersdorp was not discussed, but is another case study) (presentation in three parts: 1 of 3 (17MB), 2 of 3 (21MB),3 of 3 (18MB))

Mark Saint Pôl, Square One: Merryman Square, Cape Town. Somerset Lakes and Lilongwe, Malawi (presentation, 12.7 MB, pdf)

So how do we move towards WSD? What is stuck?

  • With WSD, landscape architects become more involved in the areas conventionally owned by engineers. How does the fees and liability get allocated, between the engineers and the landscape architects?
  • Logistics, Maintenance, Biocontrol (fear of rats, snakes, growing things grow, they need to be maintained)
  • The client pushing for it helps.
  • Being clear about the benefits
  • Being clear about the long term costs – what is the maintenance like, realistically?
  • Maintain a relationship with the projects:
    • Including this infrastructure into the asset register to include it in maintenance schedules
    • Communicating with civic organisations to see the value and establish long-term ownership over the infrastructure. Work towards re-establishing a sense of civic pride.
    • Cost of infrastructure, cost of land – land is sometimes not available.
    • Ownership, zoning. The infrastructure needs to be nexted into broader public advocacy, to understand the value.

This raised a question about how we engage with communities. How much of our values are being imposed on others, and what do we neglect along the way? The example of flush toilets as a Western intervention was used, that is now aspirational but perhaps not the best long-term solution? Another example is the challenge of people wanting flat lawns, or no trees, because they are afraid of snakes, or don’t want the leaves to fall, or for whatever reason. Tarna responded that while all people have different views on design, the bigger systems tend to converge. Everyone wants cleaner water, a liveable space, functioning systems. If we understand the systems, and work to have our stakeholders understand the systems, we can go beyond our education and value sets to new designs that incorporate many views.

Then the example of a detention pond bordering an industrial area and a very poor area was raised. Getting a sense of civic pride in this scenario is very challenging. But, the proponents of WSD (and Future Water research on wastewater biorefineries – generating value from diffuse pollution) argue that we can reactivate the ecosystem function and make it work to generate economic value - Clinton's notes on productive landscapes are pertinent here.

Considering WSD rather than SUDS (Sustainable urban drainage systems) moves to include the benefits (for example, how to use and harvest the stormwater) and thinking wider than just, for example, permeable paving.

New designs, moving beyond rehabilitation

Clinton mentioned multiple times that we need to move towards functioning ecosystems, focus on the positive effects that they can have, that is appropriate for the surrounding environment. We need to be cautious against using the ecosystem services (or even ‘WSD’) as a flat system.

This requires looking beyond aiming to rehabilitate systems to what they were before they were impacted by human activity. We must adapt bio-physical systems and put them to work to achieve positive effects within this highly modified context.

Clinton used the example of armature for a productive landscape, aptly using the puppet from the War Horse as metaphor. How do we design the framework, then bring in the levels that allow opportunities to optimise productivity. The example of the War Horse puppet was better than a skeleton, because where a skeleton forces the background and eventual attachment of other layers, the puppet shows how the eventual dream looks like, and the mechanisms that make it work, but it allows the imagination to fill in the rest. Importantly, we need to learn the limits too.

Design WITH the environment. Be more pro-active. It is more appropriate to design a productive space, than attempting to rehabilitate to an unrealistic former ideal, when the context has irrevocably changed. In this regard the ‘treading too lightly’ approach to legislation needs to be challenged. One approach could be to include a ‘B*’ classification to the wetlands. Class A is pristine and should stay that way, but if a wetland is degraded (class C onwards), then it should be able to be improved to a new design that is not ‘natural’ - the *, if it is in an urban environment and has to be productive.

Design doesn’t have to look natural.

Consider water infrastructure as a place-making tool.

How do we support the entanglement?

How do we get people to embrace rewilding?

Climate change means we may need to engineer the plant palette to cope with different scenarios – e.g. cannot irrigate plants, cannot plant trees in very windy areas, the effect of storms? What are the minimum requirements of plants? There are currently few analyses available. A water resilience workshop at CPUT held recently is developing action steps.

Getting engineers and landscape architects to communicate better

Different people work differently. Landscape architects work with process, and may not have an eventual plan yet in the beginning. Engineers may be more comfortable with a clear plan. But more than this, the two fields need to communicate throughout to see what is possible.

Engineers are all about risk. They need more information about the risks and capacity of WSD interventions, and landscape architects can help with introducing redundancy to serve as a fail-safe. Perhaps landscape architects are well placed to take responsibility in sharing the knowledge, knowing the soil, to facilitate this risk reduction. Both parties need to be more rigorous on the quantification e.g. flood risk.

Example: the swales, stormwater seeping away in a courtyard in the Mitchells Plain Hospital. The landscape architects need to know the soil, it is sandy there which is good – clay would not work – but the enclosed space means that an overflow can help with drainage in the event of too much stormwater. It is then not an engineered approach or a planted approach, but both.

The Green Building Council of South Africa (GBCSA) does take landscapes into account for green star ratings, but currently this is only at neighbourhood level.

APES – an association to facilitate between architects, planners, engineers and surveyors, need to incorporate landscape architects. This association struggles to be effective, showing the difficulty of inter-disciplinary engagement.

Event-related challenges encountered

  1. The general difficulty in communicating across disciplines (inter-disciplinary), and creating a new space altogether (trans-disciplinary).
  2. For future events, we need to bring speakers from different disciplines together, and prepare them better to speak to what we aim to achieve – the ‘bridging’ aspect. This event was however successful in showcasing good case studies, and will be used in the AquaSavvy campaign.