How can a water sensitive design philosophy be used to integrate water into urban design so as to bring about fundamental change in South Africa?

Historically, water systems have been developed using a linear design approach, i.e. source, treat, transport, distribute, collect, treat and dispose. This technologically-driven and resource-intensive approach is removed from the citizens it serves, resulting in technocratic solutions and the fragmentation of the management of the urban water cycle. Water sensitive settlements require a cyclical, systems approach which, in simple terms, assumes that everything in the world is connected.

Water Sensitive (Urban) Design video commissioned by the Landscape Institute and based on work by CIRIA, Arup and AECOM.

Why do we need water sensitive settlements?

Cities in developing countries have been growing extremely fast, so much so that traditional centralised planning systems have proven inadequate to deal with the demand for key resources such as water. Difficulties of water supply for various different purposes are exacerbated by increasing frequency of drought and storm weather extremes. Moreover, urban areas in developing countries are particularly characterised by socio-economic and cultural boundaries, with poorer areas subject to greater water stress – and resultant major health risks – than more affluent neighbourhoods. These complex challenges of rapid urban growth and threatened water supplies require innovative solutions that can work across institutional, sectoral, and geographic boundaries in order to develop efficient, flexible, urban water systems and secure resilience under a range of future conditions.

Integrated water management approaches such as Water Sensitive Design (WSD) combine the management of the entire urban water cycle with consideration of the roles and interactions of the various institutions and local stakeholders involved in its management. The WSD approach differs from traditional planning methods focused on water treatment and delivery infrastructure by designing social, governance and engineering aspects that minimise the hydrological impacts of urban development on the surrounding environment.

The adoption of an approach like WSD has the potential to bring about a positive change in urban areas in many ways, e.g. lowering temperatures in respect of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Conserving potable water resources also means that there will be water available for other productive uses; this has socio-economic implications and ensures greater equity in terms of the availability of a wider variety of water services. In the South African context, where cities have largely been shaped by the legacy of apartheid, WSD also has the potential to ‘connect’ spatially-divided communities and settlements through linking open spaces and promoting these spaces to showcase water; providing blue-green infrastructure; and creating ‘liveable’ cities.

Water Sensitive Design across the world

Other names for WSD include low impact development (USA), leading edge technologies (China), Cities of the Future, Greening the city, Resilient cities, Liveable cities, Sponge cities.