As Missouri Recovers From Devastating Floods, A Dutch Architect Suggests Dramatic Changes
Water is still on the mind of many Missourians right about now. As floodwaters crept their way down the Missouri River in recent weeks, questions outnumbered answers about how to best control future inundations.
Pour on top of that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's spring outlook, which warns of historic, widespread flooding along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers this spring, and longer-term predictions that climate change in this part of the world will cause more extreme weather. The need for a solution looms large.
That need, and a recent lecture presented by and the City Manager's Office, has renowned Dutch architect Matthijs Bouw feeling bold enough to offer a few suggestions.
Bouw (rhymes with "now"), who teaches architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and founded the firm , specializes in urban resilience and water management projects. His thoughts on lessening the impact of future deluges illustrate the creativity and cooperation he says is necessary for finding an answer to Missouri's water woes.
"The most important thing in making cities more resilient is to involve the communities and the different actors, as you call it, in a city," he says.
Given the scale of other design projects he's had a hand in over the years, it's no surprise some of the changes he suggests for areas along the Mighty Mo are, to use his own word, drastic.
Reduce sewage overflow problems with wetlands and bioswales
During big rainstorms, one challenge in Kansas City is keeping sewage in the pipes and culverts that direct it to the proper processing facilities. All the extra rain can overload sewers and stormwater infrastructure, and the mixture sometimes finds its way into the environment untreated.
An obvious solution would be bigger pipes and more infrastructure, "which are very expensive," says Bouw, "(but) you can also use, let's say, your parks or parts of your streets to store the water to let it slowly go back into the ground after a big storm."
Redesigning parks to create more wetlands and including landscape elements like bioswales in streetscapes would give flood waters another place to collect, and would help clean the water as it makes its way through the urban environment.
"You can reduce the flood risk, but also have a better environment," he says.
Along the same lines, "on apartment buildings people are starting to make what they call 'blue roofs,' which store a couple of inches of water," he says. "You basically want to sort of disconnect some of the stormwater system from the sewage system so that there's less chance of overflows."
Use fewer impermeable surfaces
"One of the causes of many flood events, including flood events in the Midwest, is that there's a lot of impermeable surface," says Bouw. "There are a lot of parking lots everywhere, there's wide streets, and all that water, because it cannot go back into the ground at its own pace, quickly sort of runs off into the waterways and causes floods."
But Bouw is not talking about reverting to dirt roads. Instead, in areas where traffic allows it, individual lanes and parking spots can be replaced with green space and structures that hold water long enough for it to seep into the ground instead of draining into rivers.
Having more residents who ride a bike to work, share a car or using public transportation would also make it more feasible for Kansas City to cut back on asphalt and concrete.
"Sharing is a great way to make sure that we need less infrastructure," he says.
"Renature" the Missouri River flood plain
"Along rivers such as the Missouri River, there's a system of levees that are increasingly incapable of dealing with floods the size that we are starting to have now, and that that will probably increase in the future," says Bouw.
Instead of taller, stronger levees, Bouw solution is more drastic and decidedly more Dutch.
"One of the ways in which we dealt with that in the Netherlands," he says, "is through a program called Room for the River, in which we create more space in the flood plain."
The idea is about more than just moving fields, farms and the rest of it away from the riverfront. It also means putting levees and dikes farther away from the shore, lowering the depth of flood plain and side channel bottoms, and creating softer shores, "which allow for more water to flow through the river, and which allow for water to flow slower through the river," Bouw says.
All those changes add up to increased river capacity, and reduced risk of levees breaching, which means less flooded farmland.
Bouw's matter-of-fact approach to dealing with vast amounts of water may belie the massive challenges posed by severe flooding and continuing climate change, but he has a firm grasp of what he's up against.
"What you do is you work with the communities and the different layers of government in finding the space for water — in the city, in the roadbeds, in gardens, in the way you make your parks, on the roofs," he says. "You need to, in some way, do everything at the same time in order to be able to manage this water."
As for getting all those players on the same page and working toward the same goal, Bouw keeps two things in mind.
First, "we're going to have to do a lot of work to adapt to climate and to mitigate climate," he says. "And I also love the fact that people are ingenious. Once they commit to something, changes can happen very quickly."
Matthijs Bouw spoke with Steve Kraske on a recent episode of KCUR's Up To Date. Listen to the entire conversation here.
Luke X. Martin is associate producer of KCUR's Up To Date. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @lukexmartin.
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