Ulrik Nordgaard

May 15, 2024

The real power of urban coastal development is letting water go where it wants to go

For thousands of years, humans have turned deltas, rivers, coasts, and other waterfronts into dense urban areas. But climate change and extreme weather are challenging the ways in which we interact with water. Now is the time to work  with nature, not against it, according to Ramboll’s Neil Goring and Simon Kates, both experts in water infrastructure and integrated urban design.

Can you explain why coastal climate adaptation is one of the most complex disciplines of urban development?
NEIL: The short answer to that question is the ownership of land and property. Urban coastal adaption almost always requires many different stakeholders to come together, from city planners to individual property owners, and sometimes even whole communities. There is so much to consider: political interests, concerns about economic development, housing needs, biodiversity, and not least, wildlife habitats, just to name a few. It’s about bringing all those elements together to lay the groundwork for new solutions.
SIMON: One of the challenges is trying to be more proactive to climate projections and less reactive after events occur. Like many other cities, here in New York, we have had our share of wake-up calls about climate change. Before Hurricane Sandy in 2012, there was some dialogue and policymaking around storm surges – but not enough, and certainly not enough funding. Before Tropical Storm Ida in 2021, there was some dialogue and policymaking around cloudbursts – but not enough, and certainly not enough funding. Now, climate adaptation is on everyone’s minds, but we’re also realising that it’s extremely difficult and costly. The approach in many urban areas has been elevating their edges to keep the water out. However, these static, hard infrastructure solutions are sometimes only medium-term solutions to the fundamental problem of rising sea levels. And they certainly aren’t great at working with water and elevating nature.
Why haven’t we yet found the golden key to urban coastal adaption?
NEIL: If we look back on the last 150 years of urbanisation around the world, the guiding principle almost everywhere has been to develop areas for single use. This is essentially why we have industrial areas, recreational areas, residential areas, agricultural areas and so on. Although this seems like an intuitive way to plan spaces , it’s in fact poorly aligned with how the ecology works and how water is embedded into the city design. Only recently have we started to see a new wave of multi-use integrated planning, where a nature-based approach focuses on water in green spaces rather than in pipes, and where residence, retail, industry and even agriculture co-exist.
SIMON: As Neil said, the shift from single-use areas within cities, toward multi-use districts, has been a huge victory for urban areas. In the US and around the world, we have seen old industrial zones transformed into vibrant and multi-functional spaces that provide benefits for local economies, housing, waterfront access, equity, and may other benefits for cities. However, as we have begun to experience more frequent impacts of climate change, these very real “victories” along the waterfront have come with a new set of problems when it comes to climate adaptation and a need for nature-based solutions.
Given the history of urban development and the current need for waterfront flood protection, what can city planners and decision-makers do to help?
NEIL: First, the single-use philosophy of coastal areas will hopefully soon be a thing of the past and replaced by a much broader understanding of how residential, industry, retail, and recreational areas can come together led by the natural ecosystem to create spaces where people and nature thrive. Flood protection is just one element; the need to reverse the current biodiversity collapse is another key driver. We need a whole new mindset when we think about coastal areas, and we need to include a much more diverse set of stakeholders in the decision-making processes.
SIMON: I agree with Neil. To me it’s clear that the ‘band-aid approach’ of past climate adaptation should be replaced by a much more proactive response to climate adaption, and one that also takes into consideration not just imminent needs of flood protection, but also the long-term implications of rising sea levels and extreme weather. From a design perspective, the real breakthrough moment is when we start to let the water in instead of keeping it out, meaning that we start to design coastal cities that are compatible with other dimensions of nature. As societies, our challenge right now is to address future events, not just current ones. Essentially, the climatic changes are forcing us to take the very long view on how we want both current and future generations to live.
On that note, how do you see urban coastal development in 10-15 years from now?
NEIL: With the risk of being too poetic, I hope we’ve finally realised that we can’t just control water; we must interact with it. Water is so close to our lives. Our civilisation has always been drawn to water, and almost all our major urban areas in the world are close to water. The fact is that water will eventually do what it wants to do, so the more we work with water, the better. From the cyclical practices of indigenous people of the past to modern nature-based urban design, the real change is letting water go where it wants to go, and letting it be where it wants to be. This will be the start of a new era of sustainable urban design.
SIMON: I also think that a holistic mindset is both urgent and overdue, and that partnerships are a key ingredient to fostering innovation. The good news is that we’re now starting to see a change in attitudes and willingness to address fundamental issues. Climate change is not going away, but we can work proactively to develop holistic strategies to reduce risks for human beings and other endangered species while also increasing liveability. Change is slow, but change is coming, and we need everyone to play their part.

Three ways to increase the safety, sustainability, and liveability of urban coastal areas:

  • :

    Start differently

    Adapting urban coastal areas to current climate change requires a whole new level of courage and openness to really sense the sites, test new ideas, challenge old patterns, and inspire each other to aim higher for a greater cause and impact.
  • :

    Build stronger partnerships & nurture ecosystems

    Applying a nature-based approach to urban development requires us to recognise that humans are part of nature and that our role is to activate our power with (as opposed to power over) ecological dynamics. Developing the cities of the future is not a milestone, but a mindset, spearheaded by brave change agents and alliances.
  • :

    Be (co-)creative

    Co-creation starts from greater and deeper collective awareness of place, essence, and potential. So, by sensing the places and combining indigenous thinking with current innovation we can unleash creative, inspiring and truly life-affirming solutions.

“From the cyclical practices of indigenous people of the past to modern nature-based urban design, the real change is letting water go where it wants to go, and letting it be where it wants to be. This will be the start of a new era of sustainable urban design.”

Neil Goring
Senior Water and Climate Expert in Integrated Design

Want to know more?

  • Neil Hugh Mclean Goring

    Senior Water and Climate Expert in Integrated Design

    +45 51 61 74 53

    Neil Hugh Mclean Goring
  • Simon Kates

    Project Manager, Water Infrastructure & Climate Adaptation

    Simon Kates
  • Ulrik Nordgaard

    Global ESG Communications Lead

    +45 60 36 13 08

    Ulrik Nordgaard

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