Auckland water-based design: the path of least resilience
Auckland water-based design: treading the path of least resilience
July 4, 2013
The bright purple waterway in an industrial creek of the upper Manukau Harbour is not a photoshop image. It’s the scene of an accidental dye spill. And though I’m currently living in France I’m wondering if the white bleached trunks of the mangroves that crowd into the bay on the edge of my garden in Titirangi in Auckland, are about to change colour. I've read now that birds and fish are dying. The Manukau Harbour is to some degree a convenient backwater to Auckland, it is the site of the major water treatment system, the airport and a large industrial zone. For many it is only glimpsed from the airport motorway on the way to somewhere else, but it is also the site of ancient stonefields, and is rich in Maori history. The Manukau Harbour is the primary waterscape for the residents of Onehunga, Hillsborough, and Blockhouse Bay, who share it with the people of both west and south Auckland. For those of us lucky enough to live on it, it is our deeply beloved inland sea, its tidal rhythms synchronise with our own biorhythmic currents. The harbour belongs to us as our living habitat and we belong to it as its guardians.
And yet it’s future health is in serious jeopardy. The freshly proposed $800 million dollar spend on a new piece of hydro infrastructure project for Auckland - termed the ‘central interceptor project’ by Watercare’s design engineers – provides a cogent moment for Aucklanders and New Zealanders to reflect upon the critical resource of twenty-first century cities, urban water. The optimum goal of good urban design is human well being and the management of water is fundamental to that outcome.
According to Watercare, the CIP is designed to alleviate potential overflow contamination into the Waitemata and urban waterways in an extreme weather event, while also replacing deteriorating hardware on the existing western network. Teh Central Interceptor Project is largely an undeground drainage system set within concrete pipes. Yet certain urban bloggers have pointed out, recent works in the former North Shore City addressed similar problems at a fraction of the cost by building reservoir delay tanks. While it’s obvious that Watercare have worked hard to design a solution to an increasingly waterlogged urban environment and the seepage of contamination in urban waterways, Auckland is not alone in having to consider that the erratic extremes of the 21st century climate is causing a big rethink on the delivery of core infrastructure especially when it comes to water.
The main limitation of the Central Interceptor Project is that in the event of an extreme weather incident, untreated water will be exercised as quickly as possible from the urban fabric and will enter the Manukau Harbour adding more stress to its self sustaining capacity and exacerbating the already compromised water quality. While this is devastating news to the inhabitants of the harbour and local fishermen, the CIP also represents a lost opportunity to the people of Auckland as a city and to its designers and urban creatives. If the design followed the principles of the cutting edge design principles of leading world projects such as the Water Sensitive Cities project in Melbourne then it would see the interceptor project as the opportunity to provide a blue corridor through the city, and money being spent on concrete pipes could instead be utilised by landscape architects, arborists, architects and other savvy urban creatives to deliver a rich public space that i.e. simultaneously a moving remediation zone, rich in biodiversity and cultural, recreational and aesthetic values. So why is Auckland so far off the game to the cutting edge of water based design. Does our privatization model of water management preclude strong public lobbying in its sector?
Increasingly the cities of today are defined by oscillations between flood and drought. Yet we can find precedents for today’s conditions in the cities of South East Asia that discovered a way to work with the rhythmic movement between the monsoon and the dry season by capturing the excess, which was seen as a gift from the gods, within an intricate capillary system of urban canals, water gardens, reservoirs and ponds. By capturing excess those cities were able to store water and release it back gradually into the water ways in the dry season. With climate change the idea of the city as a distributed reservoir has a certain potent intelligence.
Many cities in the world are waking up to this need for thinking through the city as a catchment zone. In a recent talk on TED Canberra Professor Tony Wong of Melbourne’s Water Sensitive Cities shared the interesting graph showing that the cities of Australia generate more stormwater than they currently use in fresh water and so the mere treatment of existing rainflows is a much more cost effective model of optimizing the supply of the resource than an expensive energy draining desalination model. Other leading practitioners in our region including landscape architect Kelly Shannon’s work in Vietnam, Kongjian Yu of Turenscape in China, and Architects Team 3 in Singapore, have prioritised new hydroinfrastructure by designing ecological landscapes that create blue corridors as living drainage ecosystems, that integrate phytoremediation through rain gardens, swale systems, bio filters, green walls and roofs to filter stormwater and additionally offset climate extremes, all existing within highly aesthetic public spaces. This ability for the ecological landscape to multitask is the compelling model of the 21st century urbanism. So why does Auckland perpetuate the hydrological model of the modernist era that is routinely being breached and exposed as redundant within the current climatic scenario.
Can the Manukau Harbour really sustain big hits the CIP is designed to send its way? Could it be that the huge revenue outlay to the CIP could instead be focused on turning the Manukau Harbour into a phytoremediation zone, and wetlands and state-of-the-art aeration systems are employed to mitigate against the hazardous spaces on its perimeter? We would do well to take a look at the way Singapore's masterplan prioritises the capture of urban water to overcome its dependence on Malaysia for water supply. The ABC masterplan A for active, B for Beautiful, and C for Clean sets out to think of every horizontal surface of the city as a collection point for water, and a distributed public space rich in social, ecological and economic benefits.
Jacquie Clarke completed her PhD in the Philosophy of Architecture in 2012. Her subject was Liquid Urbanism. She currently has a research position in the Urban Laboratoire AMP (Architecture, Milieu, Paysage) at the École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Paris-La Villette in Paris, France.