December 2011 – While traveling with five of my best mates from Philadelphia during a short trip to Guatemala in 2010, I found it particularly funny when I read a headline in a local Guatemalan newspaper warning that people should be cautious and careful during the rough winter months. I initially found the headline to be over dramatic because no Central American nation could know of the frost biting realities of a true winter. An image of a devastating mudslide printed below reminded me that the heavy rains of tropical climate nations have their own type of harsh realities.
As we continue to push the limits of the earth’s capacity to support the human civilization, it will be interesting to see how we adapt our cities to handle the growing threat of natural disasters.
Each rainy season, Guatemala has to prepare for the constant flooding and the sudden mudslides that punish the land each year. The threat is more immediate in the mountainous regions around Lake Atitlan where hundreds of small communities ranging from moderately sized cities to small villages must withstand the continuous threat of heavy rains, flooding and mudslides.
Mudslides have the dangerous potential to easily uproot and sweep large chunks of unstable infrastructure across the earth’s surface. As the communities along Lake Atitlan continue to expand and grow along the lake´s edge, they face the growing danger of massive mudslide that carry their homes, infrastructure and their human waste into the depths of the lake. This further pollutes the water source that supports thousands of people, spoils the natural beauty of Lake Atitlan and creates an unsettling feeling of fragility.
As our small van ascended up from the lake on our final day along Lake Atitlan, we were confronted with the task of crossing a part of the road that was missing the opposite lane and thus funneling two lanes of traffic through one skinny patch of asphalt that more closely represented a river than a road. The other lane had journeyed to the bottom of the mountain along with the fast moving water from a powerful roadside waterfall. As our van trekked over the muddy waters, our tires passed just a few meters from the mountain’s edge as a direct view of the bottom revealed itself alongside the flooded and damaged road.
It was a reminder that the warning issued by the local Guatemalan newspaper most certainly has merit – people should be cautious of the dangers that occur during the winter months in Guatemala.
The Spanish colonial city of Antigua is cozily nestled within a fishbowl of beautiful mountains that provide stunning views in all directions. This scenic mountain landscape also means that Antigua is constantly under the threat of flooding during the winter month. For this reason, the city’s sidewalks are often elevated way above street level, hugging the sides of buildings, creating a distance between people and the little rivers of flood water that flank the sides of the street when it rains.
Although simple and efficient, this antiquated method of above ground water diversion has a lot of limitations. In this system, it’s hard to control the flow of water because the water takes the natural form of it’s surrounding topography and thus will always find its way to the lowest point, wherever that may be. As well, moving flood water picks up waste along the way and transports it across the urban environment. Although these elevated sidewalks do a good job addressing the immediate concerns of flood water, they don’t solve the whole problem.
In Philadelphia and many other cities in the U.S, flood water and drainage is also a major issue. Again, antiquates systems need to be updated to handle the capacity of the current task. Many older east coast cities in the U.S divert flood water into giant underground pipes that navigate their way to a depository. Even these enormous pipes aren’t large enough to handle the current demand for flood water. Within these huge pipes, flood water mixes with our human waste, creating a mixed cocktail of dirty water that flows into our streams, rivers and often onto our streets and sidewalks when the capacity of the pipes are exceeded and overflow.
Our asphalt cities sprawl outwards over the earth’s surface like a concrete ameba, essentially leaving no place for rain water to naturally soak into the earth. In the concrete environment, flood water becomes a formidable foe and it can create some serious damage as we’ve seen in natural disasters across the globe.
I believe our human civilization has grown in a way that is disconnected and out of touch with the earth. This is creating a lot of tension between the human species and our natural surroundings. To strengthen the healing process between people and the earth, I think we have to seriously move forward with the idea of biomimicry. This means learning from nature by mimicking and modifying some of its inherit wisdom and integrating it into our own human systems.
For instance, the earth’s most effective tool for flood control is soil. Soil acts as a natural sponge that soaks in flood water and prevents it from running wild like it does on the surface of our impenetrable concrete cities. How can we expand our ideas about urban gardens to help us solve some of the problems facing our cities and human settlements?
I recently watched a TED talk about how small and simple innovations can have crucial impacts in our cities. The speaker mentioned that valuable space on every New York City block is lost because the parking spaces in front of fire hydrants need to be left open in case of a fire. The speaker talked about creating small temporary gardens within the fire hydrant spaces which would beautify the city street, filter runoff water before it enters the underground drainage system and most importantly, it wouldn’t block access to the hydrants.
Small and simple innovations like this combined with more massive efforts to update our cities could provide much needed answers to the tough questions presented by environmental disasters and a growing human population.
Instead of trying to control the environment, we should try to work with it and include it in our efforts to create a human civilization that lives in harmony with the globe, not apart from it. Urban planners in the mountainous city of Pittsburgh, home to three rivers that are fed from a series of streams, decided many years ago that it would be a good idea to either pipe or cut-off the flow of its vast stream network. Today, the city is facing problems with drainage and water sanitation. Efforts have been made to rejuvenate some of these streams and allow nature to aid the city with some of its drainage problems.
As the world’s infrastructure gets older and we begin repairing and renewing our built environments, it will be interesting to see how we adapt our systems to create a healthy relationship with the globe rather than a destructive one.
I believe that the human built environment, just like our human history, is built upon a historical evolution and a historical memory. Cities, much like societies and civilizations, didn’t just appear – they have developed and grown over time, continuously updating and renewing. This is important because it means that we have to think about our cities both in regards to their historical contexts and also with regards to the well being of the earth.
This is particularly crucial in some of the precarious cities of the developing world like Dhaka, Bangladesh which is constantly feeling the pressures of both rapid urbanization and intense environmental threats such as flooding and powerful storms. Aging cities in the developed world, growing cities in the developing world and human communities all over the globe must find a way to harmoniously balance antiquated city designs with new systems and structures that can create a healthy urban relationship with the fragile global environment.