Architecture & Cities

As seas rise, nature can protect our cities

Antarctic ice sheets are melting more quickly than predicted. Can this motivate the urgent changes that we need to thrive in a warming world, protecting cities from sea level rise?

The Antarctic ice sheets are melting more quickly than predicted and sea levels around the world could rise by 1.5 to 2 metres this century – double compared to some previous estimates. This has been met with concerns for 45 million displaced in coastal Chinese cities and major Australian population centres “slipping under the waves”, amongst others.


Sydney Harbour, Australia © Ian Waldie/Getty Images
Sydney Harbour, Australia © Ian Waldie/Getty Images

Facing the risks

In the United States, huge swaths of Miami and Manhattan lie less than a couple metres above sea level, and New Orleans barely peeks above the sea. In fact, most low-lying neighborhoods in cities on the country’s East Coast would feel the impact of rising water levels. And too often the neighborhoods that face the highest risk of flooding are home to lower-income communities where residents can’t bear the cost of flood insurance and renovations. Cities must lead in protecting their people.


Immediate action to stem the release of greenhouse gases and slowing climate change remains important, and the commitments made by nations and cities at COP21 in Paris offer significant progress in that direction.


north wildwood new jersey
Flooding from a mix of high tide and the storm after a blizzard hit North Wildwood, New Jersey in January 2016 © Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

Protecting cities from sea level rise with nature

Yet regardless of what we do from today on, our climate is transforming in unprecedented ways and we must learn to adapt. Cities must learn to utilise nature to protect homes and businesses. Floodplains, mangrove forests, coral reefs, salt marshes and oysters can all help reduce the impacts of rising seas and storm surge.


In Miami, US-based environmental orgranisation The Nature Conservancy has announced a partnership with an engineering firm to develop new strategies for employing nature to help protect people from rising waters. “Miami-Dade is one of the most economically vulnerable locations on the planet. With over 345 billion dollars in assets and 2.6 million people at risk due to flooding and sea level rise, powerful solutions are needed in order to keep the county safe,” according to Kathy McLeod, Director for Coastal Risk and Investment.

In New York, world-renowned architect Bjarke Ingalls is working with city leaders and federal funding to design a project known as the Dryline: a frill of parks, bike paths and berms that hugs the edge of Lower Manhattan, protecting it from the sort of inundation that cost the city nearly 20 billion dollars during Superstorm Sandy in 2012, as well as creating green spaces for New Yorkers. It’s not about the city “turning its back on the water, but embracing it and encouraging access,” Ingalls told the Guardian.


This is the city of the future. A place where all residents have safe, green neighborhoods where to raise their families and live their lives. We should aspire to a society where we can adapt to and manage a changing world by working with nature and not against it.

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