WATERFRONT real estate has higher land value when developed as frontdoor towns, cities, and communities because of the amenity value of the bodies of water – oceanfronts, seafronts, lakefronts, and riverfronts. People flock to the coast to be closer to nature and the calming effect of the sound and smell of the ocean. This combination of man and nature strains, erodes, and in some cases, cause permanent damage to the coastal developments on its cusp. As an archipelago with more than 7,000 islands and having the third longest coastline in the world, the Philippines is one of those countries that is constantly exposed to the wrath of the sea. Most of our towns and cities lie on the coast, and with it brings the perils of the rising sea levels.
The brunt of recent extreme weather occurrences like Super Typhoon Yolanda, Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and other recent “new normal” weather events are still fresh in the minds who have been directly affected by it. What lessons can we learn from past events, and can we do something to make our cities more resilient to these forces of nature?
Raising a whole city
In the US, cities like Galveston, Miami, New Orleans, and New York have been beefing up their defenses against extreme weather events and the eventual sea level rise. The city of Galveston in Texas, for example, was hit by a catastrophic 230 km/hr hurricane in 1900, causing thousands of lives. It is still considered one of the deadliest and costliest storm event in US history, causing storm surges over 15 feet which washed over the entire island (the highest point only being 8.7 feet in the city). A year after the 1900 hurricane, the city constructed a 4.8 km long and 17 feet tall seawall as an answer to build back better.
But the most dramatic change was raising the entire city. Structures were raised 17 feet above its previous elevation by dredging sand and hand-operated jacks. This engineering feat earned the city the prestige of being a National Historical Civil Engineering Landmark, and the city has had less casualties in the subsequent hurricanes.
Art of resilience
However, tried and tested coastal development protection like what was done in Galveston doesn’t mean the methods and actions can be replicated in other coastal cities as well. In a recent review of the Rebuild by Design program in the Urban Land magazine, six winning designs show insightful ideas on how coastal cities can be planned to manage the rise in water level and extreme weather events while still offering land use opportunities. The program, under Dutch water-management expert Henry Ovink, sought to advocate a more holistic approach by integrating climate resiliency features into the urban landscape that will still provide recreational areas and anchors for development when they are not in use.
One of the winning designs called for creating a multiple layer of protection designed to keep water out and prevent water from spreading within the area. This “green belt” of public space around the low-lying land along the southern side of Manhattan also creates breathing spaces for its inhabitants. Each team was also advised not to assume to know the problem, because by imposing solutions from the outside will make designers miss out on crucial top-down exchange and grassroots needs.Thus, each interdisciplinary team went into each community they were to design and find out what each community really needed.
This type of interdisciplinary approach is only slowly gaining ground in the Philippines. In our on-going project for San Vicente in Palawan, where one of the plans is to develop the 14-km long coast of Long Beach, our planners, designers, and engineers conducted a comprehensive study through site visits and extensive interviews with the locale living along the coast so that the firm can develop a sustainable approach in the coastal development of Long Beach. San Vicente was chosen by the Philippine Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority or TIEZA as one of its first flagship Tourism Enterprise Zone in 2013. This tourism master plan is expected to transform San Vicente into a modern, environmentally and socially sustainable tourist destination well into the 21st century, so it is crucial that the place be developed with the rising sea levels in mind, among others. Thus, the whole development has a 50 meter setback and a no-build zone. The firm also conducted several public consultations with the stakeholders, residents, and indigenous people living along the development to ensure that they are informed and educated of what the development entails and provide a platform for their queries and concerns. We also put forward Adaptive Architecture for houses and buildings, which will be elevated above the flood lines in case of tsunami, storm surge, and rising sea levels. All habitable rooms will be at least one meter higher than the highest flood line in 100 years.
As architects, planners, designers, governments and developers anticipate the rising water levels and the imminent threat of severe storms, it’s time to collaborate and develop a forward thinking, multi-layered and top-down approach to coastal development.