Benefiting From Integrating Water Into Public Spaces

General city view of Shanghai, China.

Planners often depict a city as a human body. Transportation, communication, rivers and sewer systems become arteries and veins pulsing through the city; parks and open spaces become urban lungs detoxifying the air they breathe. But what about water itself? Surely it is vital for all of these things beyond anthropomorphic attributions?

In nature we have access to the sea, a river, a stream, a lake or a wetland. Perhaps it’s our attachment to nature, but in urban areas people of all ages prefer public spaces where water is present. In urban planning this creates challenges: what if these public spaces are not enough? What if they are not accessible to all? What if we cut people off from public water so they can’t feel it, play in it or even drink it?

Water in a public space is not only a decorative element. It performs other important functions and has benefits that go way beyond the social aspects. It can be an ideal meeting and relaxation point in the urban fabric. Look at any city and you’ll find people gathered by fountains in squares, or along a restored waterfront. Humans are attracted to water.

Sustainable solutions for urban design must include water elements at different scales, even to the point of affecting urban microclimates. A stream or a wetland can reduce the heat island effect, improve air quality and enhance local biodiversity. As a consequence, the city can be more livable and attractive to people and businesses.

Spatial planning can benefit significantly from the integration of water into urban spaces at an early stage, making a city more livable and more resilient. Artificial wetlands, dunes as dykes, parks as reservoirs and the corridors on both sides of a stream for stormwater harvesting or aquifer replenishment can dramatically improve land use practices. Boosting the presence of these things in urban areas can shape blue-green corridors that revitalise cities.

Reclaiming the historic role of rivers as key transport ‘arteries’, by introducing taxi boats or cruise boats, can enhance a city’s transportation system. This can also relieve the congestion of conventional traffic systems. A stream, integrated in a park, can connect two or more isolated neighborhoods with a green corridor.

Water management and spatial planning integration have become a major concern for urban planners in recent decades. Climate change, floods and rapid urbanisation are driving the adoption and integration of all the elements that are a part of the complex system called a city: nature, infrastructure, utility networks and society.

Innovative practices and technologies such as permeable pavements, continuous root zones, cisterns, green roofs, underground road facilities, biorentention, conservation landscapes, stormwater management ponds, and vegetated filter strips, are available to be used by water and city planners in line with the IWA Principles for Water Wise Cities.

Water management practices vary greatly between cities, depending upon their needs and affordability. However, there are successful examples both in the high-, middle- and low-income countries, and in small and big cities, that show how successful this approach can be. The rehabilitation of river channels in Xi’an (China), the ongoing rainwater management project in a neighborhood in Middelfart (Denmark), the Olympic Village plan in Vancouver (Canada), and the water education campaign in a school in eTekwini (South Africa) are just some of many examples.

The pressures on urban water management mean that it needs to be integrated at the earliest stages of spatial planning; it cannot be considered as optional any more. It also needs to consider the point of view of water users: the people who live in the urban environment, whose experiences matter, but who are often ignored by planners.

So beyond the well-being the water provides in public spaces, it actually can connect people to each other and can be the champion to cross-sectoral, trans-disciplinary urban planning to achieve resilient cities. Acting together to meet a common goal means getting individual benefits from different perspectives.