Water and cities: a collaborative love affair

The world is becoming more urban, and so, many reason, the challenge of sustainability will be largely won or lost in cities. A decisive factor for cities inherently in flux to be sustainable will be their adaptive capacity to retain its functionality and identity after experiencing external shocks and changes. With the challenges posed by climate change, rapid population growth, resource scarcity and governance mishaps, building urban resilience requires urban professionals to anticipate and plan for disturbances and design cities so that they will be safe when hit by environmental, social stresses, or otherwise.

The recently held IWA Cities of the Future conference, Embrace the Water, was all about making resilience a design and planning priority for cities, and creatively strategizing the ‘how to’ of city resilience. How can cities reintroduce or recreate the natural world into urban environments to help mitigate against climate change, while improving the aesthetical and recreational appeal called for by communities? Why collaboration across disciplines is as important to the sustainability and resilience of cities as leadership, vision and community engagement?

Natural and built environments: from an antagonistic duo to a complimentary couple

“As city planners, we have failed to recognise the value of nature; we have failed to apply innovation to enable the coexistence of nature and the urban footprint. It’s no wonder that we are now seeing the symptoms of that failure in the many polluted waterways around the world”, stressed Tony Wong.

Indeed, throughout history, the development of cities has often come at the cost of environmental destruction: to build cities and accommodate a growing urban population, we have cleared forests, diverted waterways and polluted ecosystems beyond their regenerative capacity… As a result, many cities today are devoid of much of their natural capital and deprived of the ecosystem services that the natural world provides.

How can cities reinvent themselves to provide ecosystem services? Tony Wong, Professor of Civil Engineering at Monash University and Chief Executive of the Cooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities, advocated for biomimicry, mimicking the wisdom of nature through landscape architecture, urban planning and integrated water management, so that the built environment absorbs water when there’s an excess, and stores it for times of drought. Instead of waterproof concrete, permeable materials, green and blue corridors can significantly reduce stormwater volumes from extreme rainfall events, while cooling down cities affected by urban heat.

Water is re-conquering the hearts of urbanism for liveability

Water management has been, first and foremost, about the provision of safe drinking water and sanitation, but as the aspirations of the community shift beyond access to basic services, so does the role and focus of water utilities. This paradigm shift is best illustrated by the continuum “Water for life” to “Water for liveability”.


The benefits brought about by that ambitious shift are less quantifiable from a market perspective. “The water utilities of the future need to capture the economic value of delivering services to the community beyond taps and toilets; find a way to collaborate with other stakeholders to ensure they deliver the liveability aspirations of the community”, Tony stressed.

Water is indeed much more than quintessential for our survival – water is a driver of countries’ innovation, economy and stability. The importance of water as a force for peace and cooperation escape straightforward monetisation as does the value created by the many waters in the city.


High quality urban open spaces: attractive, multifunctional, flexible, careers of identity

The quest for a well-designed urban space ought to aim far beyond providing spatial amenities and superficial attractiveness. Particularly in times of uncertainty, with a multitude of competing demands and contested resources, urban spaces need to meet a wide range of functional criteria: environmental and ecological, social and symbolic, while remaining as flexible as possible as far as their potential functions are concerned.


A prime example of a multi-functional public space is the “water square” in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. As one of the founders of the Flood Resilience Group at UNESCO-IHE, Institute for Water Education in Delft, The Netherlands, William Verbeek explains, this facility is a synergistic intervention for flood proofing and improved liveability.

Climate adaptation in Rotterdam: Certain about uncertainty from IWA on Vimeo.




Planning for multifunctional urban blue and green infrastructures inevitably leads to a hierarchisation of functions. Inherent to the 17 IWA Principles for Water-Wise Cities is the notion of prioritisation to accomplish a city’s vision. These provide a general framework that city leaders and urban professionals can utilise and adapt to their social contexts to ensure that water is integrated in city planning to provide increased livability, efficiencies, and a sense of place for urban communities.


Cities can learn from each other, get inspired by each other, but local assessments and urban planning and design attentive to the specificity of each city will take over any generic assumption or “best practices”. As Professor of Architecture & Spatial Sciences, Kelly Shannon argued, “best practices are often far too easily transplanted across geographies, cultures and scales.”


Closing the loops: collaboration and citizen engagement in urban design

Resilient, multi-functional, water-wise cities require a coordinated approach amongst diverse urban stakeholders.


Transforming Barriers for a Water-Wise World from IWA on Vimeo.


Only by tapping into the creativity and skills of all people across disciplines and sectors, will we be able to forge sustainable, water-wise cities of the future.

What skillset for water-wise cities? from IWA on Vimeo.

Architects, landscape architects, transportation experts, urban planners, water professionals, sociologists, economists, horticulturalists, communicators, artists, … you name it. All disciplines become essential components in the transition towards water-wise cities.

Psychologist Tracy Schultz, for example, exemplifies the unique perspective that she can bring to the table when unraveling the factors that increase the personal relevance of a message. Her research helps us gain depth of understanding to increase community engagement to build water-wise cities.

The power of images to engage people with pro-environmental communication from IWA on Vimeo.

A prerequisite for successful public spaces is citizen engagement in decision-making at all levels.  Citizens must feel they own their cities, their neighbourhoods, and influence decisions concerning their sense of identity and belonging to the surrounding environment. How we communicate is a decisive factor in influencing citizen engagement, but citizens won’t be resilient without empowered water-wise communities. As Helle says, “social resilience is a prerequisite”, especially because all urban risks share a common denominator: people and the need for behavioural change.

Water benefits public life from IWA on Vimeo.