What we can learn from Copenhagen’s plan to create a more climate-resilient city

As the images of flooding and damage in Houston from Hurricane Harvey continue on the front pages of newspapers and on social media, it’s a good moment to think about how ready Canadian cities are for managing extreme weather.

As we wrote about in our Resilient Parks, Resilient City park solutions brief last month, climate change in Canada is leading to more and more extreme weather, causing stress on our urban environments. This includes droughts and heat waves, but also heavy rainfall that can lead to flash floods and long-lasting damage to our cities.

Toronto just experienced what climate change means in a very real way when heavy spring rain caused flooding that closed Toronto Islands for most of the summer. Parts of Montreal have also experienced flooding from heavy rainfall this year. And only a few years ago, Calgary experienced severe flooding that caused the evacuation of neighbourhoods and killed several people.

All of this was on my mind when I went to the City Parks Alliance’s Greater Greener conference in Minneapolis/St. Paul at beginning of August where I was able to hear Lykke Leonardsen speak. Leondardsen works in sustainability at the City of Copenhagen and spoke about that city’s climate adaptation plan (well worth a read) and cloudburst management strategy which relies heavily on green infrastructure investments.

We covered green infrastructure and its different elements in the Resilient Parks park solutions brief, so I won’t go into detail about that here. But I do want to share a bit about what I heard from Leonardsen at the conference and the amazing, forward-thinking work that Copenhagen is doing to climate-proof their city by rethinking their streets, parks, and other public spaces to transform stormwater from a liability into a celebrated resource. There is much we can learn in Canada from Copenhagen’s approach.

Build parks to flood

By now people are likely familiar with the idea of parks being designed as places that can also capture and hold water during storms or protect a city from flooding. We have some great examples in Toronto, including Corktown Common, which we covered in our Resilient Parks, Resilient Cities report.

But Copenhagen is taking this a step further, engineering public spaces, both hard-surfaces and soft green areas, to hold water and use it as a resource in the park. Their newly built Tasinge Plads (title picture) captures not just the rain water that falls on the park, but water from the surrounding neighbourhood during storms. This helps reduce flooding, but it also creates a unique park where large upturned umbrellas capture additional rainwater and create a playful element.

A park built to flood doesn’t have to be green, however. It can be a hard-surface plaza, basketball court, or other playing surface that is designed to capture water during a storm, transforming it into a kind of reflecting pool while the water drains away–like Copenagen’s Enghave Park.

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Create rivers out of streets

Part Copenhagen’s plan calls for Cloudburst Boulevards, which, despite being beautifully poetic, perform a very important function when it rains. These boulevards are designed with depressions, like bioswales, and other graded-areas that essentially become small streams during heavy rainfall events, slowing down, soaking up, and guiding rainwater.

It also has the added benefit of creating what could be a really delightful amenity from the water that we usually see rushing down the gutter, picking up cigarette butts and other garbage along the way, before pooling around clogged drains on city streets. Apologies for the poor image quality below, but this is a picture I took during Leondardsen’s presentation of a Cloudburst Boulevard in action. You can see more images in this presentation.

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Find a win-win-win solution

Finally, all of this will actually save Copenhagen money. And not just a little bit, but a huge amount. Forget for a moment the cost of damage from storms (although it can be huge–Toronto’s July 2013 storm caused $1 billion in property damage insurance claims), which this plan will surely help mitigate. Focus instead on the cost of just implementing the infrastructure improvements to cope with extreme weather and increased rainfall. Copenhagen’s plan, which relies on a combination of green infrastructure elements and more traditional “grey” infrastructure (like pipes and treatment plans), will cost less than half of what it would have cost to implement a plan based entirely on grey infrastructure.

That’s an impressive saving. But there’s more. Because green infrastructure also usually results in new and improved public spaces and parks, you get the added benefit of a stormwater infrastructure investment that also provides a visible public recreational and aesthetic benefit.

Save money, build infrastructure, improve public space. That’s a nice set of wins.

Creating a greener 21st century city

We often wax poetic about urban parks as areas of nature in our cities, but it’s interesting to note that some urban parks are not actually the best representation of the natural landscapes of their city, sometimes burying—literally in the case of urban streams—the features and particularities of the landscape upon which they’re built.

I don’t mean these parks are made of plastic trees and AstroTurf, but the central feature of many parks is lawns of mowed grass, hardly a naturally occurring landscape in many of our environments, and gardens planted with non-native (but pretty flowers) that require a lot of water and care.

Is there a better way for our parks to contribute to more sustainable, resilient cities, especially as stresses on our natural environment increase through growing density, population, and the unpredictable threats of climate change?

Green City, a paper written by University of Calgary landscape architecture professor Bev Sandalack for Park People’s Heart of the City Conference, is a great launching pad for this discussion. Part history of park development, part manifesto, Sandalack proposes a new way of planning and designing our park systems as deep ecological infrastructure.

Park Systems as Ecological Infrastructure

Creating this higher focus means we need to re-prioritize investments, placing parks and public spaces, as the landscape of our cities, at the very base upon which everything else must be built and organized. We need to reintegrate parks into our natural systems, Bev writes, planning and designing them not as lawns plunked down in the urban fabric, but as part of an interconnected natural system.

Doing so can connect us in a more visible way to our own city’s particular natural landscape, vegetation, climate, and topography. But it also better positions our cities for a future that will be determined by our ability to adapt to climate change by reinforcing and enhancing natural systems that perform functions such as stormwater management, habitat creation, heat reduction, air purification, and more.

This doesn’t mean of course that we should seed every lawn in our parks with wildflowers and native grasses—we need lawns for lounging, social events, and sports after all—but it does mean prioritizing a more intentional, integrated approach to park (and city) planning that takes an ecological systems view and works across our cities departmental silos.

Putting A New Approach into Practice

Bev points to Toronto’s new Ravine Strategy—the first ever for the city—which lays out a framework for how the city’s vast network of ravines can be better protected, enhanced, and enjoyed in the face of all the challenges that come with being sensitive natural environments squeezed from the big city around it. The Ravine Strategy takes a holistic rather than siloed approach to revitalizing ravines involving input from staff from city planning, parks, recreation, economic development, and water.

Similarly, but on a smaller scale, Toronto’s Green Streets pilot program, has transformed several under-used portions of roadway into small green spaces. These spaces offer places for community members to gather, but also contain stormwater management infrastructure. This layering of benefits—safer roads, community green space, stormwater infrastructure—is the key to a smarter, climate resilient city. Plus, it unlocks potential new funding for green spaces through funding from municipal water departments which collect water and sometimes stormwater fees. Zooming out, you could see how this program could be a way to celebrate and make visible the city’s buried streams or targeted for areas that are at risk for flooding.

Understanding and prioritizing investments in parks and park systems as infrastructure is critical, especially in an era of increasing extreme climate events including droughts, flash floods, ice storms, and more. If past eras of park development were based on creating islands of nature in the city or places for people to recreate, this new era must be predicated on integrating natural systems at the foundation of our city building.

Read the Green City report to learn more about how park systems thinking can buffer the impact of climate change on cities.

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