A couple weeks after Hurricane Irma battered coastal communities, a blue ribbon panel from the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) started a conversation about Smart Policies for a Changing Climate, which reintroduced the most recent related study and research to the public. After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the design community was challenged to develop innovative approaches to protect coastal communities from future inundation through the Rebuild by Design competition. Landscape architects stated several options, including fortify (keep water out), retreat (move to higher ground) or adapt (live with water). Retreat is a solution for those areas more vulnerable to flooding, whereas adapting is considered a more long-term solution. The design strategies mentioned by the panel were common on one point, which is, using natural processes to deal with natural processes.

In the Midwest, Mississippi River flooding is an issue. According to 2017 NASA satellite images from April 12 and May 2, the devastating flooding is affecting the Midwest. In the images below, green represents live vegetation, brown is lack of vegetation, and blue is water. From the two images, it’s apparent that the less vegetated areas were largely impacted by the events. In many cases, vegetation degeneration, soil erosion, and eco-system damage can be the results of flooding.

In 2008, Environmental Health Perspectives, a monthly peer-reviewed journal supported by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, published an article that analyzed possible outcomes of Mississippi River flooding and found that, among other variables, the levee system is a major culprit in flood devastation. It narrows the flow of water and prevents it from naturally spreading out into the floodplain. Another problem is that general changes to the land decrease the permeability of soils. As we convert forest, prairie and fields into new development, we inadvertently increase the rate of runoff into the river. In an effort to help mitigate these effects, government agencies have developed solutions like property buyouts, relocation, elevation, and zoning. We’re seeing progress in rebuilding using sustainable design elements to manage rain and soils. Such efforts demand strong community leadership with long-term vision.

SWT Design is rooted in a deep respect for nature and advocates for embracing and evolving with nature’s influence. Our work includes projects like riverside habitats protection, riverside urban revitalization, and flooding mitigation.

In 2011, SWT Design developed a site master plan for the Audubon Center at the Riverlands, which lies midway along the Mississippi Flyway near the confluence of the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois rivers. The final master plan is built upon and enhances the existing natural amenities and features of the site, and helps to create a facility that respects the natural environment while providing opportunities for experiencing the refuge throughout the year. A new system of recreational trails links observation and study areas while immersing visitors in the natural setting of the Mississippi River bottomlands and native environment.

Currently, we are working with City of Champaign, Illinois, to develop improvements for the 1.75 mile-north branch of Boneyard Creek, which is a frequent source of flooding in surrounding neighborhoods. Our work has focused on the creation of parks and open spaces that could double as detention areas to mitigate flooding. This liner creek corridor is a natural system, but also a recreational amenity. The Boneyard Creek project is a very good case study in solving flooding issues with natural processes while also creating recreational spaces.

Flooding and other natural disasters are becoming more commonplace, and the design community will continue to play a pivotal role in developing innovative solutions for mitigating its effects. From a desire to preserve a living history, to a profound respect for life in all its forms, our work moves in a singular direction. We enrich lives through environmental stewardship, where the physical performance of a project is something measurable. Evidence-based design yields smarter, more informed solutions that positively impact our communities, economic development, and our environment.

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