Let the Water In

Chris Reed

Water needs more space in the city. Over the past centuries, rivers, floodplains, and protective wetlands have been continually filled in or moved to make room for urban growth. This work was done with a mindset that once the water is taken away, it would not come back. We know better now.

In giving back space to water, I don’t mean to fully displace urban and social uses. In fact, reintroducing natural systems can bring new life and richness into the public realm. Fish parks, bobbing buildings, water plazas, canal streets: all can be designed to recognize both civic and hydrologic functions, and nod to their watery origins.

We can also transform vacant land into new wetlands—whether within the city (for stormwater and runoff) or at the edge (for tidal flux, sea level rise, and storm surge). Stormwater detention basins, small-scale rain gardens, and seawalls can now be re-thought and expanded into large-scale ecological parks that bring value to adjacent neighborhoods. 

Perhaps we can go further, integrating water into the fabric of the city itself. Public plazas, waterways, and boulevards in new or re-tooled neighborhoods can be designed to be floodable green infrastructures, creating new open space connections that could also work as elevated escape routes in the event of an emergency. 

Importantly, these strategies require a shift in thinking—we need to adopt an amphibious mindset. And they point to new coordinated, integrated, interdisciplinary, and collaborative roles that our public agencies can play in remaking the city.

Chris Reed is Founding Principal of Stoss Landscape Urbanism and Associate Professor in Practice of Landscape Architecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

Image: Difei Ma and Miao Yu, Flux City Studio, Chris Reed, Coordinator and Instructor.