Q&A: Could Metro Vancouver Withstand a Major Flood?

The late summer flooding in Texas underscored the need for flood prevention in flood-prone North American cities. UBC landscape architecture professor Kees Lokman is Dutch and has been studying how flood prevention can be grafted right onto the bones of a major city to shield it against major storms and river flooding. With many scientists predicting that the pattern of extreme weather will only intensify in the future, Lokman is leading a research project to analyze how Lower Mainland communities can better prepare for flooding and bounce back in its aftermath. In this Q&A, he explains what’s needed to build flood-resistant structures and communities.

How prepared are we in Metro Vancouver to handle a flood emergency similar in scale to what happened in Houston and Mumbai?

We are not well prepared. We have 250 kilometres of dykes that don’t meet provincial standards, which anticipate one metre of sea level rise by 2100 – already a very conservative projection. We see many communities and critical infrastructures at risk of future flooding, including the Vancouver International Airport and the Port of Vancouver. While many municipalities have, or are working on, adaptation plans, we’re a long way from seeing implementation of these strategies on a regional scale. And while some residents and asset holders are aware of the risk, many more don’t even know if they are sitting on a floodplain.

How well are our municipalities working together to prepare for future flooding?

The municipalities are mostly left to their own devices. There is the Fraser Basin Council, which aims to unite these separate efforts, but they have no mandate. We need better collaboration between the municipalities and major asset owners in terms of planning, financing and implementation of flood management strategies. For this we need for the provincial and federal governments to play a stronger role.

What are you doing to shed light on this matter?

We recently received MITACS funding to establish a collaborative platform between academics, local practitioners and subject matter experts to develop innovative adaptation strategies for those areas in the region most vulnerable to future flooding. Hopefully at the end we can show that climate change is not simply an engineering challenge but an opportunity for communities to integrate a whole host of other opportunities including urban development, habitat creation and food production. We would like to have some pretty strong results to present to the public and for consideration to provincial levels of government.

What is the role of design in flood-proofing our cities?

Engineers have traditionally driven flood prevention programs and structures, and that’s good and practical, but landscape architects can provide a broader perspective that considers co-benefits and spatial qualities. For example, dredged sediments from the Fraser River can be used to nourish coastal wetlands or grow artificial dunes to protect our coastline. Bypass channels can be designed to temporarily store water during high water events while creating new waterfronts for urban or nature development.

The Room for the River project in the Netherlands has shown how a portfolio of solutions can be implemented at a regional scale to improve flood protection while also providing recreational, ecological and aesthetic values. We need to look beyond current engineering approaches of dykes and seawalls if we are to improve resilience, adaptation and community participation in our natural and built environments.

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