How healthy waters lead to healthy cities

healthy rivers

There is a pronounced interaction between

the urban environment and the liquid landscape that gets understated in current conversations on coastal urbanisation. There are numerous challenges but, Jandirk Hoekstra suggests that Dutch water engineering is widening the profile and creating endless opportunities for growth, development and appreciation of the landscape.

Hoekstra is a Dutch landscape architect and the co-director of H+N+S Landscape Architects,with a vision for the beautiful, the functional and the sustainable. He presented the keynote as part of the Healthy Rivers workshop at Department of Design, alongside Dr. Claire Janisch.

After giving us a fast-paced tour through the river systems of Holland, he began to unpack the challenges and solutions associated with river water in the east. Exploring examples of the types of water management that underlie every Dutch innovation and relating them to Cape Town, proved a powerful combination. He presented examples in the visual and conceptual form, but focused around the ‘Ijesseldelta’ systems and the long-term planning for future investment in the area.

It is clear that the majority of our global urbanisation is happening around one of our most precious resources: water. Like the evolving bends in a river, we need to accommodate for flexibility in our city crafting as water levels change, with flooding, dry spells, sea-level rise and other climatic changes.

Hoekstra sees the “city as a sponge,” and not only in the way of resource flow but also an absorption of experience. We need to make room for our rivers, and encourage our engineering and design to go hand in hand in developing self-supporting water systems that practice sustainable principles.

Our second speaker came from the woman leading the Biomimicry network in South Africa, Dr. Claire Janisch. She explained how we and our river systems can be biomimetic. Hailing from bio (life) and mimicry (to imitate), Biomimicry is a concept that involves looking to nature as one’s inspiration for new ideas and learning from life’s genius.

The founder of BiomimicrySA, Dr. Janisch calls it the “technology of biology” and showed us how she used nature as a “mentor, measure and a model” in her projects in South Africa.

Throughout the interactive lecture, we were encouraged to constantly ponder the questions: “How does nature maintain a healthy river?” and “What can we learn from this?”

Rivers are the arteries of South Africa, intrinsic to the historical narrative of the nation, and as a lifeline, providing much needed fresh water. By exploring the intensely multi-dimensional processes of nature, ‘Eco-Machines’ were designed to clean waterways and beautify areas we have labelled as toxic.

Diving head-first into the architectural design and the biological side of managing our rivers, the keynote highlighted some of the tools we have available to build stronger economies, communities and ecologies.

By second guessing our current ideas with the question, “How would nature solve this?”, we can begin to turn problems into the solutions.