When it comes to fighting floods, it’s time to get creative

John Hughes FRICS

President 2017/18 (RICS)

When more than 40 trillion litres of water fell on Houston, Texas, in August 2017, the impact was catastrophic. The floods provided yet more evidence for the growing list of extreme weather events affecting our planet.


However, it also raised the issue of resilience. Cities don’t flood simply because a huge quantity of water arrives in a short period of time; they flood because there is nowhere for that water to go.

The way we develop our cities significantly reduces the permeable surface area. Coupled with increasing density of development, people and property are now more at risk than ever.

The New York City solution

Given that flooding causes more property damage and deaths than tornadoes and hurricanes – in the US, property damage from flooding averages $5bn a year – how do we make our cities more resilient to heavy rainfall?

When Hurricane Sandy hit Lower Manhattan in 2012, it devastated the core of New York’s $500bn business sector, along with the homes of 95,000 low-income, elderly and disabled city residents. Nearly 120 people were killed, and over $37bn damage caused across the State.

In response, the city developed ‘The Big U’ flood defence project: 10 miles of extreme weather protection, tailored to the different needs of varied communities.

Conserving nature

In my home country of Canada, there have been more than 80 significant flood events since 2000. Insurance costs are increasing rapidly – Canadians shoulder around $600m each year in flooding-related losses.

Lloyd’s of London has been encouraging insurers to consider the value of natural coastal habitats when pricing flood risk. For Canada, restoring and maintaining wetlands and other ecosystems is often a more effective flood prevention measure than artificial solutions. Conserving nature can be up to 30 times cheaper than building seawalls, as well as more flexible.

Rain gardens and permeable pavements could prove a more resilient solution, using nature to absorb rainfall and prevent excess water overwhelming pipes. Maintaining these areas also adds to the social aspect of communities, providing parks and open spaces for citizens.

It’s time to adopt more creative ways of making our cities resilient to the extreme weather events that are threatening people’s lives and property.

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