Waterway in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Credit: Paul Carstairs / Arup

+ Landscapes with waterways can be beautiful, functional and valuable.

I firmly believe that well-designed landscapes with waterways at their heart can boost the economic performance of cities as well as the wellbeing of citizens. 

Achieving this means taking a view of the catchment as a whole and how it affects our cities. It means using a broader range of interventions, either upstream or in cities. 

For example, a landscape of flood plains, wet woodlands and water meadows in countryside upstream can help reduce flood risk downstream in cities. In the cities themselves, measures such as separating stormwater and foul water sewers can reduce flooding and clean up rivers.

What’s more, creating urban landscapes that flood in a controlled way has a host of benefits beyond flood alleviation. They are beautiful, dynamic places. They’re enjoyable to be in, changing through the seasons. In addition they are dynamic and foster many biodiversity benefits.

I think this can only be a good thing – for residents, tourists and businesses. For me, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London shows what’s possible, and I was fortunate to work on its design.

Remodelling the topography of this brownfield site in the Lower Lea Valley opened up waterways to alleviate flooding, improving access and creating stunning views in the process. The park provides new freshwater habitats for inter-tidal invertebrates, fish and birds – as well establishing one of the largest areas of new wet woodland in the UK. 

The watercourses and wetlands provide sustainable design, environmental and ecological enhancements. They also increase the storm attenuation capacity, removing 5,500 homes from the local authority’s register of property at risk of flooding. 

Can you imagine the costs of so many homes being flooded? With the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park helping to regenerate development in East London, I think this shows how landscapes with waterways can have multiple economic, social and environmental benefits; they can be beautiful, functional and valuable. 

So what’s stopping cities from making more of waterways? I think the biggest single challenge is a lack of political will to invest in well considered green and blue infrastructure projects that prevent and manage flood risk in a sustainable manner. Perhaps these won’t create headlines. Measures that prevent flooding by re-establishing flood plains or re-wetting uplands aren’t perceived to be as eye-catching (or, perhaps, vote-winning) as building defences such as flood walls that channel floodwaters even though recent examples have shown these to be stop gap measures and potentially transfer a problem from one urban area to another downstream.

Yes, urbanisation is putting pressure on cities to become denser and develop available land. But I think higher densities work best where people have access to flexible, high quality, well designed and maintained green spaces for leisure and recreation.

So I feel there’s an opportunity for city leaders to look at how investment in waterways can produce the best long-term results. If they can look ten or twenty years ahead, beyond short-term political cycles, they can unlock the potential for waterways to transform our communities.