Value Sensitive Design: Aquatecture for the Future!

Global sea levels are expected to rise, bringing with them new challenges to the international community. This article explores how engineers and scientists are designing solutions with value sensitive design in mind.

Scientific researchers and experts have come to generally accept that the earth is undergoing meteorological changes affecting rain and drought patterns, natural disaster frequency and global temperatures. Moreover, as freshwater is added to the world’s oceans from melting glaciers and ancient ice deposits in the Arctic and Antarctic, sea levels are expected to rise over the next century by several meters. This threatens the future of many nations which have low-lying areas exposed to the sea, such as parts of the horn of Africa, South-East Asia and the Caribbean to name a few. Many islands in the pacific have already begun to feel the very real effects of climate change and the first climate refugees have begun to apply for asylum. One country at great risk from rising sea levels is the Netherlands. Roughly one third of the Dutch population lives beneath the sea level, protected by dykes, canals and other water infrastructure, designed to keep them dry. However, these systems were not developed in the last decade or even century alone, but are the result of centuries of experimentation. It is this collective experience and knowledge, which will be needed internationally, to meet the challenges which the future holds.

A field of engineering and planning called aquatecture is beginning to emerge, which combines architecture, urban planning and civil engineering into one. However, the costs incurred and secondary effects associated with engineering solutions needed to keep lowlands safe, are staggering. There exist entire beaches, dunes, canals and wildlife ecosystems in Holland which are entirely manmade and artificially maintained. These constructs currently protect the inland population while also offering refuge for nature, infrastructure for clean energy and public space for recreational activities. Moreover, many nations are showing interest in and are investing in artificial islands - floating or fixed - and many pilot projects have already been finished. Building such preventative and adaptive features can be multifaceted and, if done correctly, can benefit society in myriad ways besides the immediate protection from the elements. It is important, therefore, to imbue any plans for future developments in and outside the Netherlands with the concept of value- sensitive design, to ensure that all angles, good and bad, are explored. Values such as sustainability, environmentalism, public security, fairness and aesthetics play a great role in such monumental endeavours, and as such projects take years to plan and decades to build. Any oversights could lead to costly setbacks or even disasters in the long run.

Aquatecture is not just about coastal developments such as hydropower, dykes or other infrastructure, but also about making inland settlements and cities more water-friendly. Cities like Amsterdam, St. Petersburg and Venice have a long tradition of using water effectively through a series of canals, which in some cases replace conventional roads entirely. Some inland areas around the world might be affected by changing precipitation patterns or floodwaters. As they become increasingly wet, it is important for cities further inland to embrace water management in order to capitalize on the opportunities water affords and not be mired by the negative aspects and drawbacks. To keep a space which is naturally wet, artificially dry will be costly and unsustainable in the long run and solutions similar to the ‘Polder’ (a Dutch system of ditches used in agriculture) may be more effective in the long run.

Moreover, Dutch as well as international aquatects are working on floating houses and apartments aimed at providing housing for future generations. Although current real-world examples are limited to houseboats and houses in a select few cities, incremental and radical improvements are being made with value sensitive design in mind. The goal is to ensure a sustainable future for cities like New York and to give them an alternative to conventional land-based growth. Furthermore, the overarching concept is to adapt societies to a future in which humanity must coexist with water in a new and previously unimagined way; we need to learn to live on, with and maybe even in the sea. Trying to build larger and larger walls to keep the oceans at bay may work in some places, but in general it will be too costly to do everywhere. A value sensitive approach is thus needed to ensure the effectiveness of solutions and the wellbeing of future generations.