No single approach will be sufficient to save Vancouver from the sea. We propose three general-purpose strategies: adapting residential communities on the flood plain to accommodate flooding (suburban Richmond and Delta), strengthening dense urban cores to withstand floodwater (downtown Richmond and Vancouver), and constructing new forms of multipurpose infrastructure to protect high-value areas (Vancouver Airport and Annacis Island).

overview of the idea

Though some measures have already been taken, Vancouver is generally unprepared for sea level rise. The city of Richmond only has the pumping capacity for a 10 year return period storm. Contrast that to the Netherlands, which builds defences for a 10 000 year storm. Lucky for us, the floods will start small. We have 85 years to develop the culture of living below sea level. 

In Metro Vancouver we have the unique opportunity to develop sensible flood defences on a blank canvas. The typical story of flooding is one of small dikes around a wide area. As floods periodically overtop the dikes, they are raised. Those living behind the dikes have no incentive to change habits. Eventually, the rooftops are below sea level, and if any part of the dike fails, thousands die.

Small, ankle-wetter floods in the near future will be a nuisance, but teach avoidance of catastrophic flooding later. Minor flooding can be accommodated with resilient landscaping, washable surfaces, and changed habits. By approaching flood protection as defence in depth, we can protect civic infrastructure, while teaching everyone to adapt. Towns of the Fraser delta will need to implement new zoning for flood-prone areas, and educate citizens on how to prepare.

Inexpensive retrofits can ensure we recover from periodic flooding with minimal disruption. Pilot projects for amphibious houses and resilient systems will provide a clear direction in the aftermath of inundation. 

Then, we wait for the flood.

how it works

In the short term, we can floodproof high-density urban cores with new or upgraded flood walls and submersion-resistant systems. Individuals can start with inexpensive modifications like relocating water-sensitive equipment to upper floors and replacing building materials with ones that are waterproof and easily washed. The creation of disaster-response centres on high ground and ensuring infrastructure has sufficient redundancy can ensure that cities continue to function during floods. Property owners in high-density areas will work together to build a cohesive defensive line in city centres. Municipal engineers will have to ensure that water, sewer and electrical lines continue to function if submerged. Like Venice during the Acqua Alta, the goal is for flooding to be reduced from disaster to nuisance. 

In the longer term, individuals living in flood-prone areas can retrofit their homes with buoyant foundations and disconnectable utility connections to protect their homes and belongings. Eventually, as rising sea levels increase the frequency of flooding, floating houses will become a new form of aquatic urbanism, their mobility allowing dynamic communities to form around the central, high-density islands of floodproofed downtown cores. 

High-value areas that cannot tolerate any level of flooding, like the airport at Sea Island and the industrial areas of Annacis Island, will be defended with hard structures offshore. Here, novel forms of sea wall will combine flood defence with housing, greenhouse agriculture, transport infrastructure, and tidal or wave power generation. The sale or lease of lots on or within the structures will help finance their construction. 


Flooding and Overview of Solutions

See a full size poster of Downtown Vancouver in 2,200 under a storm surge scenario. Download.

Floating Communities

See a full size poster describing Floating Communities in more detail. Download.

Urban Response: Strengthened Urban Cores

Find out more about how urban cores will be floodproofed with hard barriers, washable surfaces, relocated mechanical systems, resilient landscaping, and submersion-resistant infrastructure. Download.

Infrastructure Protection: Multi-Use Coastal Defenses

Read details and view diagrams of large-scale infrastructure to protect against rising sea levels. Download.

supporting information

Works cited

List of scientific literature to support this entry. Download.

How communities will adapt and thrive

The transition from conventional suburb to aquatic community will see the slow disappearance of cars as primary transportation and a corresponding decrease in greenhouse gas emission. Additionally, buoyant foundations can help protect structures against the effects of soil liquefaction during earthquakes.  

The creation of floodproofed downtown cores will drive up density and result in more walkable and mixed-use urban centres. These will similarly see a decline in automobile use.

Integrating wave or wind power generators into offshore breakwaters will help diversify Vancouver's energy supply, as its over-reliance on hydropower leaves it vulnerable to changes in precipitation. Cavities inside the sea walls can be used to store rainwater for irrigation as a hedge against droughts. 

The opportunity to build new neighbourhoods on top of the seawalls could alleviate some of the problems of affordable housing in Vancouver. A portion of profits from the sale or lease of building lots will go to funding a research lab and community outreach program on the effects of climate change. 

Constructing new flood defences offshore will protect the tidal wetlands of Sturgeon and Roberts Bank from wave erosion and 'wetland squeeze'. These defences will also help shelter the mainland from the destructive effects of heavy wave action and tsunamis. Many hundreds of new jobs will be created by the design and construction of these new sea defences over a period of 50+ years.

Community Summit Premier Sponsor

SFU Public Square Founding Council Member

Stephen A. Jarislowsky

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