Living on a Soft Edge
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“Soft infrastructure” strategies serve as a new way of thinking about how environmental design can confront the issue of sea level rise. It is defined by three guiding themes: Crisis, Estuary, and Identity. “Crisis” addresses how water can be controlled. “Estuary” places attention on the environmental impacts of flooding and how to regenerate the estuary. “Identity” deals with the integration of flood mitigation with the city fabric and how to reconnect people with the dynamic water’s edge. The use of these strategies creates a new “soft edge” around Lulu Island.
As an example of how “soft infrastructure” strategies can be applied, a site was chosen at a critical point where the central Richmond artery of No. 3 Road comes closest to the water’s edge. Despite being at this interesting point of convergence where the city axis lies only one block away from the dyke, a wall of fenced development separates the city from this waterfront amenity. The site provides an opportunity to consider how natural and man-made elements can come together harmoniously by means of a “soft edge”.
The only defense against sea level rise currently is the dyke (a “hard edge”), which surrounds most of Lulu Island. The dyke disregards the dynamic edge, makes the waterfront unapproachable, is highly vulnerable to breaching and requires continuous build-up as sea level rises. The “soft edge” provides variation in defense for contextualized functions by utilizing more passive approaches in dealing with water, thus eliminating the need for a dyke.
“EXPAND” – Pushing and pulling the edge sets back the definitive line of the dyke, thereby increasing the water discharge capacity of the Fraser River. This can increase the shoreline by almost 3 times, effectively providing more room for the river.
“CONTROL” – The controlled inundation of the city would accommodate regularly changing tides and channel water into the city at control points (tidal gates). The water channels would revive habitats, provide more room for the river discharge to disperse, and resurrect lost streams. The “soft edge” would also adapt to the 100 year flood level that may inundate the city from within as the water table rises. In such a scenario, critical sites and infrastructure (such as No. 3 Road) would be elevated.
“CONNECT” – A set of landscape manipulations would soften parts of the dyke wall with gently sloped natural buffers, while other parts are created into new synthetic terrain (or pierscape). This would make it easier to approach the water and make connections between water and city.
“REVITALIZE” – This new landscape would revive the intertidal zone that has been shrunken by the dyke, enabling the return of estuarine species and allowing the wetlands to become filters for run-off and flood control sponges. Habitat shelves would extend under piers and across earthen mounds made of geotextile tubes from cut-and-fill sediment gathered from pushing and pulling the edge. Tidal gates would bring nature into our everyday city lives, disperse river discharge, and alleviate the effects of the urban heat island.
“RESPECT” – Through time, superimposed uses (such as the introduction of the now abandoned railway) have broken down the linear ribbon lots and created a 550 meter barrier along the site, separating citizens from this waterfront amenity. The historical grain of the edge can be respected by redefining the confused lot subdivisions according to the evolution of these property lines, thus re-orienting new development and circulation towards the water.
“STRATIFY” – Taking the current plans for the typical podium-tower development along No. 3 Road and applying “soft infrastructure” would necessitate a new stratification of program. The new stratification would take advantage of new relationships with water and new datums that produce an extensive city network. Located in the future Arts district, the “soft edge” would contain arts and culture program in an elevated network that bridges with the city and dips into the water along the piers.
“ENGAGE” – "Soft infrastructure" also provides the means to re-familiarize people with the patterns of tidal changes and bring awareness to sea level rise through a set of didactic experiences that use the water’s edge as reference. Some new uses include: a floating squash court that calibrates the service line with the top of the water, directly engaging athletes with the water’s edge; a cinema that schedules its showtimes according to tide charts, whereby movies would only begin once the screen (or glass window) is fully submerged; and a swimming pool whose glass window would allow citizens to swim alongside wildlife in this natural aquarium.
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