Water and the city (book review)

by: Christa Brown, MA Candidate, School of Community and Regional Planning, University of British Columbia

Water, arguably the world’s most precious resource, is also the source of some of the greatest hazards.  Flooding and drought put people, property, and ecosystems in the urban environment at enormous risk and pose huge challenges for cities striving for a sustainable future.  In Water and the City:  Risk, Resilience and Planning for a Sustainable Future, Iain White (2010) highlights the importance of water to the city.  He describes how vulnerability to the hazards of flooding and water scarcity in the city is often the result of historical development patterns and governance processes.

White’s main argument is that spatial planning, supported by robust, quantitative evidence, provides an excellent avenue for addressing water related risks and moving cities towards resilience.  Advocating for a move away from purely technical, engineered solutions to a focus on people and places, he explains how altering city design can mitigate risks.  White describes both the ecological basis of the problem and the drivers (climate change, rapid urbanization, and settlement in at-risk areas) that have increased risks from flooding or water shortage.  His discussion of the ways to conceptualize disasters as acts of god, acts of humanity, or acts of planners, demonstrates how framing the problem shapes acceptable options for mitigating or adapting to risks.  His discussion of the limitations of a primarily technocratic approach to address water hazards is situated appropriately within the broader context of rising uncertainty from climate variability, population growth, and urbanization.  Approaches to managing risk focusing on resilience, he argues, are better at coping with uncertainty.

Although White provides a coherent description of the problems relating to water hazards in the city, he falls short in presenting recommendations that address the social and economic roots of the problem.  Physical solutions and alterations to urban form are proposed to reduce the potential hazards of, and exposure to, flooding and drought.  An interventionist role for planners is recommended in addressing vulnerability whereby they might influence decision makers to improve access to resources for vulnerable groups.  These approaches undoubtedly will have some success, however, they fall short of challenging the social systems that perpetuate inequalities, breed vulnerability, and unevenly distribute risk.

White describes the book’s motive as conservative – to protect people and places from risk – and the method as a “revolutionary re-examination of the relationship between cities and the water environment” (p. 36).  While I would hesitate to call his approach revolutionary, it provides a relevant contribution to the field of disaster management and resilience planning.  The argument for moving away from a probability approach to a resilience approach in managing water related risks in cities is sound, as is his focus on the importance of planners in making cities more resilient.  Planning is a proactive endeavour, and as White reminds us, historical development patterns and land use decisions are enduring.  It is imperative that planners are well versed in how they can help create more resilient cities, at less at risk from flooding and water scarcity.