Science and Technology 

Agora and Water

Public Space and Global Warming

Richard Ingersoll 

Corajoud, Gangnet y Llorca, Water Mirror, Burdeaux (2006)

Although climate-change-denier recently assumed power in the USA, all knowledgeable sources agree that the planet has entered a new geological phase, defined by Paul Crutzen as the ‘Anthropocene.’ After two centuries of intense human-produced gases released into the atmosphere, the climate is incrementally warming up, freak storms intensifying, and either excess water or lack of it threatens major urban areas. Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, while the annual inundations in Dhaka make the option of public space tenuous. The 100,000 inhabitants of the Kiribati Islands in the Pacific will be the first climate victims to officially surrender their land to rising waters.

In the design of new or restructured urban areas the effect of global warming on public spaces is rarely considered. Yet as much as 70% of the world’s great cities will find their open spaces threatened as the waters rise from 0.2 to 2 meters or more during the 21st century.

When considering contemporary public space, the issues addressed by Jane Jacobs, William H. Whyte, and Jan Gehl mostly involved crime, apathy, and motor traffic. Palliative solutions like narrowing streets to discourage cars, planning pedestrian access points, designing comfort zones with benches, fountains, and vegetation, and installing surveillance points, have proven their merit in modern spaces like Place Beaubourg at Centre Pompidou, the Rambla del Raval in Barcelona, or the Piazza Gae Aulenti in Milan. Adherence to the theory of social triangulation – a program with at least three different functions creating pretexts to cross public space – will probably remain a good idea for the near future, even if one has to get their feet wet in doing so.

Despite the various deterrents to use public space, many people still feel the need for it to see each other, shop, play, and, when necessary, demonstrate. During the last twenty years cultural institutions, especially museums, theaters, and libraries, have generated the most articulated public spaces. One thinks of the entry to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the amphitheater-shaped piazza of Parco della Musica in Rome, or the French National Library in Paris. But these public spaces remain marginal to daily life functions.

The advent of climate change may offer a compelling reason to rethink the function of public space. There are clear signs that the world is getting ready: the UN’s COP21 statement compiled in December 2015, signed by 175 countries on Earth Day, April 22, 2016, broadcast the commitment to arrest climate increase to below 2ºC, which by most accounts does not seem feasible. The impact of carbonic acid and methane gas during the past two centuries has irreversibly damaged the planet’s glaciers and polar ice caps, which have receded by over one third, effecting the rise in water levels and the increase of torrential rainfall, with perceptible changes in shorelines. The floods in Paris in June 2016 seem to echo the concerns of COP21 and demonstrate how fragile public space can be.

Will public space in the partially submerged urban environment of the future be possible? Venice, where the water has risen 28 centimeters in less than a century and which experiences regular inundations, resorts to a model of amphibious adaptation. During periods of acqua alta networks of meter-high planks are stretched out over her major public spaces. The Venetian long-term plans traditionally involved raising embankments, or fondamenta.

Recently, however, the wisdom of this tactic was challenged by the introduction of MOSE, a project for three gigantic dikes at the three mouths of the lagoon. Construction began in 2003 but was interrupted two years ago by major corruption scandals in which a billion euros of the 5.5 billion budget was siphoned off in political kickbacks. If and when completed, MOSE will hold back a bit more than a one-meter change in sea levels, which will probably not be sufficient by the end of the century. It seems unlikely that other cities will be able to afford such expensive solutions as MOSE, or its model, the Thames Barrier in London (1984), both of which have exceptionally high operating and maintenance costs. Furthermore, in many countries, not just Italy, the bigger the budget the more likely there will be corruption. So perhaps the earlier manner of slow adaptation is desirable.

A better example of inspired adaptation comes from Rotterdam, which since its origins has been on the average of 2 meters below sea level. Here we find Europe’s largest port seriously planning for dramatic changes in sea levels. The Climate Adaptation Strategy during the past five years has begun to take effect, and among the design solutions is the sensible idea of using public space as an urban sponge. The Benthemplein square (De Urbanisten, 2013), set in a residential district not far from the central station, was designed to absorb run-off water on three levels, diffusing flood space within 32 hours, while retaining and recycling a third of the rest of the water in cisterns for service uses. When the central area is not flooded it serves as a basketball court. The project implies that all open spaces between buildings have the potential for the catchment and processing of water.

De Urbanisten, Plaza Bentehmplen, Rotterdam (2013)

Another project in Rotterdam proposes that the public space of the future can also be floating. The Drijvend Paviljoen (Public Domain Architecten) was constructed in 2014 on a pier. It rises and falls with the two-meter change in tide levels. Based on Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome structures, the pavilion uses high-tech methods. Lower-tech methods are just as possible. The floating school of Makoko in Lagos (Kunlé Adeyemi, et al.), reconstructed at the Venice Biennale, provides a cheap but excellent public venue for a flood-prone community.

Whether floating or soaking, public space in the age of global warming needs to perform ecologically while also offering a sense of place. Although it is not intended to symbolize the volatility of water levels, the Water Mirror in Bordeaux (Corajoud, Gangnet, and Llorca, 2006) does exactly that, and has become one of the most loved public spaces in Europe. It stretches more than 3,000 square meters along the new tram line on a smooth granite plane that, when drenched in water, reflects the 18th-century facades of Place de la Bourse. During the day, water gurgles up through the cracks, mist pours out, and water mysteriously drains away, much in the manner of the rhythm of the tides. The Water Mirror transmits the optimistic sentiment that even if water becomes a threat to public urban space, it has the potential to become a source of great beauty and interaction.

Richard Ingersoll, architect and critic, is a professor at the Syracuse University School of Architecture in Florence.

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