Future-Proofing Against a Hotter, Wetter Horizon Will Require a Huge Surge of Bluefield Development
Houston, we have a problem: Hurricane Harvey reveals the bluefield infrastructure in our built-environment is badly behind where it must be to battle the big storms of today and win—never mind the bigger storms of tomorrow.
Harvey is the first hurricane to hit Texas in a decade, but the third 500-year flood event in as many years according to officials at the Harris County Flood Control District. 500-year flood events are supposed to have a 0.2% chance of happening in a given year. This doesn’t mean that such floods only occur once every five centuries, only that the odds are low it will occur in any particular year.
Odds for a series of 500-year events in a short period of timer are lower still. “[It was] unprecedented to have two 500-year storms back to back,” Tomball Public Works Director David Esquivel told a local reporter earlier this year.
But Houston’s third 500-year flood was definitely the worst. After reportedly 100 hours of continuous rain in some places, Hurricane Harvey dumped more rain in a shorter period than any rainstorm ever recorded before. As the region’s bluefield infrastructure failed, whole cities were washed out and entire counties evacuated. The record-shattering rainfall caused waters to rise higher and higher until some evacuees had to be re-evacuated to even higher ground elsewhere because the shelter where they took refuge also flooded.
Once again the inadequacies of our built-environment are laid bare. We can see the built-environment for what it is: fragile. Our hydrogeological systems are antiquated, soft and not ready to perform when tested under pressure.
Now under extreme pressure with the water still rising, today’s engineers along the Gulf Coast have few options managing a system their grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s built. Officials reportedly expect dam releases for months, with overflows for the Addicks spillway through September. Water levels of Buffalo Bayou are so high that the dam outlets where water is supposed to discharge submerged, which means floodwaters won’t discharge before water levels recede on their own time.
Houston drenched by more rainfall than ever before
Houston’s bluefield infrastructure of bayous, lakes, creeks, wetlands, rivers and reservoirs—most of which was built during the last great redevelopment wave 80+ years ago in the Depression—were caught completely unprepared for rainfall of this magnitude. The system was simply overwhelmed. No one is really sure what happens next, even the Army Corps of Engineers.
“This is something we’ve never faced before,” said Jeff Lindner, a meteorologist with the Harris County Flood Control District. “We are trying our best to wrap our [heads] around what exactly this water is going to do as it interacts with subdivisions, road-side ditches, underground drainage systems—that it’s all going to be interacting with.” The region’s bluefield network was built to drain the very flat floodplain prone to heavy, warm water rains nourished by the Gulf of Mexico.
Most cities and regions would be overwhelmed by the record rain Hurricane Harvey dropped from the heavens, but the Houston region’s Depression-era system has been increasingly overmatched by water stress building on two fronts: explosive housing development and evermore rainfall.
The result seems to be more regular water disasters.
"Houston is the most flood-prone city in the United States," Rice University environmental engineering professor Phil Bedient told the AP. Houston's Harris County has the loosest, least-regulated drainage policy and system in the entire country, Bedient added. "No one is even a close second— not even New Orleans, because at least they have pumps there.
"Houston’s system is only designed to clear out 12-13 inches of rain per 24-hour period, said Jim Blackburn, an environmental law professor at Rice University. "That's so obsolete it's just unbelievable." "In general, developers run this city and whatever developers want they get," Browne added. He sued Houston last year in federal court, demanding more holding ponds and better drainage.
Numerous causes contributed to the region’s poor riparian resilience. First, experts point to Houston’s notorious lack of zoning laws. Harris County didn't leave enough right-of-way space to expand its bayous and bluefield capacity—and expansion efforts have been slow and inadequate. Property owners and developers exercising such extreme discretion in the construction of each individual property has created a uniquely non-uniform pattern of development in the Houston area.
And yet, at the same time, this freedom has led to conformity. There is too much concrete and not enough green space and permeable surface to allow water to seep naturally in enough places. And therefore it doesn’t seep into the ground too quickly.
Houston has benefitted from above average growth for decades. But as its population grew from just 1.95 million in 2000 to more than 2.3 million people in 2017, developers packed many of those homes into ever-tighter spaces along levees and near reservoirs. As suburbs expanded, so did the area of impermeable surface with the footprint of the foundation for every McMansion, every long driveway with a 5-car garage and each NBA-sized basketball court.
Obsolete design made waterflow woes into Houston’s inevitable
The Houston region boasts bluefield infrastructure statistics that seem impressive at first read, if only for the scope of the system that mostly hides in plain site everyday. Harrison County, where Houston is located, manages 2,500 miles of bayous and channels and more than 300 stormwater basins. These basins provide relief capacity by remaining essentially empty until heavy rains fall. By taking time to fill up and discharge, they slow down the flow of water and take pressure off the system.
In the Houston area, the waterflow is designed to migrate west to east through bayous and concrete-constructed tidal creeks that eventually connect to Galveston Bay. But the main bayou through downtown Houston, Buffalo Bayou, "is pretty much still a dirt mud channel like you would have seen 100 years ago, just a little cleaned out," U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist Jeff East, who is based in Houston, told the Associated Press.
Houston sits on a large, flat coastal plain, almost like a dinner plate. It has a very modest slope of only about one foot per mile toward the sea. And because the region’s stormwater system is principally gravity based, there isn’t a lot of energy pushing the water to make an exit.
Houston designed two dry emergency reservoirs (activated only during heavy rainfalls) in response to disastrous and deadly 20th-century floods: the Addicks and Barker reservoirs, both built principally as earthen dams. On regular days, they are dry parkland with sports fields and walking/biking paths.
But Hurricane Harvey has these reservoirs overflowing for the first time in history. Officials were forced to release some of the water pressing against the decades-old dams protecting some of Houston’s wealthier subdivisions.
Forget a wetter tomorrow. We need to prepare for a rainier today.
Now Houston clearly has a lot of catching up to do. There’s previously poo-pooed plans collecting dust worthy of a second look. Rebuilding a more resilient and hardened environment will begin well before the cleanup from Hurricane Harvey ends. Updating and upgrading it’s practically century old system will be essential to stopping the worst of the next storm. Being so low and square in Mother Nature’s sites, Houston would do well to equip accordingly.
But this isn’t just about preparing for a potential tomorrow that may never come. It’s not about climate change. It’s the current climate.
Houston’s built-environment has already failed utterly. Our grandfather’s did well for their time. It’s a wonder the infrastructure surge of the time has lasted this long. But it’s age is showing again and again across the county. After string of local and national events in recent years now capped off by a heavy-hitter like Harvey, the current fragility of the U.S. has been exposed for all to see—even non-experts.
And, if three 500-year storms in three years isn’t evidence enough that Houston has a problem, the data is overwhelming. There were many predictions that conditions in Houston were right for just such a record breaking event. As the planet heats up, Houston gets heavier rains because warmer air holds more water. In places where conditions are right, the wet will get wetter. A lot wetter.
Like it’s real estate development market in recent decades, Houston is ahead setting the trend. An Associated Press weather data analysis has shown that since 1986, extreme downpours—the type measured in double-digit inches—have occurred twice as often than in the previous 30 years.
Rising to the challenge with a bluefield development surge
To meet the challenge, Houston and many other low-lying and flood-prone regions in the U.S. require a bluefield development surge of unprecedented scale. We need modern bluefield infrastructure systems that incorporate all elements of the built and natural environment that make up an area’s watershed.
A bluefield property is any real estate or land which possesses water resources or riparian rights. Bluefield development, however, could refer to the construction of human habitat anywhere on the water—with or without connection to the land. Bluefield development might also construct new land in the water, as is now somewhat regular practice in the Gulf States.
In business and economic development a property may also be a bluefield by virtue of its legal or physical access to a water resource—particularly those with access to a navigable body of water, such as a river, sea, or ocean. Water access can come indirectly via canal or port, so some bluefields do not maintain actual physical contact to the water. Because of this access, many bluefields can support viable commercial uses.
Most bluefields merely provide simple enjoyment for the property owners, tenants and tourists—typically around a river, lake or ocean. Bluefields are also places where important natural functions occur, both biological and nonbiological. They perform one or more water-related ecosystem services and when providing natural habitat to area species or some other ecological service might also be called an Ecofield.
Bluefields also provide valuable function to the built-environment, economy and civilization. Some bluefields are built for temporary water conditions, including seasonal weather patterns (rain or snow melt), tidal forces or stormwater flooding—such as the Addicks and Barker reservoirs in Houston. Because they act as buffers where water and land meet—and because the vast majority of human settlement exists in extremely close proximity to bodies of water—bluefield management is a critical component of sustaining a modern way of life.
These can be made worse depending on manmade conditions, as we’ve learned again the hard way in Houston. “Every year we put more people and critical assets in harm’s way,” Sam Brody, a Texas A&M University at Galveston professor who specializes in natural hazard mitigation, told the Guardian just two months ago. “We keep rolling the dice and the stakes become higher.”
Houston’s largely unregulated boom has built many new subdivisions with Texas-sized homes, apartments, malls, offices, the works. The city’s residents and tax roles have benefitted robustly. But while the explosive population growth has been the envy of many shrinking cities, Houston’s intense development pressure was allowed to sprawl unchecked across the flat, flood-prone region.
The addition of so much asphalt and concrete, not required to be permeable, grew the concrete plate under Houston to gargantuan proportion just as the heaviest storms in history loomed over the horizon. The increase of impermeable surface area worked with the storms the area has always known to create flooding on an unprecedented scale. It’s not the kind of record anyone wants to make. But Houston’s development patterns, bluefield neglect and obsolescence, and more mega-rainfalls coming more frequently put the “Magnolia City” on a meeting with destiny.
Responding to the crisis, capitalizing on the opportunity
The U.S. has a bluefield crisis. It’s water infrastructure is producing deadly outcomes. The lack of resilience built in is costing a fortune. Many cities hardly have stormwater systems to speak of at all. The wastewater and greywater treatment in the U.S. is also deficient to a health-impacting degree. Untreated sewage still flows directly into the watersheds of far too many places, especially during rather regular storm events when “emergency” systems trigger and expedite all water through the system—often freely mixing sewage and stormwater before flowing into nature.
But the U.S. also has a tremendous bluefield opportunity. Other countries are already seizing them and building stronger, more resilient communities. Or even just new land.
Waterfront bluefields have featured heavily in London’s urban revitalization, which began a bit before the U.S. caught the infill bug. In “Regenerating London: Governance, Sustainability and Community in a Global City” Rob Imrie, Loretta Lees and Mike Raco wrote:
Bluefields are unique assets with tremendous utility and often strategic location. Other cities, like New York, are following London’s example and using bluefields in new ways to maximize their value. New York’s massive Navy Yard waterfront project is one of the largest redevelopments in the world.
And following Hurricane Sandy New York also had to reconsider its resilience efforts, so it put some bluefield land to use as buffer areas to battle the water when it rises in the next storm surge. The rest of the time, these bluefield assets will serve as open spaces, recreational areas and greenfields.
In typically New York is style, the Big Apple is also going big with a mixed-use public bluefield project being built in the Hudson River. The potential floating park in New York is known as Pier 55. The $250 million high use “entertainment pier” will be constructed with 535 concrete columns holding the park up over the Hudson River. The floating island will feature a 2.4-acre park, 750-seat amphitheater and 400 species of plants landscaped to perfection when complete in 2019. After numerous lawsuits attempting to stop the development, Mayor DeBlasio recently intervened on the project’s behalf.
Unfortunately, Manhattan cannot follow London’s flood defense example and construct a seawall with the singular effectiveness of the Thames Barrier. The movable flood barrier at the mouth of the River Thames east of Central London went operational in 1984 and prevents the floodplain of all but the easternmost boroughs of Greater London from being flooded by high tides and storm surges moving up from the North Sea.
Manhattan is exposed to the sea on all sides. But Houston is not. Like London it benefits from geography that made a substantial sea and flood defense a serious possibility. Two primary proposals have been debated locally for many years. The Texas A&M University at Galveston "spine" plan— an idea originally credited to oceanographer Bill Merrell — is a more expansive version of the "Ike Dike" plan, which calls for massive floodgates to be constructed at the entrance to Galveston Bay that would block storm surges like the Thames Barrier east of London.
Meanwhile, Rice University in Houston has backed a "mid-bay" system, which would place a floodgate closer to Houston's industrial complex.
Whatever the precise plan, cost was always the real hold up. Projections ranged from $8 billion to $15 billion. Money that would seem to have been better to spend then as opposed to now. But the alternative is to not build and tempt fate yet again.
If the Dutch can do it...
The tiny country of the Netherlands and its brave, pragmatic-minded people have been winning a war against the water for nearly a millennium. The Dutch have almost doubled the land area of the country in the last four hundred years.
Famously beginning with wooden windmills—and wooden shoes—the Dutch developed a comprehensive and integrated approach that incorporates the flow of water through urban canals, parks and even residential areas. With nearly half its land area at or below sea level today, the Dutch deploy perhaps the most sophisticated water management and flood control systems on earth.
It’s been a battle the Dutch have been forced to fight. The Netherlands’ amazing Delta Works was created following the great North Sea flood of 1953 that killed 1,836 in the tiny Netherlands alone and drowned 10% of the country's land underwater.
The Dutch bounced back with a "never again" attitude and now the Netherlands is protected against 10,000-year flood events. Its system of manmade barriers, seawalls, floodgates, dykes, dams, canals, restored vegetative dunes and wetlands works with the land to accentuate its natural defenses, barrier islands and high grounds.
Prior to Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, the State of Louisiana and other stakeholders didn’t pull the trigger on the opportunity to partner with a Dutch consortium to build a $10 billion dollar seawall and flood defense system. After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans bounced back, but many of the old levees were simply reconstructed. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent $14.5 billion strengthening levees and pump stations and constructing new floodwalls and floodgates, but only to battle 500-year events—as opposed to the Dutch response in ‘53 (which happened to kill the exact same number of people as Katrina (1,836) with a defense against a 10,000-year event.
New Orleans did begin to incorporate some Dutch techniques. Armed with a $141 million award from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, New Orleans planned for relatively small, but significant bluefield development to improve its stormwater capacity and greywater infrastructure using many green infrastructure developed in the Netherlands. [HUD is also funding local rural watershed redevelopment projects in Iowa, after the 2008 floods there became the second most expensive flood disaster in U.S. history at the time.]
Reengineering stormwater flows through its lowlands and incorporating waterflow into the built-environment, New Orleans has begun working with the water instead of just working against it. The badly flooded Gentilly neighborhood is serving as the testing ground for a network of projects that filter and store water through natural processes. After Hurricane Katrina, “we realized we had such a radically mis-designed landscape,” David Waggonner, the architect behind the Gentilly Resilience District plan told the Atlantic. The bluefield redevelopment plan, he explained, “recognizes the city that’s there, but retrofits it.”
Gentilly had plenty of open lots and wide streets, which made it a good candidate to begin returning more functional waterflow to the built-environment in New Orleans. Existing green spaces are being repurposed to function for double duty: as recreational greenfields and functioning bluefields processing stormwater when necessary. As the Atlantic wrote last year:
Can things be better by braving a bluer future?
By necessity, the Dutch have developed a very progressive attitude towards bluefield development. Being the densest country in the world—even more dense than China—the Dutch are facing their own form of housing crisis. To alleviate the pressure and meet its economic needs, the Dutch are again harvesting the potential of the sea.
Amsterdam's Ijburg neighborhood began construction in 2013 and is considered to be the world’s first floating neighborhood. The neighborhood IJburg consists of 6 artificial islands built in the IJ Lake, with four more islands planned for the near future. Eventually, it will provide housing for 45,000 residents—some of them on the water.
The floating houses are built by creating foundations of concrete, then filling them with styrofoam to make them essentially unsinkable. "We think that sustainability on the water can work even better than sustainability on land,” Koen Olthuis, an architect who has built dozens of floating houses and office buildings throughout the Netherlands, told the Associated Press in 2015. Olthuis' firm. The Ijburg neighborhood bluefield development is a mix of high-end waterfront condos and social housing, with about 30% of the community’s 18,000 houses allocated to low-income residents.
Now cities from London to Lagos Lagos are following suit and focusing on bluefield development to tackle the twin urban pressures of population density and rising seas. Floating architecture has real potential to help ease some of London’s housing problems, Alex De Rijke of dRMM architects (that won a competition to design the UK’s first floating villages in London Docklands) told the Guardian. “Architecture can only respond to overpopulation by addressing the questions of density, economy and speed of construction,” said de Rijke, “The space of large rivers in urban areas can offer answers to these questions.”
Bluefield development presents challenges, but architects and planners everywhere are starting to look at the water and see solutions to some of today’s toughest challenges. According to a recent World Bank report, worldwide damage to cities from flooding could amount to $1 trillion per year by 2050 if no action is taken.
So, we have no choice but to meet the bluefield development challenge head on. It makes sense to use bluefield opportunities to maximize their resources with multi-benefit potential. They can help us rise to meet the challenges we face today in unique ways. We already have multiple generations of bluefield development under our belt and a running start. The Dutch have been developing technology and techniques for centuries.
The degree of difficulty is going up—along with the risk, costs and consequences of failure—but the future of bluefield development as a growth area is very bright indeed. With a generation of proven megaprojects in the books, the way seems clear for age of the mega bluefield seems set to begin.
The first mega bluefields have already been built
It started with scheming to site new airports. Airports are big and need a lot of space. They need a big buffer too, the bigger the better because neighbors hate the noise Airports are known for. But there aren’t too many good land-based locations in populated areas to build the mile-long runways you need for a modern airport.
The ocean, however, offers plenty of wide open space to land commercial aircraft. Japan—the the densely populated island and air travel hub—seized its bluefield potential to construct several floating airports. Hong Kong constructed an artificial island by filling in four square miles of the South China Sea
AT LEFT: Kansai International Airport in Osaka Bay, Japan. AT RIGHT: Macau International Airport, China.
In the U.S., there have proposals for bluefield airports in the past. In San Diego, for example, there was a $20 billion plan a decade ago to construct a floating airport because the ocean off San Diego is too deep for an artificial island. A group led by Adam Englund aimed to construct "a giant oil rig-style floating platform permanently moored 10 or so miles off the coast of San Diego. It would be three square miles and afford plenty of room for two long and very safe runways," reported San Diego Union Tribune. The OceansWorks Offshore Airport would be located mostly on the roof of the structure. Below would be four stories of real estate open for other uses.
The floating airport was imagined as a city unto itself–sustainably harvesting energy from the wind, waves and sun with a desalinization plant that would supply fresh water needs locally. Underneath the ecology would be enhanced by creating a massive artificial reef.
Perhaps ahead of it’s time, Englund’s efforts also stalled out. His vision, however, for an independent, floating, but strategically located “bluefield development"—as Englund referred to it at the time—might have potential in a much wetter future. Instead of “green shoots” of hope, these “blue shoots” may offer a realistic way forward for many of the world’s most heavily populated areas—which also happen to be in the lowest-lying areas.
Another effort to build a floating airport, which preceded Englund’s, is still ongoing. FloatPort Inc. proposed the idea in 2002 and is still working for more productive bluefield future in San Diego and beyond. Over the next fifty years, bluefield development may be booming if only by necessity.
However far-fetched some of these schemes may seem, bluefield development in all its forms is sure to play an increasingly pivotal role going forward. Bluefields are difference makers when done well and when done wrong—with Houston the most recent and horrible example of the latter. But bluefields are also unique resources and opportunities, as we have seen, and they can be used to alter the built-environment with dramatic effect.
When the Palm Jumeirah, the first artificial archipelago built in United Arab Emirates starting in 2001, was completed, it added 320 miles of coastline and beachfront property. In a tiny nation with a micro-market of ~30 miles of beachfront before, an order of magnitude increase in some of the most valuable type of real estate on earth is a big deal. From this bluefield perspective, or through the eyes of a real estate developer, the construction of the palm islands in the UAE might seem like a more pragmatic investment notwithstanding its size.
Bluefields may also serve as flashpoints of another kind in the future. China has almost completed construction of three man-made islands in the South China Sea to support its territorial claims on the region. These strategically located bases give China the ability to deploy combat aircraft and other military assets very quickly. Poised for regional supremacy, China’s militarized bluefield development is shaping the future of geopolitics in southeast Asia.
On the planet that’s 70% water, and potentially rising, it should serve as no surprise that bluefield development is key to the future. Winning that future may prove more difficult on a hotter, wetter world. But as time moves forward, it seems apparent that the time for future-proofing against the planet’s worst fate is ticking away. We need a hardened, resilience and sustainable environment. Without one, we’re hoping to get lucky and paying with blood, sweat, tears and treasure when we don’t.
And should the worst case come to pass—the "Kevin Costner in Waterworld" scenario—we may already be on our way to adapting to an ocean planet. The world's first floating city will be constructed off the waters of French Polynesia after its government signed an agreement with the Seasteading Institute in San Francisco to build the permanent floating community.
What's a "Bluefield"?
A bluefield possesses water resources itself or has access to a navigable body of water such as a river, sea, or ocean—either directly or via canal or port. Some bluefields can support viable commercial uses, and many of these commercial bluefields have definitive access or riparian rights. Many other Bluefields merely provide simple enjoyment for the property owners and tenants. Use the bluefield tag as one of the many tags in the BrownfieldListings.com Taxonomy to post a watershed development RFP, RFQ or RFI, or to simply signal water resources or concerns on your property or in your project.
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