June 29, 2016 - From the June, 2016 issue

The ‘Place’ of Water in Urban Design: ARUP's Vincent Lee

ARUP’s Vincent Lee delivered a fascinating address on the power of “designing with water” at the Municipal Green Building Conference hosted by the US Green Building Council-Los Angeles Chapter. Lee explains the design strategy of “blue-green” infrastructure, which addresses not just water or energy use, but also the inherent connections between two. As Associate Principal and Technical Director for Water for ARUP, Lee draws on his own experience.TPR presents edited excerpts of his remarks. 

Vincent Lee

“The idea is to implement not just green infrastructure and green design, but blue-green infrastructure and blue-green design.” —Vincent Lee

Vincent Lee: What does “design with water” mean?

It’s a framework for rethinking the place of water in the urban design process, and putting it back at the heart of the design process for the built environment. It means thinking about how water management fits in to a project at the very beginning—because if you do that, your project outcomes will be very different. To think about water, you have to think about all the different facets of water: water supply, flooding, drought risk, wastewater treatment, etc. All are aspects of one integrated urban cycle. Water is also linked to energy.  In the US, 49 percent of water use is for electric plants. That relates to carbon. And water is linked to health, climate change, economic growth, and biodiversity.

The idea is to implement not just green infrastructure and green design, but blue-green infrastructure and blue-green design.  Green thinking means designing places with vegetation and thinking about how nature can be a prominent part of your site—not just something that’s back of house. Blue thinking means working with the water cycle and designing places that could use water, could store water, or leverage water as an asset and a resource. Blue-green infrastructure and design use both blue and green space, and serves multiple functions for both of these purposes. What could that look like? 

I’m going to take you on a global journey of case studies of cities, some of which ARUP helped to scale up blue-green design. 

Songdo City, South Korea

Songdo City is a brand new city in South Korea—a $35-billion city built on 1,500 acres of reclaimed land. It’s intended to be an aerotropolis; it’s located 10 minutes from an airport, and just a few hours’ flight from Tokyo, Shanghai, Beijing, and other major urban centers in Asia. 

It was planned and built within a span of 10 years, and Arup was involved in the design process. The fantastic thing about Songdo is that it is one of the most sustainable cities in the world. The city is only 65 percent complete and already has 106 LEED-certified buildings—19.5 billion square feet. By the time all is said and done, it’s going to have a lot more than that.

South Korea gets heavy rain three months of the year, and that causes all sorts of flood-risk issues. But the other nine months of the year, it actually suffers severe water scarcity issues. In order to enable a brand new city, we had to think about how water would be managed there. Certain neighborhoods are designed with porous surfaces and greenery that takes in stormwater. All of those things helped to enable this development.

Also, although the city is dense, the Master Plan called for 40 percent public green space. The main piece is the city’s Central Park. A canal runs right through it, and was built to generate interest in the city. ARUP said at the beginning of the project that we could not responsibly have this canal using up freshwater. 

Instead, the canal is filled with seawater. It takes in water from the bay and filters all the sediments and particles out, creating an amenity for the park as well as a waterway to move people from one side to the other

Beneath a good portion of the park’s green space are underground stormwater capture cells, which essentially act as an artificial aquifer. They store all the stormwater from the rainy season and uses it during the dry parts of the year. In an average year of rainfall, the park doesn’t need any fresh water for its water features or for its irrigation.

The city also has a black water treatment system and a reclaimed water system. It treats the water, recycles it, and distributes it back to certain customers. One of the biggest customers is the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club—another amenity that we couldn’t responsibly design with fresh water.

Cardiff, Wales

A little-known secret is that Wales has been doing green infrastructure for a very long time. Our work there started with three different agencies that had three different objectives. The municipality wanted to create an attractive urban landscape and a sense of place for community members, as well as to improve overall health, wellbeing, and safety.

The natural resources group wanted to create habitats, improve air quality, and reduce environmental impact. 

And the water authority, Welsh Water, wanted to educate customers about the value of water through demonstrations, as well as to improve water quality.

The three of them got together and realized that by leveraging blue-green infrastructure, they could actually accomplish those three objectives the same way. They’ve implemented a number of projects this way in neighborhoods and across the entire city. For example, in a school, they improved the landscape of the schoolyard, providing that educational value that the city and Welsh Water both wanted. Rather than each entity investing $1 toward one goal, the three of them invested $1 to accomplish their three goals. This partnership is a example of getting multiple functions for different objectives out of one strategy.

Seoul, South Korea

One project that everyone in LA should know about is the Cheonggyecheon stream restoration in Seoul, because it’s relevant to the LA River.

Until 15-20 years ago, there was an elevated highway over the stream, and all of the city’s sewage and stormwater basically passed below the highway. Then there was a proposal to revitalize the area by tearing down the highway and bringing back the stream.


It is now fully built out, and is a vital corridor in Downtown Seoul. It completely transformed the neighborhood and the downtown district.

It manages the 200-year-flood. It’s increased biodiversity by orders of magnitude. It’s reduced air pollution by 35 percent. Within a few city blocks, it’s reduced the heat island effect by up to 5.9 degrees Celsius. 

It also experiences 64,000 visitors per day. Almost 1,500 of those visitors are tourists, and they contribute $2 million US dollars to the economy on a daily basis. The property value has gone up 350 percent, and businesses have increased by 3.5 percent within this area—quite high for Seoul.

New York City, USA

Before New York implemented the Green Infrastructure Program, the city had long invested in what was called “gray infrastructure.”

From 1974 to 1998, they did several upgrades to the water treatment plants, including underground storage. All of those upgrades did a fantastic job of cleaning the waterways in New York City. Now, the city is looking to invest in green infrastructure. 

On a typical neighborhood block in a dense city environment, different strategies can be used to implement bioswales, planters, tree roots. All of these things are part of what’s in your toolbox for the Green Infrastructure Program. One of the city’s main tools is the right-of-way bioswale. It’s a standardized design. Water flows in on one side and infiltrates into the ground. 

By not discharging it away, we’re promoting groundwater recharge, reducing flooding, and offsetting how much water goes into a treatment plant. All of these things are a result of just this one strategy.

Based on our estimates, one bioswale can manage 108,000 gallons per year. It creates jobs relating to maintenance, design, and construction. You have a potential property-value increase by having this nice landscape next to you. There’s heat island reduction and a sequestering of carbon. NYC’s plan is to target 8,000 of these throughout the entire city. They’ll be located in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx—in parts of the city that don’t typically get investments.

If 8,000 bioswales are achieved, now we’re potentially looking at 618 million gallons managed a year; 4,000 jobs relating to design, construction, maintenance, and management; $112,000 in savings in treatment; property-value increase; much more urban heat out of the area; and CO2 sequestering. New York has done great, data-driven work in terms of water resilience and water-resilient communities.

Lessons Learned 

Being in deisgn also gives me an opportunity to think about how we can make a difference as citizens. 

New York’s Highline was not born from some study by a government agency or municipality. It was not a grand architect’s idea. It was an idea from a resident who saw this blighted infrastructure rail that was going through the neighborhood, and he just wanted to do something different. He created a non-profit organization and generated some funds and with some momentum, and within a few years, this project was built. It’s completely transformed the neighborhood.  Now, to anyone who comes to NYC and asks what to see, I say: “Go see the Highline.” The power of the citizen is tremendous.

The same thing is happening here in Los Angeles with your own LA River. It’s transforming. Already, there are some areas where you can kayak, and areas with stones and grass. There are studies that are going to transform this river—and transform how you use water. The lesson is: As design professionals, we must also be collaborators.

Let me talk briefly about Rotterdam. Rotterdam is known for its giant floodgates that help keep the water at bay. But they also improve the city internally. Waterways, rain gardens, floating pavilions to accommodate sea-level rise—all of these things have been done in Rotterdam. It’s a fantastic example of what cities can do. If you think about it, none of us can do it alone. 

It used to be so easy for us civil engineers to do stormwater design. We could just say, “Here’s a parking lot; here’s a road. I’m going to put a pipe in the ground. I’m going to design it, I’m going to size it, I’m going to say it goes from Point A to Point B, and I’m done.” 

Now, if I want to do blue infrastructure, I’ve got to collaborate with a landscape architect. I’ve got to work with a transport engineer for mobility access—maybe a planner. Now I’ve got to deal with multiple agencies, not just the drainage authority. It’s not easy, as a design specialist. But the results are phenomenal and fantastic.

It’s important that we think about this cross-collaboration. None of this will happen with just one agency; multiple agencies and multiple design professionals will be needed. It’s a true product of multidisciplinary thinking.


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