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Matt Stokes BWB Consulting

Climate change resilience – show a lead and start preparing now

Never mind the winter weather, is it adverse headlines that the development industry needs to be aware of? Environmental engineer Matt Stokes suggests regular flooding means it may need to prepare for a new legislative climate.

As autumn turns to winter in Europe, the news media will already be dusting off last year's flood headlines and waiting for hydrological horrors to strike. With them will come yet more debate about the impact of climate change.

But something else is looming too: the likelihood that discussions about the impact of these and other surface water challenges will turn from talk into action. That could take the form of recommendations about how developments take place. If 'exceptional' flooding events continue to happen, it could also become a legislative big stick.

Is the industry ready for that?

"The development industry needs to start responding to this challenge now. If we don't show a lead through innovative urban design, the way developers currently operate could actually be submerged itself."

I was recently invited to talk alongside representatives from the United Nations and other organisations at the World Symposium on Climate Change Adaptation to put the spotlight on best practice in terms of global climate resilience. The panel looked at urban development and rural land practices and confronted a stark reality that simply developing new sources of water will not be enough to sustain communities in some parts of the world.

Closer to home, it also considered another disturbing scenario - that the urban areas we all revolve around in developed Western societies are also concentrations of vulnerability.

But it's important that we don't get lost in arguments about climate change. We know that when we build things it has an impact on the environment and my focus as an environmental engineer is to minimise that impact.

In recent years we have seen some graphic demonstrations of what can happen when communities confront extreme weather conditions, both at home and abroad, in the form of floods. The damage can be catastrophic in human, physical and economic terms, and we need to start looking at the way we develop and organise our communities to minimise those risks in future.

We also have to bear in mind that environmental impacts are about more than climate. The world's population is increasing at a rate which means we must examine not just how much water there is but how we deliver it and how we use it. We need to think hard about our connection with water.

But the message is not all doom-laden. The crux of this issue is quite simple. It is about sensible design rather than curtailing lifestyles. The way we meet these challenges does need some careful thinking and some innovative design, and the key is to factor these things into development in an holistic fashion.

"The general theory in climate change is that these events will happen more often. Extreme river flooding and surface water flooding will increase. But on the flipside, the likelihood of summer droughts may well increase too over the next 30 years."

The reality is that the UK is lagging when it comes to consideration of these issues, partly because of our temperate climate. In the drought-prone climes of Australia, for example, the relationship between humans, the environment and water has been high on the agenda for years, whether that is in advanced agricultural management or active government measures.

We are behind in our understanding and I'm afraid one of the most significant barriers to new ideas has been the development industry itself because it views the issue as requiring a heavy land-take. I'm not sure that's true.

What we have to take on board is that these challenges are likely to become more acute in the UK because of the requirement for massive expansion of house building. The scale of the development we need is huge and that is going to bring urban design into very sharp focus.

People's aspirations for the type of development they want are changing, too. People no longer want to live on vast housing estates - they want green spaces, parks to walk around, lakes even and when you put all these things together it is telling the industry that it needs to shift its focus.

In July 2013 the town of Southwell in Nottingham close to our head office, suffered an extreme rainfall event which led to flooding which caused millions of pounds worth of damage to hundreds of properties. It was officially classified as a 1-in-100 year event. Yet it was the third 1-in-100 year event to hit Southwell in the space of only seven years, and questions have been raised about the relationship between the town's development and its water management.

The general theory in climate change is that these events will happen more often. Extreme river flooding and surface water flooding will increase. But on the flipside, the likelihood of summer droughts may well increase too over the next 30 years. So we have to consider design in the light of the whole water cycle - how we protect, how we store, how we use.

"It is about a much bigger picture of urban design, land management and our relationship with the water cycle. That is what we have been discussing at this conference."

If we identify areas which are appropriate for residential development then we have to ensure that they are resilient to flooding. But we also have to look at creating 'blue-green corridors' through developments so that there are channels for surface water to run off and be collected and treated.

This is about more than building water butts into drain pipes or using rainwater to flush toilets. It is about a much bigger picture of urban design, land management and our relationship with the water cycle. That is what we have been discussing at this conference.

My view is that the development industry needs to start responding to this challenge now. It might think panel discussions involving the EU are the stuff of distant politics, but climate resilience is a massive challenge and one that is likely to translate into legislation sooner rather than later. If we don't show a lead through innovative urban design, the way developers currently operate could actually be submerged itself.

Matt Stokes is an Associate in the Environment Group based at the Manchester office of multi-disciplinary engineering design business, BWB Consulting