Face it, climate change is upon us. And with the devastating toll associated with an increase in storms, heat and drought that have only intensified, much of the talk nowadays has shifted to interventions that can lessen the impact.
In Scandinavia, the situation has already moved way beyond being a topic of serious discussion. Since 2012, officials and planners in Copenhagen have been knee-deep in an effort to turn the neighborhood of St. Kjeld into one of the most well-equipped places on earth.
The inspiration came from a hard-learned lesson from a few years back. Wedged between the North and Baltic Sea, Copenhagen’s coastal location has made it at times susceptible to cloudbursts, a kind of heavy rainfall that moves in suddenly. When this happens, it can occur in just a matter of hours. One such occurrence in 2011 left some parts of the city submerged in as much as 20 inches of rain and forced widespread evacuations. In all, it cost the city over $1 billion in damages.
“Whereas a place like New York has to worry about rising sea levels, our flood risk comes from major rainstorms,” says Flemming Rafn Thomsen, a partner at Tredje Natur who’s tasked with preparing parts of the city for what’s expected to be tougher times ahead.
Previously, the city had looked at funding a series of proposed upgrades to the sewage system and concluded that an urban renewal style makeover would not only be just as effective, but also cost less. On Dec. 6, St. Kjeld was officially inaugurated as Klimakvarteret, Danish for the Climate Quarter. Below is a glimpse of the kinds of transformation currently taking place.
The core principle behind climate-adapted urban renewal is to counter nature’s onslaught by reintroducing more nature — fighting fire with fire, if you will. Pavement, for instance, stores a lot of heat so swapping out asphalt with trees helps to offset what’s known as the heat island effect. Trees also provide shade, humidify the air and lower the surrounding temperature to create what Thomsen describes as a protective micro-climate.
Besides trees, walkways are being populated with pockets of soil, grass and other kinds of lawn vegetation. While a sudden downpour can easily overwhelm sewers, computer simulations showed that dirt and ground plants are able to filter pollutants and absorb significant amounts of water to minimize the runoff and assist in the sanitation process.
Along the main square, sidewalks and other pedestrian spaces will be raised to form slopes and winding walkways as a way of diverting rainwater onto the streets and toward the harbor. Roadways will also run lower while entrances to basements are positioned higher to prevent water from seeping into homes and buildings. The trick, Thomsen says, is to integrate all these safeguards in a manner that’s so aesthetically pleasing, nobody would notice their primary function.
During periods of sweltering heat, residents and visitors can find some relief underneath a large “artificial cloud” ring that gently sprays a continuous cooling mist throughout the day.
Looking ahead, city officials and planners have mapped out the areas of St. Kjeld where similar landscaping techniques can be applied to form a cohesive self-sustaining system. The project is slated for completion by 2017 with total costs estimated to be in the ballpark of $7 million.
Thomsen says his firm has proposed to apply the principle of “greening” urban spaces to adjoining buildings as well. Besides possibly having a pivotal role in neutralizing climate-induced threats, the approach comes with other notable benefits, such as cleaner, more breathable air and lower levels of stress.
Another project Thomsen’s group has in the works is the redevelopment of Enghaveparken, a park located a little bit south of St. Kjeld. The plan, he says, is to erect barriers that double as seats around the central recreation area. In the rare instance where a monster storm passes through, the park would function as a temporary reservoir, collecting as much as eight million gallons that would later drain out safely at a more gradual rate.