My Blue-Green vision
The risk of flooding is becoming ever more serious, both in the UK and across the globe, and the challenge of protecting our homes and cities is becoming increasingly important.
On just one day, 16 February 2020, the Environmental Agency issued 347 flood alerts, 282 flood warnings and seven severe flood warnings in England as Storm Dennis raged across the country.
Scientists predict such intense rainfall and extreme storm events will become more common if climate change goes unchecked.
We need to put measures in place to combat these changes. Traditionally, flood defences consist of defensive walls and barriers, aiming to move water away from the surface as quickly as possible. However, this ‘grey infrastructure’ alone may not cope with future flooding and by simply shifting water can move the problem from one area to another.
We need to stop thinking solely about infrastructure that can protect our towns and cities from flooding and embrace more resilient approaches such as Blue-Green infrastructure. This uses more sustainable, greener features such as swales (vegetated channels), wetlands and rain gardens, that aim to make urban drainage systems more like natural drainage systems. This approach, explored by the Blue-Green Cities Research Consortium, led by my colleague, University of Nottingham river scientist Professor Colin Thorne, has the potential to green our cities and improve wellbeing as well as better manage flood risk. It can reduce urban air temperatures, improve water quality, increase recreation opportunities and biodiversity and bring economic opportunities.
" I am thrilled that this approach is directly influencing urban flood policies and systems."
It’s a bold vision – and one that can only be delivered with acceptance and support from multiple stakeholders and the community.
My research focuses on flood risk management and, in particular, on reducing the barriers to the implementation of Blue-Green infrastructure within cities. We do this by evaluating the social and environmental benefits of Blue-Green Cities and by engaging with communities and stakeholders to explore perceptions and better understand their goals.
I am thrilled that this approach is directly influencing urban flood policies and systems. As a result of our partnerships in Newcastle, several flood risk management schemes, including a £5m project by Northumbrian Water, the Environment Agency and North Tyneside Council, have adopted Blue-Green principles. The city’s flood risk management plan and Northumbrian Water’s surface water management programme, Rainwise, are also informed by my research. I helped establish the Newcastle Learning and Action Alliance, a collaborative hub committed to widening support for Blue-Green infrastructure. Our Newcastle Blue and Green Declaration was signed by several key stakeholders, including the City Council and the Environment Agency.
There is also great potential for Blue-Green impact in Nottingham. Our own Learning and Action Alliance was established in 2019 and has increased awareness among city stakeholders. I hope to work with the city council on its carbon neutral strategy to realise the benefits of a Blue-Green Nottingham, and I am undertaking a study of the potential social and economic benefits of delivering Blue-Green infrastructure along the River Leen, an important corridor for wildlife and recreation.
I also work with colleagues in other cities acknowledged as world leaders in Blue-Green infrastructure, including Portland, USA, Rotterdam in Holland and Ningbo, China. It gives me enormous satisfaction that Nottingham’s pioneering research in this field is having a global impact and embedding our vision that we can combine increased flood resilience with improved quality of life for communities.
Dr Emily O'Donnell is a former Research Fellow in the School of Geography.