Rotterdam - Benthemplein Water Square

Rain drain Rotterdam

It has certainly been a rainy winter in Vancouver.

Unfortunately, it seems as though it’s only getting rainier: the overall annual number of high intensity rainfall days have increased here since the mid 1970s, likely an effect of urbanization and global climatic change. Climate change analysis predicts this trend, in tandem with rising sea levels, will continue into the future, so don’t put away those umbrellas anytime soon.

Increasing rainfall may present a problem for the water management of the city. In an urban environment where a lot of terrain is paved and impermeable, there is a limited number of places wherewater can infiltrate the ground. In turn, when sewers and storm drains can’t manage the amount of water entering them, they back up and urban flooding occurs. You can see examples of this every time we have heavy rain, and because of rising precipitation levels and intensities, this is becoming a more common occurrence. There are, however, cities with examples of compelling water systems as a means to remedy this for Vancouver to take inspiration from.

The climate in North-West Europe is also changing: which means more heavy and frequent rainfall, similarly to here in Vancouver. The Netherlands, typically low lying (most of the country is below sea level), is known for its many water-related challenges and inventive solutions for them.

Today, the increase in rainfall means many Dutch cities require water storage to ensure their sewer systems aren’t overloaded. One solution for this the sort of “Water Squares” created by Dutch design firm De Urbanisten. The following images are taken from their excellent website.

School kids playing outside

De Urbanisten’s squares are an inspiring case study of how to provide water storage within the city, to stop urban flooding and take pressure off the sewer system, all while improving urban public space. The squares were originally developed as a conceptual study to examine Rotterdam’s relationship with water, but one square – Benthemplein – has now been built, several designed, and another currently under development.

These gathering spaces are designed to be a useable space both when wet and dry: light rain will only fill parts of the square, but heavier rainfalls will fill up larger storage basins. In the case of Benthemplein, the space functions (when it’s not raining) as an urban space for people to exercise, play and linger. It contains three concrete basins of varying depths which are used as a skate park, a basketball court, and theatre seating in dry weather. During heavy rainfalls the basins fill with water through steel gutters and small waterfalls.

Smart waterfalls

Water is held within the square until the rain has subsided. When the city’s canals have the capacity to take that water again, water from the square will discharge into the nearest waterway and the square makes room for its users once again.

Water squares may not be the only solution to urban flooding, but they certainly provide an inspiring example of coupling infrastructure with public space. They show us that necessary groundwork can double as a design element and become a part of the urban fabric.

Benthemplein Water Square works

You can see more about how the Benthemplein Water Square works here.

– By Nuala O’Donnell. All photos courtesy of De Urbanisten.

What about Vancouver? Should we be looking at a “water square”, or integrating this sort of infrastructure into our public spaces? Got ideas of your own? The VPSN is hosting Make it Rain: A Design Workshop for Rainy Public Spaces this coming Sunday, April 17. The event takes place at the Museum of Vancouver. You should attend! For more information, check out this article.