Vancouverites are presented with a perfect opportunity to re-imagine the future of our climate-resilient infrastructure, starting with the iconic seawall.
The Vancouver seawall is home to the world’s longest uninterrupted waterfront path. The recent storm that hit our coast in January has left two key sections of Metro Vancouver seawalls crumbled.
The urgent question that remains is how we are going to repair this crucial structure that has provided an amenity for Vancouver residents.
“I will probably be advocating that we start planning for the future now and spending wisely instead of trying to rebuild what we had because tragically, it won’t just happen this one time,” said John Irwin, Vancouver park board commissioner.
Irwin’s comment echoes the reality that coastal cities like Vancouver will have to tackle in the face of climate change. Storms will continue to intensify and happen more frequently. The government of B.C. has estimated the sea level will likely rise one metre by 2100.
“Water is going to rise. We can’t ignore it. It’s coming even if we could stop emitting CO2 right now, the water is still going to rise. It’s a problem that we have to deal with,” said Susan Allen, a physical oceanographer at UBC Earth and Ocean Sciences.
The city of Vancouver is also in search of a solution that can be crafted for our seawall. The city has launched an initiative called The Sea2City Design Challenge (Sea2City) in 2020 with the goal of creating a framework for the False Creek floodplain. It is part of the Coastal Adaption Plan that will take several years for additional research, planning, technical design and public engagement.
Other coastal-protection strategies have been implemented in some parts of the world.
In Australia, an initiative called Living Seawalls was led by a team of scientists who created marine-grade cement panels using 3D printing technology. Subsequently, these panels were installed as parts of the Sydney Harbour seawall in 2018. The panels provide a habitat for organisms to take shelter and a substrate for filter feeders to grow on. In return, these creatures filter the water in the area, strengthen the structure of the seawall and increase biodiversity.
Another similar project has taken place in Fort Pierce, a city on the east coast of Florida, a team of researchers at Florida Atlantic University came up with a similar concept based on the mangrove-root system. Their retrofit panels contain a mixture of shellfish and sandstone creating a thriving habitat for oysters.
These solutions help to mitigate the problem but they don’t address the root cause of the problem, which is climate change. Some critics even call them a band-aid solution.
The overwhelming majority of scientists and a significant majority of the general public believe climate change is real.
But at an individual level, we are often unwilling to take steps on our own to reduce our carbon footprint. At a collective level, we are not acting quick enough on adopting measures to address the sea-level rise that threatens our coastal communities. The hold-up is a result of a long-standing perception that industrialized countries in the global north contribute more to global warming but it is the global south that will bear the brunt of climate change. It partly explains why we are slow to act and adopt appropriate measures even with warning signs.
“It’s hard to envision that it can hit you directly. It’s always the global south that will bear the consequences of climate change. We’re being caught flat-footed,” said Irwin.
Still, the storm has given us a great opportunity to revamp and rebuild an important infrastructure that has been serving our city and people. And perhaps, the seawall also provides a common ground for us to start having a meaningful conversation and preparing for an action plan about the future of coastal communities in the age of climate change and sea-level rise.
“It’s a slow-moving problem. We have time,” said Allen at UBC. “It’s not like a storm surge was just coming tomorrow. There is lots of warning. That gives us time to have a discourse on what the options are and to put in place whatever we decide to do,”