Sunday, 1 July 2007

Flooding: the little boy and the dyke

The British talk about weather a lot: weather affects everyone and its very changeability gives us constant material for small talk. And, unlike politics, it’s a safe subject that nearly everyone can agree – and moan - about.

I have been asked why, as a landscape architect, I describe myself as a garden designer on this website. Well, many landscape architects like myself do design gardens too, but mostly it's because I find that a great number of people confuse 'landscape architect' with 'landscape contractor'. The former designs outdoor spaces; the latter physically implements such designs.

So excuse me now if I put on my professional hat and have a mildly political rant about the interaction between landscape design and the weather. Generally Britain has a mild climate and we can usually take the seasonal highs or low in our stride. But the very occasional whirlwind, earthquake, snowstorm or hurricane take us very unawares and find us totally unprepared.

In April this year we had weather that was better than is usual for June; in June we had not only April showers but some areas of England had appalling spring floods. For most of us it's been annoying but for some homeowners it's been disastrous.

However, there have always been floods and the fact that these seem more frequent and excessive is to some extent down to changes in planning policies, farming practice and lack of sustainable design.

Government policy has encouraged out-of-town shopping complexes with acres of non-porous parking surfaces; town and parish councils have not objected to housing with hard outdoor surfaces in place of free-draining ones. As a result the water goes straight into the drains and the rivers: when these rivers break their banks where does the water go.

For many years now district councils have given permission for developers to build on flood plains and sports grounds and landowners have drained water meadows. Historically these would have coped with most flood threats as large open areas of grass and gravel allow the water to drain away slowly.

Admittedly, recent floods are due to unusual rainfall but the traditional methods of controlling flooding could possibly have minimized the present damage in some areas.

It takes a disaster or two before policies and practices change and the current pre-occupation with global warming may be just the thing to get the policy makers and planners to pull their fingers out.

But it's not all down to the big boys: everywhere one can see the green grass of home covered with asphalt, paving blocks and stones (those landscape contractors again). This all adds to water run-off and the risk of flood. So part of the solution is in everyone's hands.

It was only a little boy that stuck his finger in the dyke and saved the land from flooding.


Book Note: weather is often used as a device in fiction. Many novelists – Jane Austen or Thomas Hardy for example - used descriptions of weather to impart a mood or sense of foreboding to great effect.
If we work indoors we tend to think of the weather as something that's going on 'outside' and, as we communicate with the wider world from the comfort of our computer chair, we sometimes forget that before the days of the car or the aeroplane the weather impinged on people's lives to a greater extent.
Perhaps this is why 'weather' is so often alluded to in historical novels: is it used less in modern novels?


Susan G said...

Lucy, thanks for all the good reading! You are very faithful in posting, and all your interests interest me too.

Lucy said...

Thank you for your kind words, Susan: so glad to know there's someone out there!

Carla said...

I gather that changes in farming patterns affect flooding too; drains cut in upland areas in attempts to increase the grazing capacity have the effect of dumping rainwater into rivers much more quickly instead of holding it in the giant sponge of an upland bog. (Upland-breeding wading birds don't much like the faster drainage either).

Weather played a much more important role in people's lives before modern technology separated most of us from it, so a historical novel that never mentioned the weather would feel odd to me. I don't know if it's mentioned less in modern novels - interesting question!

Lucy said...

Carla, Thanks for your interest: where even minor environmental changes are made it's surprising the unforseen knock-on effects (your unhappy waders for example)that occur.