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We'll take it

11 Oct 2023 | News Roundup

Climate change is very trendy. Which isn’t to say that people who link their favourite cause to it are cynical. They may just be alert to opportunities. But also prone to a herd mentality. In any case, when we read that Montreal aims to become a “sponge city” in order “to respond to the climate crisis” our view is that we’ll take it even if the rationale is fatuous, because as we have explained, the increasing frequency and severity of urban flooding due to poor municipal planning is a real issue even if the connection with climate is spurious.

According to the Montreal Gazette:

“Montrealers will be hearing the term ‘sponge city’ a lot more in the coming years…. On Tuesday, the city announced it would add 30 so-called sponge parks, also known as water squares, over the next year and add 400 sponge sidewalks. The infrastructure is particularly useful during major rain events, like the July 13 storm that caused flash flooding in parts of the city.

And indeed it is. A telling detail about flooding is that it has become more common in cities in recent decades but not in rural areas. Logically it must be because either (a) global warming only happens in cities or (b) it’s not global warming, it’s covering absorbent soil and meadows with asphalt and cement and wondering why the water pools, runs in torrents and washes stuff away.

Right. It’s (b). Although the fact that most warming measurements come from cities where things like asphalt and cement also trap heat along with water shouldn’t be entirely ignored. But one thing at a time.

It is remarkable the degree to which cities have been built as if the purpose was to cause destructive floods. They are located in river valleys and on floodplains. And you just need to walk down a street, or through a parking lot, or look up at the roofs of buildings to see that almost no opportunity has been missed to eliminate porosity and absorption.

Why, to take a very simple example, are those concrete tree boxes not bottomless? Why don’t parking lots use that hexagonal interlocking cement with soil in the gaps, or at least have bottomless plant or sign boxes between rows? And if you’re wondering why a city would be built on a sponge, or a sidewalk would be made from one, and whether the potential for twisted ankles and shredded sponges doesn’t loom large, well, it’s a trendy urban-planning term for, gosh, imagine that, “green spaces that naturally absorb excess rainfall instead of draining the water directly into neighbourhood sewers.”

Sounds like a park to us. Or something you didn’t pave. Or even, dare we say it, a meadow, a more holistic garden or “verge” between roads that is not mowed and fertilized in a desperate quest to create a golf green or billiard table instead of some messy annoying nature with those vexing butterflies and bees and crickets destined not for your stomach but some bird’s.

The CBC quoted a Montreal city press release declaring in dazed wonder that “The impact of heavy rainfall can be reduced by redirecting water to the river, retaining it until the sewer system is available, or gradually releasing it through the ground”. Yes. Very good. It can indeed. A century of urban planning later, it dawns on the experts who say.

Naturally there’s a bunch of red tape around green spaces. And so, that story adds,

“boroughs wanting sponge parks will have to meet the city’s standards before they get the green light. ‘We’re adding the criteria of adaptation to climate change for renovating certain parks,’ said [Montreal Mayor Valérie] Plante.”

No doubt. But as we said above, we can put up with a certain amount of man-with-a-hammer or in this case woman if the result is sensible policies. (Including again holistic agriculture.) According to the Gazette:

“Speaking at the Adaptation Futures international conference on climate change, Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante said sponge infrastructure is “no magic wand,” but one action among others, like renovating sewers systems, that need to be taken together to mitigate the effects of climate change.”

Imagine justifying renovating sewers because of climate change not because busted sewers are expensive, disgusting and unsanitary. Imagine also tapping some other level of government to fund a bunch of it, especially as this story is Canadian.

Maclean’s naturally found someone to say that we need sponge cities because traditional urban planning is lousy at dealing with floods and it’s all the fault of climate change, which the teaser also tried to tie to a recent flash flood in totally paved New York City.

Still, if we’re going to get sensible wastewater and runoff management at long last, we’ll put up with the climate label and trendy terminology.

P.S. Reuters tries to convince us that New York City was flooded by climate change with all the usual tropes including “Systems producing intense rainfalls such as Friday’s have become more common in many parts of the U.S., including the New York City area. Global warming has produced more extreme weather patterns in much of the world, according to climate scientists.” Not including the IPCC, but why quibble? The main point is that “The rain capped one of New York’s wettest Septembers on record, with 13.74 inches (34.9 cm) of rain falling during the month as of 11 a.m. on Friday, and more on the way, said Dominic Ramunni, a National Weather Service forecaster. The all-time high was set in 1882 when 16.82 inches (42.72 cm) fell in September.” But that was just weather. This was climate.

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