I’ve just returned from two wet weeks in northern England visiting my family for the holidays. Let’s just say it was wet. Very wet.
Over the last few weeks, England has suffered historic floods with no end in sight. The evening news showed town centers such as Kendal, Carlisle, Appleby, Leeds, and Manchester inundaded. Talking with the old farmers around Sedbergh who have lived on the land for decades, they cannot recall the rivers being so high, or in flood for so long. Their memory is born out by the sight of medieval bridges that have seen centuries of water flow under their arches being washed away. And of course, it’s born out by the rainfall gauges that are recording record totals day after day, week after week.
We ventured out onto the fell in one storm and could see the fields come alive with traces of rivers and streams where none normally existed. Every drop of rain fell on saturated ground creating sheet flow across the fields until it found or created a channel to rush onward to the rivers which quickly rose to fill their banks. For a few hours, Sedbergh was cut off as the main road flooded and in Kendal the river broke its banks and flooded the homes yet again.
But despite all of this, Sedbergh was spared the floods. Why?
Sedbergh is a small market town set in the northern part of the Yorkshire Dales. And while the river flooded a few holiday caravans, the town was spared because of where it’s located. The town itself has grown nestled along the base of the Howgill fells, set back from the river. My hunch is this happy accident is a result of open land being maintained along the river because it’s largely owned by two schools – Sedbergh School (founded in 1545) and the local state school, Settlebeck. Rather than develop the land, it’s been maintained as estate land and sports fields. Not only does it provide a great place to walk or kick a ball about, or raise a few sheep, but it’s a natural source of flood protection that needs little in the way of maintenance.
We need to do what we can to protect open space that provides flood protection where it exists – it’s simply crazy to continue to issue building permits for land we know will flood. But the recent floods in Britain also force us to think the previously unthinkable — to recreate openspace where it once existed. The alternative is to further harden our cities at vast expense, with the inevitable consquence that when the concrete fails the impact will be catastrophic.
A long-time friend was visiting for New Year with his family. He’s an actuary working for one of the UK’s largest insurace companies. While he doesn’t work in the property market, he’s come to the same conclusion from a financial risk perspective. Namely that it’s time to have a serious conversation about managing retreat and giving back a little of our developed footprint to nature. It’s going to be a hard conversation – but after some homes have flooded three-times in a month, it’s a conversation we desperately need to have.
And with record floods in the southern USA, sea level encroaching on Miami Beach during high tides, and El Nino poised to slam into California, it’s a conversation needed around the world.
[An interactive 3D model of Sedbergh and it’s projected flood zones was developed by Garsdale Design and can be viewed online here.]