Droplets of happiness

Green projects
Blue-green infrastructure has become an essential part of sustainable urban planning. As the global climate crisis and dwindling natural resources become more pressing, it’s crucial to find solutions for saving water and preserving the environment – by rethinking how to design our cities so that they can function in harmony with nature

Few of us (hopefully) no longer deny that climate change is taking place, but due to it we are also becoming more accustomed to extreme weather events, such as floods and droughts. As a result, factors such as the management of rainwater now have to be taken into account in the design of new buildings as well as in the modernisation projects for those that already exist. The floodings of cities and settlements in recent years, which have been exacerbated by inadequate sewerage and drainage systems as well as rising temperatures caused by urban heat islands, provide us with just two examples of the dangers resulting from infrastructure that fails to meet current challenges.

Better than bog-standard

“Climate change is having an impact on the entire water cycle, and so managing rainwater has become crucial to adapting cities to this new reality. As a result, developers and investors are also faced with a new situation to deal with. This is not just a responsibility, but also an opportunity to create more sustainable cities that are more resilient to climate change,” argues Anita Dumicz of SRDK Studio Projekt. Dariusz Malinowski, the owner of the Malinowski Design architectural studio, agrees: “Measures to capture rainwater where it falls are being increasingly employed, so it is no longer collected in tanks or drained off into the sewers. The approach up until now that was based only on sanitation systems as an outlet for excess rain is no longer sufficient. It is now necessary for naturalists, landscape architects, hydrologists and geologists to work together to create a sustainable rainwater management system based on the natural local conditions – what is generally known as a sustainable urban drainage system (SuDS),” he explains. Such a system primarily focuses on the benefits that rainwater can bring and only then on how to responsibly manage any excess rainfall. More often than not, however, it’s not having enough water that’s the problem. “Nature has a natural capacity for its retention and absorption, depending on the water and soil conditions and the blue-green infrastructure in place. As the name suggests, this is a hybrid system and the two aspects of it should not be treated separately. Only by bringing them together can we benefit from the enormous natural potential of rainfall. Examples of such solutions include green retention roofs, which are able to completely absorb rain even when it is intermittent, while there are also ‘bog roofs’. However, these have so far been very under-appreciated in Poland – probably because of the name,” admits Dariusz Malinowski.

New building materials with greater absorption properties are becoming more popular in the construction of roads and pavements. This results in around 50–70 pct less water flowing into separators and more penetrating the ground. This is made possible by openings and expansion joints within the surface or by the porous nature of the material from which it was made. Dariusz Malinowski also believes that it is important to create wetlands that have huge water retention capabilities and ensure biodiversity. “Marshlands are home to many types of animals, insects and plants. If such habitats exist in cities, they are incubators that are full of life,” he claims.

Water, water everywhere

One Polish project where the creators have focused on managing water the right way is FSO Park in Warsaw, which is being developed by Okam. The green space alone will take up 20 ha of the 62 ha site, of which 10 ha will comprise a public park, while vegetation is to be planted around the buildings and on the roofs. As Anna Watkowska, the director of the management board of Okam City, explains: “The comprehensive vision for the project is to employ a host of solutions in response to the increasing pollution of the environment and the extensive use of concrete. At FSO Park, the rainwater is to be entirely managed through the use of a wide range of blue-green infrastructure, such as rain gardens, infiltration basins, ditches, retention ponds and underground seepage tanks.” The system also includes adding water features to the area. “The water level will vary depending on the time of year and the weather conditions. During prolonged droughts, the retention tanks can be used to water the green areas and suitable plant species are to be chosen for this,” adds Anna Watkowska, who also points out that FSO Park is being developed so that it will counteract the urban heat island effect. It will also have improved air and acoustic qualities. The greenery will help in the natural filtration of the air of dust and harmful chemicals, while increasing oxygen levels and reducing temperatures. The area, which apart from its 19,000 human residents is currently ecologically inactive, will provide a home for many species of birds and insects. And to keep the project’s carbon footprint at a relatively low level despite the scale of the venture, heat and electricity is to be supplied by alternative energy sources.

FSO Park is probably one of the largest developments that is currently under construction in Poland where climate goals are being pursued on so many levels. However, the development of large residential projects where water is not wasted has been taking place for several years. One of these, according to Dariusz Malinowski, is the Mokotów Park estate in Warsaw, which was built on a rather problematic 3.5 ha site. The system we designed and built, which captures all the rainfall on the site, has now been in operation for the last 15 years. Another such project is the Kłobucka estate, also in Warsaw, where on a site of over 6 ha,100 pct of the rain is captured and returned to its natural cycle.”

Where’s the change coming from?

Even though Poland is hardly at the back of the pack in the race for a blue medal, it still has a lot to do to catch up with other European countries. Analysts point out that sustainable initiatives are mainly continuing to take place in Poland’s cities. “The most significant changes can be seen in large cities, such as Warsaw, Kraków and Wrocław, where city parks are being built as well as rain gardens, green roofs and walls, depending on the area and the access to financing. We are mainly concentrating on managing cities’ water resources by reinforcing rivers, lakes and other natural water courses as well as creating as retention pools and infiltration lakes. Even though Poland still has room for improvement compared to other countries, clear progress can be seen here as the awareness of these issues grows,” insists Anna Watkowska. She goes on to mention that the Scandinavian countries are among the leaders in the field of blue-green architecture as well as The Netherlands, while Dariusz Malinowski suggests that we take a look just over the western border. “In Germany, conserving nature is an approach so common that no one can remember how to do design work in any other way. Curiously, the law over there is less restrictive than in Poland. So clearly, the change in approach begins with heightened awareness and not with the legislation,” points out Dariusz Malinowski.

In Poland, the Ecologic Institute and the Sendzimir Foundation published a guidebook five years ago entitled ‘Blue-Green Infrastructure for the Mitigation of Climate Change in Cities - Strategic Tools’. In it, as well as specific technical recommendations, it lists a number of relevant projects that have already been completed in Germany. One is Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, where a system of artificial ponds and wetlands has been created over an area of more than a hectare and connected to other types of green and grey infrastructure. Water features account for as much as 1.2 ha of the space and also includes 0.18 ha of natural habitats. The blue infrastructure is supplied exclusively by rainwater, which reduces the temperature in summer, binds with dust particles, and humidifies the air. The rainwater collected from roofs is purified by the natural habitats, filtered, and then stored in underground tanks. This is later used for toilets and fire safety systems as well as to water the greenery. Another example of a project where water is not only efficiently managed but also pleasing on the eye, is the Biberland rain playground in Hamburg. In 1997 and 2002, a local school was flooded by heavy rainfall, so measures were taken to protect the surrounding buildings. Water was then routed through various channels and cascading reservoirs. Some of the water was allowed to be absorbed into the ground, thus relieving the pressure on sewer systems. Such water parks can take the form of squares, skateparks or even basketball courts, allowing play and recreation even on rainy days while preventing the area from flooding.

Furthermore, since the 1990s a number of other projects have been developed in Germany, including a network of green ventilation corridors in Stuttgart, woonerfs in the Vauban district of Freiburg, an artificial urban wetland in the Duisburg-Nord Park, as well as the Jenfelder Au environmental district in Hamburg. The latter project, completed in 2022, was the first large-scale development based on the holistic Hamburg Water Cycle programme aimed at providing sustainable rainwater management systems and climate-neutral housing development.

Don’t just save water

Despite the growing environmental awareness and increasingly strict legislation (for example, governing ESG reporting), it seems that investors and contractors have not yet developed the procedures or the habits to treat blue-green infrastructure as a priority – even though the benefits of such an approach are not only long-term but global. Dariusz Malinowski claims that it pays off to first analyse the area where a project is planned and then introduce solutions suitable to the specific circumstances. “It is often a basic mistake to completely disregard the strengths and advantages of the site itself. Evaluating the ground and water conditions is absolutely fundamental. What is needed here is a change in thinking and a comprehensive approach. This topic has to be discussed at the concept stage and not after planning permission has been granted. We need to remember that well thought-out and well-designed blue-green infrastructure not only leads to savings for a project’s budget, but also reduces operating costs, which are extremely important for future users. Increasing the attractiveness of an area generates genuine interest from investors, businessmen and consumers,” insists Dariusz Malinowski.

Anna Watkowska of FSO Park, on the other hand, estimates that by installing a grey water recovery system, a project’s water consumption can be reduced by an average of 40 pct, while the use of ventilation, heating, cooling and energy recovery systems is likely to reduce the demand for heat from the grid by up to 100 pct in the summer and by over a third in the winter.

Letting nature get on with it

For those projects where bodies of water and vegetation play such an important role, the impact of their surroundings on our well-being also has to be considered. After all, wherever nature is allowed to thrive, this is simply often a nicer place to live. As well as housing, FSO Park will also include educational facilities along with retail and office space. Thus, thousands of people will be living, working, shopping and schooling in the new district – and their well-being needs have to be addressed. “Along with the measures taken to alleviate climate change, the solutions we employ will naturally affect the quality of life of those who become attached to this part of Warsaw,” emphasises Anna Watkowska. She also reveals that the former factory site where the work is currently underway, for the time being mostly comprises car parks, roads, building sites and railway tracks, so the total impermeable surface still comes to about 90 pct of the area. It will certainly be some time before it becomes a green centre for work, leisure and entertainment. According to the developer’s masterplan, the entire project could take up to 25 years to complete.

The climate is heating up at such a rapid pace that every project that allows nature to flourish should be worth its weight in gold. The environment should be supported by changes in technology rather than controlled or constrained by this. And if places can be created that are pleasant to be in, that would make them even better. “I’m sure that we are all able to appreciate beauty. We know what’s healthy and good for us and what stresses us out and makes us feel tired. In design, all we need to do is stop pretending to use natural solutions. Instead of just ‘going green’, let’s create the perfect conditions for nature thrive,” declares Dariusz Malinowski, the owner of the Malinowski Design architectural studio.