Green for Blue – Biophilic Urban Waterfronts; Planning for Resilience

Eng. Nadine Bitar
Expert – Smart and sustainable communities -CEO,
Adjunct – American University in Dubai

Blue might be where the impacts of climate change would be mostly felt as marine coral reefs, oceans levels and marine biodiversity are subjected to the increasing pressures of global warming. The global consensus on agenda 2030 announced by the United Nations and the successful COP21 Paris climate change agreements are significant light beacons that would guide us in our seemingly complex situation the earth face. It is nowhere like coasts –one of the fragile ecosystems threatened by rising seawater level- that the battle for resilience could be not only fought but win! This article advocates the importance of Green in Blue to plan for resilience on coasts – Green being the spaces that are necessary to connect with nature and participate in its processes and proposes a new tool for coastal urban developments through the incorporation of biophilic cities in planning and master-planning waterfronts developments.

Blue and Resilience

In resolution 66/207 and in line with the bi-decennial cycle (1976, 1996 and 2016), the United Nations General Assembly announced the Agenda 2030 – an agenda agreed by 156 countries delegations and country representatives on the 25th of September 2015 .

Although the 17 goals are formulated to guide sustainable developments in general on a national, regional and local level, it provides a flexible framework to think about resilience as one of the main principles to support nations, regions and cities sail through what it seems one of the most challenging climate era.

Resilience has been indirectly related to Goals 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6. In ending poverty (Goal 1), the loss of resilience causes greater vulnerability of waterfront communities as they are rendered weak due to Environmental poverty. In the United Nations environment program released an executive note(1) on the environmental dimension of Agenda 2030, environmental poverty is defined by the conditions disrupting access to natural assets, lack of comprehensive resource management and ecosystem degradation.

For ending hunger (Goal 2), the resilience of agricultural coastal lands is a primary condition to achieve food security and also promote sustainable agriculture. As for Good Health and wellbeing (Goal 3), coasts are the cultural landscapes with abundant opportunities for active lifestyle, ensuring healthy lives through active spaces and also promoting the well-being for all at all ages. The marine environment and coasts have been always perceived as the spaces where life skills and ecological knowledge can be acquired- supporting quality Education (Goal 4); each one of us has a memory of a learned skill on the beach flying kites, collecting shellfish or interacting socially. As for decent Work and economic growth (Goal 6), urban waterfronts are associated with economic prosperity and inclusive employments; as early as 3000 B.C., Migrant populations have flocked to harbors forming multi-ethnic communities that traded in between them. As such, waterfronts contribute to economic resilience as they have built knowledge on how to wither structural economic shifts through building international trade routes.

Resilience has been directly mentioned as essential to sustainable cities (Goal 11), Climate action (13), protecting life under the sea and on the land (14, 15) .For Sustainable Cities and communities ( Goal 11), urban waterfronts a form of coastal developments present the first defense line in the resilience of coastal areas ; environmental disaster hitting multiple coasts around the world have mainly affected coastal cities and in particular their urban waterfront .For example, in target 11.b calls to considerably strengthen the role of cities and human settlements in planning and regulating mitigation and adaptation to climate change in addition to resilience to disasters.

However, building the resilience of urban waterfronts developments depend less on the blue and more on the Green as the availability of open green spaces and a network of social and physical infrastructure prove essential to resilience (2). It is around planning the open spaces and protecting habitats and ensuring the reverence of coastal cultural landscape that resilience of urban waterfront developments need to center itself.

So, How we can plan and masterplan for that green? What are the tools to make sure its contribution to the overall coastal resilience is safeguarded?

Green(3) in Blue for Resilience

Recent research in the past decade has been advocating both in environmental science and urban Design circles the importance of integrating nature – such research lead by Timothy Beatly formed the basis for an urban planning and design framework for biophilic cities. Biophilia as defined by Harvard University conservationist E.O. Wilson , describe the ‘’the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms. Innate means hereditary and hence part of ultimate human nature” (4).Building on Wilson definition, in his seminal book on Biophilic cities (5) , Beatley mentioned the key attributes on biophilic cities. In this article, I am conceiving an innovative urban design strategy that can retrofit existing urban waterfronts into resilient coastal developments through embedding within them opportunities to connect with Nature. The proposed urban design strategy would contribute to diverse forms of green and public spaces, contributing to the overall resilience of urban waterfronts and ultimately the coastal regions they belong to. An added value – detrimental for sustainable development – is the awareness of the importance of Nature to the daily life of everyone; through fostering an active connection with nature, residents and visitors would be more willing to contribute to the sustainability of their cities.

Biophilic Urban Waterfronts developments are planned to permit multiple ways to access abundant nature to large numbers of its residents and visitors; the physical network of green spaces and nature at the coastal regional level need to be planned in a way to manifest green commitment over time. Integrating of the different green open spaces and parks and green landscapes into a more holistic ecological network is one of the planning objectives of a regional coastal plan. In particular, Helsinki in Finland adopted an overall network that connects the suburban areas to urban areas in a flowing ecological corridor.

Biophilic Urban Waterfronts are planned to actively reinstate coastal biodiversity; they are green, living and nature-full and thus supports their residents in feeling a deep connection with the local flora, fauna and fungi found, and with the climate, topography, and other special qualities of place that serve to outline this environment . In biophilic urban waterfronts, public green spaces offer opportunities to interact , educate and teach visitors, residents and employees to easily recognize common species of trees, flowers, insects and birds; this awareness would mobilize the society to participate more actively in climate action and climate adaptation initiatives.

Public spaces are natural open spaces that are designed for abundant opportunities to be active through strolling, hiking, bicycling, exploring, and elongating the time spent in sunlight while respecting human comfort limitations; innovative research is needed to explore how such activities can be supported in hot and humid climate. Biophilic waterfronts imped elements to encourage multisensory experiences,

where the sounds of nature (and other sensory experiences), the visual or ocular experience of green are preserved, restored and protected.

Biophilic waterfront celebrate natural forms, shapes, and materials. Waterfronts architectural and urban design elements are inspired by nature’s and are based on the 3.8 billion years of Research and Development that other species of Flora and Fauna have performed so far. Being inspired by Nature to build systems has been the basis of Janine Benyus Work on Biomimicry as she has put forward examples of built structures. In particular, the late Zaha Hadid design for the new performing arts center on Abu Dhabi Waterfront stands as a living proof of how such architecture can take form. She describes it as a movement similar to growing ‘’fruits on a vine ‘’ that gradually develops into spaces as network of successive branches.

Biophilic waterfronts developments educate through deeply connecting with, and helping to steward nature, whether though a nature club, organized tours, fostering a plant or tree, or volunteering for nature restoration projects. As such, it becomes linked socially and technically to its region through knowledge sharing and awareness programs. They to limit the impact of resource use on nature and biodiversity beyond their urban borders and take steps to actively support the conservation of local ecosystems and habitats. Port Vell in Barcelona adopted a strategy for biophilic activities; the port contains an aquarium hosting multiple activities to spread awareness about marine life in addition to sophisticated environmental systems to limit impact on nature.

Recommendations and Conclusions

Resilience is an increasingly important theme in an era of Climate change. Agenda 2030 and its subsequent Sustainable Development Goals announced in 2015 have tackled directly how resilient coastal urban development’s contribute to the sustainability of urban communities ( goal 11) in order to take climate action ( goal 13) and protect land and sea ( goal 14, 15). Resilient costal urban development assists indirectly the fight to end poverty and hunger (goal 1, 2), provides education, jobs and improves health and improve infrastructure (goal 3, 4, 8, 9). However , the resilience of coastal urban developments depend essentially on the Green rather than the blue .As such, urban waterfronts need to be planned as biophilic developments , fostering a deeper connection with nature , offering opportunities for an active lifestyle and becoming a living lab for biodiversity and environmental integrity. Biophilic urban waterfronts are places where by developing a deeper connection with nature, its residents, visitors and employees contribute actively to their sustainability.

Biophilic urbanism models need to be developed specifically for the hot and humid climate and also the desert environment in order to propose innovative solutions on how we can plan waterfront developments to connect earth, sea and sky for them to outlast beyond 2030.


  • Executive note – United Nations Environment Assembly – retrieved April 2016
  • Arup – cities resilience framework – published online – 2014 – retrieved April 2015
  • Green here refers to sustainable, open and natural -although there needs to be a research into an alternative term that embraces desert environment and hot climate where green is not very sustainable
  • Wilson, “Biophilia and the Conservation Ethic,” in The Biophilia Hypothesis, 1993
  • Beatley, Timothy ,’Biophilic Cities : Integrating Nature into Urban design and Planning’’, Island Press, 2010
  • Check my previous article –Innovative Solutions for Sustainable Cities Development - for-sustainability/innovative-solutions-for-cities-sustainable-development.php
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