Water Sensitive Urban Design – too good an opportunity to miss?

Written By: Associate, CIRIA

The challenges of delivering effective, efficient and reliable water and wastewater services are well understood. That said, it is often far more rewarding to exploit opportunities than spend time overcoming challenges to maintain the status quo.

For too long in the UK water has been seen as a problem, best left out of sight and therefore out of mind. However, well designed and managed water features can enhance our urban environments in cities adding to sustainability and the overall quality of life, places and spaces.

Water Sensitive Urban Design (WSUD), originally an Australian concept, recognises the opportunities by attractively integrating water into urban development and planning from the earliest stages to maximise the possibilities for sensitive water cycle management. This holistic and inclusive approach flips practitioners’ mindsets from a pessimistic view of water being problematic to those of positively exploiting opportunities.

WSUD can be synonymous with sustainable urban water management and integrated water cycle management which encourages ‘big-picture’ and positive thinking about the water cycle. This includes managing potable (drinking) water, surface water, wastewater (sewage and grey water), as well as natural watercourses. It is this integrated approach and the consideration of water supply and wastewater that differentiates WSUD from how Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) are defined in the UK.

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WSUD is a seductively simple concept, but complex in delivery as it focuses on the relationship and synergies between urban design, development, liveability, ecosystems, landscape, and the urban water cycle. It challenges our traditional approach to water management and design processes.

In the UK, good practice relating to sustainable drainage and water efficiency is relatively patchy, it’s even more unusual to find examples where the water cycle is managed holistically where water efficiency and SuDS are combined on mainstream developments.

However, Water Cycle Studies could provide a framework to consider a more integrated approach to water management. Around 80 Water Cycle Studies have been produced in partnership with water utilities and communities by Local Planning Authorities to determine the timing, location and requirement of sustainable water infrastructure and integrate it within the local planning framework. A Water Cycle Study will often flag the requirement for integrated water management, rather than provide guidance on delivery. Water Sensitive Urban Design and its holistic approach to masterplanning, detailed design, delivery and management will be essential in delivering the vision and strategy in water cycle studies and create fantastic places for people to live, work and play.

With the changes in the planning process introduced by the Coalition Government removing Regional Spatial Strategies focussing more on local growth, incentives and development there has been a decline in the production of formal Water Cycle Studies. It also remains to be seen what impact the Water White Paper and National Planning Policy Framework has on our approach to managing water. The consultation draft of the NPPF rightly makes mention of flood risk and sustainable drainage, however little regard is made to water availability, water quality and the contribution water can make to our general quality of life. (The consultation is still open).

While there is a potential commitment to sustainable drainage, the transition to sustainable water management and WSUD seems to be a harder sell. CIRIA who faced these similar challenges with SuDS and with support from small pockets of the industry is in the process of fundraising for a Scoping Study on WSUD recognising the opportunities that the UK with its cycle of drought and floods and concerns about diffuse water pollution should fully exploit.

For more information visit:  www.ciria.org/suds

Tweet Paul Shaffer @sudsulike


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