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The Shape of Water

The Water Institute and Tulane team on a waterfront plan in Argentina
By Maggie Heyn Richardson
South of Argentina’s cosmopolitan capital of Buenos Aires is the city of Quilmes, a port city with a half million people situated on the Río de la Plata. The widest river in the world, the Río de la Plata flows past Buenos Aires, Quilmes and other coastal communities before joining forces with the Atlantic Ocean. The riverfront makes up some of Argentina’s most densely populated areas.

Quilmes, best known as the home of the popular South American beer, Cerveza Quilmes, finds itself at a crossroads today. A growing number of developers see the city’s industrial riverfront as ripe for transformation. They look north to Buenos Aires where a portion of the Rio de la Plata’s frontage was converted to a wildly popular development called Puerto Madero Waterfront. Home to world-class hotels, chic condominiums and pricey retail, the area is a desirable address for the wealthy and a popular spot for international tourists.

Tulane’s Iñaki Alday
Tulane’s Iñaki Alday

It’s an enviable model, but in Quilmes, it could spell disaster if handled without a holistic approach. The waterfront and its environs come with a thorny mix, including the presence of slaughterhouses and industrial facilities and a shortage of affordable housing. Regular flooding occurs in this low-lying area, bringing misery to the city’s large number of make-shift neighborhoods.

Now, as part of its growing body of international applied research, The Water Institute of the Gulf is teaming with the Tulane University School of Architecture on a project intended to bring cohesion, equity and safety to a future Quilmes waterfront plan. In early June, the Baton Rouge Area Foundation announced a $75,000 grant to support the work, which could be a game-changer for Quilmes residents while showcasing the growing reach of the Water Institute and its partners.

The Foundation originally launched the Water Institute to provide independent science for implementing the Louisiana Coastal Master Plan, a strategy to combat wetlands loss and rising seas in the state’s coastal communities. Now a stand-alone science institute, it has expanded its work around the globe, offering solutions to deltaic communities in Fiji, Vietnam and Chile, with more recent collaborations with science organiza-tions in Israel, the Netherlands, France and Samoa.

“This project in Argentina represents another incredible opportunity to bring the best of The Water Institute of the Gulf and Tulane University to make a difference in coastal commu-nities that are experiencing all sorts of pressures,” says Justin Ehrenwerth, Water Institute president and CEO. “This is an applied research project that brings the best available science along with cutting-edge landscape architecture together in coastal Argentina.”

The Water Institute and Tulane have partnered before on projects, but this is the first between the research institute and the university’s School of Architecture. The project came about in part through the work of the school’s recently appointed dean, Iñaki Alday, a renowned global architect whose career focus has been on the relationship between cities and waterbodies, and how to integrate natural phenomena, including flooding, into design.

“The Baton Rouge Area Foundation provided a $75,000 grant to The Water Institute and Tulane to start the master plan for Quilmes, Argentina. The Foundation created The Water Institute, which now stands on its own, to provide solutions for adapting to shifting coasts around the world.”
Through their Barcelona-based design firm, AldayJover, Alday and partner Margarita Jover have developed an international reputation for designing buildings and public spaces that can accept environmental challenges instead of working against them. For example, they have found ways to create spaces that can take on a certain level of flooding, rather than treating rising water as a catastrophe. The two have become thought leaders in design principles built on social equity and economic sustain-ability. Most recently, they were each on the faculty of the University of Virginia. Like Alday, Jover is now a new faculty member in the School of Architecture at Tulane.

The Quilmes project gets off the ground in August when researchers from Tulane and the Water Institute will make an initial visit to the city to gather data and conduct site visits. The team will review the current conditions and the impact of potential interventions to create scenarios for the city and its residents to consider. These scenarios may include recommending changes to existing land-use plans and working to develop a unified vision for the entire waterfront to achieve the long-term vibrancy of the city.

A major goal of the project is to transform an area of heavy industry along the coast into new pockets of affordable housing, parks and plazas. Since flooding is a big factor, creating a plan that softens the blow of routine high water events is a key design consideration, says Alday.

“The plan will be to partner with the municipality on how ecosystems and river dynamics can play a role in sustainable development, especially now that flood events are happening more often,” Alday says. “Quilmes is looking for guidance about how water events and coastline development can be brought together in the holistic planning of a public space. We want to help create a call to action in terms of how to deal with development pressure in a delicate area.”

The project will happen in two phases; the first will focus on portions of a swath of coastline along the Río de la Plata targeted for development. The prevailing goal of this phase will be to create design strategies that will be sensitive to the area’s deli-cate natural balance. The second phase, which will take place next spring, is meant to look at the network of smaller streams and bodies of water throughout the city that flood regularly. This network crisscrosses vulnerable, densely populated areas that lack basic infrastructure. At times, these areas can take on between 3 and 5 feet of water, says Alday. Flooding also spreads industrial trash and pollutants here to an alarming degree.

The research team is taking a holistic approach with the project, says Alday. The Water Institute team, led by Scott Hemmerling, will bring GIS modeling and hard and social science to the project, while the Tulane team will examine design strategies that factor in economic, environmental and social equity considerations. These data and design ideas will be synthesized and presented as a series of possible findings of what the future could look like.

The applied research will be considered open-source and is intended to help the Quilmes community in its future decision making.