Bibs up: protecting the streets

Melting ice caps - to some the notion of global warming is nothing more than ‘hippies spreading doom and gloom’ but the truth is, global warming is a real threat to life as we know it on Earth. With sea-levels rising due to melting ice caps many of the biggest cities in the world could become flooded, New York is one such city.

Some researches even suggest that in 200 years, Manhattan could look like Venice. If that was happening right now, 8 million people would have to pack up their lives and move away from their once beautiful Manhattan apartments.

But it isn’t happening now, leaving the problem for future generations isn’t an option either. Prevention is better than cure at the end of the day, while we still have time to fine tune technologies and throw around ideas.

This is where Tingwei Xu and Xie Zhang of the University of Pennsylvania comes in. These two students have come up with a rather quirky, yet innovative idea to safeguard New York against these floods. They think that New York can protect itself much like a mother protecting a baby’s clothes from food spills: by strapping on a bib.

In their vision an intelligent, lace-like membrane would be draped over building bases in low-lying parts of the city, guarding precious infrastructure from incoming floods. The membrane would feature a “transforming surface” that would adapt to different weather conditions, offering more protection when it’s wet out and less when it’s dry. It’d also be planted with trees and other flora, which can form a natural barrier against floodwater.

Hurricane Katrina made it glaringly obvious that traditional “hard infrastructure” (i.e. a levee system) fails. Many architects and engineers now believe that instead of trying to form a bulwark against flooding, cities should embrace it, while trying to soften its effects. They propose doing that with what they call “soft infrastructure”--sponge-like sidewalks, marshes, man made islands, and other absorbent surfaces that can slow storm surges and soak up excess water. But these surfaces don’t dry out the streets altogether. However this would still leave many people living in extremely close quarters with water, not something that most would be comfortable with.

A giant bib for New York seems to split the difference: It would allow the streets to flood at the same time that it would safeguard the city’s buildings (and, importantly, the people inside of them).

At this point we have to ask ourselves is this idea completely insane? The honest answer is yes, but didn’t most great innovations happen while jeering crowds called the inventors crazy? The point is that there is ideas going around which will probably save lives from a flood of our doing.

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