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Unitec Professor Collaborates on Global Climate Change Project

  • Unitec Professor Collaborates on Global Climate Change Project

At the end of 2023, Dr Matthew Bradbury spent four months at the Politecnico de Milano, working on a research project in Agro Pontino – a vast reclaimed wetland south of Rome. The focus? To investigate and address future flooding and help develop innovative remediation strategies.

Climate change is one of the most significant issues to affect our built environment. In Dr Matthew Bradbury’s world, the core focus of his research centres around the impact of climate change on urban design. 

Every year, the Politecnico de Milano in Italy hosts a visiting research professor. In 2023, Dr Bradbury  was invited to spend four months working in the prestigious DABC Nest programme at Politecnico di Milano. The collaborative initiative produced a ground-breaking climate change project for Agro Pontino – work that will influence urban remediation and managed retreat projects worldwide. 


Working from the ground up

Agro Pontino was known for thousands of years as the Pontine Marshes. It took many attempts at reclamation over hundreds of years before the Italian government drained the marshes, cleared the vegetation, and settled thousands of families on new farms and new cities – Latina, Sabaudia and Pontinia.

In 2018, one of the cities and the surrounding rural area experienced significant flooding. 

“Like many reclaimed wetland areas, with climate change, the whole Agro Pontino drainage system is starting to crack,” says Dr Bradbury.

The research aim was to start looking at what appropriate nature-based strategies could help build resilience to these problems. 

After four months of intensive investigation with colleagues Cristina Pallini, Aleksa Korolija and Emanuela Margione, the group presented its findings at a research seminar, Managed Retreat: Designing for Flood Resilience in the Era of Climate Change, at Politecnico de Milano.


International collaboration and engagement

After spending time on the ground in Agro Pontino, speaking with local experts and surveying the impacts of flooding, the research team returned to Milan. They continued investigating the history of reclamation and critical environmental issues, particularly flooding, and other important work in the Netherlands.  

“The Dutch government has been working on a programme called Room for the Rivers since 2017,” explains Dr Bradbury. “Three huge rivers run through the Netherlands, and rather than relying on stop banks which become overwhelmed by increasing rain, the government and multidisciplinary teams, including landscape architects, are widening the rivers and removing houses and farms to build new river channels and flood plains.” 

Dr Bradbury also spoke with Dr John Reid, a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Canterbury’s Ngai Tahu Research Centre, who added an indigenous perspective to the discussion, particularly around rising sea levels in Otautahi and how the city is “slowly turning back into a wetland.”


Local research has global impact

The project was a success. The seminar was not only a chance for the research teams to present their research, but also a forum for experts around the world to contribute their expertise to help the citizens of Agro Pontino mitigate the effects of flooding. 

The experience has got Dr Bradbury thinking about the “bigger picture” for Auckland.
“Traditionally, the concept of managed retreat has meant people leaving their homes and relocating,” he explains. 

“After the flooding in 2023, that’s already happening in some Auckland areas. But where will we go? The areas of safe, dry and affordable land in Auckland are few and far between. Are there other more proactive strategies we should be considering?”


Taking a practical approach

In 2020, Dr Bradbury published Water City: Practical Strategies for Climate Change

In the book, he argues that the dense, compact nature of contemporary cities makes building urban resilience to climate change difficult. Dr Bradbury describes a design-led remediation methodology that draws on catchment planning, GIS mapping and analysis to redefine the city as a series of hydrological and ecological systems. 

But, more importantly, it offers practical solutions – the same hands-on approach he took with him to Agro Pontino. 

“The project was an excellent opportunity to showcase, at an international level, our practical approach to research at Unitec and see its influence on the research work in Italy,” Dr Bradbury says.

He adds that one of the biggest urban design problems that future landscape architecture students will face is climate change and its impact on housing. What he learned in Agro Pontino and the research project outcomes provide a pathway forward. 

“Addressing climate change is no small feat. In New Zealand, and Auckland in particular, we’ve known for a long time that if we build in a specific area, it will flood,” Dr Bradbury says.

“But much of the remediation work is siloed – ecologists doing catchment planning, engineers calculating hydraulics, planners looking at urban zoning. Landscape architects can see the big picture and how bringing all the complex parts of urban flooding together in a landscape-based design solution will protect our citizens and create new public spaces.

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