Helping communities become future-ready and resilient in the face of challenges brought about by climate change

With Cop26 in Glasgow under way, Scotland is taking centre stage in the global response to the climate emergency. But for the people of Scotland, the challenge of living in a changing climate starts at home. In the face of more frequent and more extreme weather events, communities across the nation are experiencing damage and disruption from flooding and its impact on their transport infrastructure.

While Scotland faces similar challenges to other parts of the UK in terms of decarbonising the supply of clean water and treating wastewater, it does not face the same issues of water scarcity. Rather, its major challenge is too much water. And increased flood risk from climate change is compounded by historic mismanagement of land and unsustainable approaches to urban drainage.

At WSP, we aim to help our clients and communities become future-ready and resilient in these challenging times. Across Scotland, we’re working with partners like Stirling Council to develop and deliver flood prevention schemes to safeguard communities. In the past this might have meant build- ing ever-higher flood defences, but this approach is increasingly untenable. The climate crisis calls for innovation.

Can we work with landowners to change the way upland areas are farmed to reduce flooding down- stream? Can we hold back floodwaters before they reach at-risk areas? Can we help communities adapt to the new world they find themselves in? These are the sorts of questions our water and design teams are asking as they seek new responses to flooding.

We’ve been working with Stirling Council to identify potential natural flood management (NFM) measures upstream from flood-sensitive locations, alongside more traditional techniques. NFM measures offer benefits beyond just reducing surface flows – including improvements to water quality, habitats, and biodiversity. Each catchment requires careful evaluation to select the right measures and locations, alongside ongoing engagement with stakeholders.

Some potential solutions turn traditional approaches on their head. One of these is the FloodSafe House, on which WSP has been working with Floodjack International and the University of Liverpool to develop a prototype. It looks like an ordinary house, but when its sensors detect rising water levels it can raise itself 1.5+m from the ground, safeguarding property and possessions while occupants evacuate to safety.

When large flood protection structures are required, their huge cost means funders need to know that the schemes will have wide-ranging, lasting benefits. A new breakwater and tidal barrage to protect Britain’s most frequently flooded town – Looe in Cornwall – will cost at least £74 million and require additional funding from the UK Government. To secure this funding, our team is working to show how the scheme can boost the local economy by encouraging new businesses, particularly in hospitality and leisure industries.

Looe might be the UK’s most flooded town, but the climate crisis means Scottish communities are facing similar issues. Across Scotland, flooding is threatening the transport links that connect people to lifeline services such as healthcare and education. The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency estimated the cost of flood damage at £252 million per year between 2016 and 2021.

As well as blocking transport routes, flooding damages the infrastructure itself, increasing the risk it will fail. Heavy rain and flooding can lead to devastating landslides, such as the one that caused the fatal railway accident near Stonehaven in August 2020, when a passenger train hit a landslip and derailed.

In the face of such conditions, understanding the state of assets is key. We work with Transport Scotland and local authorities to understand the condition of vital infrastructure such as bridges. Armed with this knowledge, it’s then possible to identify which assets are at risk and which need intervention to stay open – as well as undertaking a whole-life assessment to improve the overall resilience of the assets.

This prioritisation is far from easy because not everything can or should be fixed; there simply isn’t enough money. Sometimes, the conclusion might be that repair or maintenance is too costly and that an alternative, such as imposing a vehicle weight limit, will keep a bridge or road in use for most of the community. This is a tough decision to take because it will undoubt- edly cause inconvenience, adding to the length of some journeys – and to emissions.

At WSP, our people-focus and passion for inclusive design means our designers and engineers do everything they can to find ways to make repairs viable. But we know it’s equally important to find ways to cut the carbon emissions from construction and main- tenance of transport infrastructure. We’ve made a commitment to reach net zero in our own operations by 2025 and to halve the carbon footprint of our designs and advice by 2030. As part of this, we use our future-ready checklist whenever we’re given a problem to solve, and we’ve developed carbon calculators to measure the embodied carbon of our designs and to challenge ourselves to reduce it.

For the A9-A904 improvement scheme at Falkirk we ran a specific future-ready innovation lab with the project team looking at reducing its carbon footprint and examining how it could encourage more cycling and walking. The workshop considered far-reaching options such as installing renewable energy sources to offset the power demands of the bridge lighting, sustainable urban drainage, capturing carbon emissions through innovative paving products and how the project could achieve a net gain in biodiversity.

We also looked at alternative options for the road surface, drawing on research we’re doing with Transport Scotland on lower-carbon materials that can withstand Scottish weather. In fact, we have a whole team dedicated to investigating new ways to recycle materials in situ and reuse them in projects.

What about day-to-day maintenance? With more intense rainfall, even the job of clearing gutters and removing leaves could become vital in preventing flooding. There’s potential for smart technology to make this process both more effective and more efficient. Our asset management team are looking at sensors that detect when gutters are full – so maintenance can be targeted exactly where and when it’s needed, reducing emissions from unnecessary visits while at the same time reducing flood risk.

We’re in the business of solving problems, but it’s not something the industry can – or should – do in isola- tion from the communities we serve. We need to ensure that projects not only protect communities but that they provide as much social value as possible. Can a road scheme leverage cycling and walking grants to provide safer routes for the local community at the same time? Could accessing an electric bus grant be a good option for people’s needs? We can only answer questions like these through engaging with the local community.

Involving the community from the outset of a project enables us to understand the problems and opportunities for local people and produce innovative solutions that will work for them – now and in the future. Going forward, we’ve made a commitment to examine not only the social value that our own work could create but also how the contractor can enhance social value – such as through apprenticeship schemes and working with local schools.

Ultimately, for all the technical challenges, our work responding to the climate crisis is all about people helping other people. It’s teams of WSP designers, engineers, environmental specialists, economists, materials specialists and others in Scotland and across the UK who have supported each other through the challenges of the pandemic as they work to build community resilience. We know we can make the biggest difference by drawing on these skills and working in partnership with local people.