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Dossier Le Pacifique en première ligne face au changement climatique

Visualizing Coastal Risks in the Fraser River Delta

Approches visuelles des risques côtiers dans le delta du Fraser
Kees Lokman
p. 267-280


L’élévation du niveau de la mer est l’un des plus grands défis auxquels les sociétés contemporaines sont confrontées. Ce phénomène implique des risques potentiels d’inondation, de déplacement de populations, d’érosion côtière, de disparition de zones humides, de salinisation et d’élévation des nappes phréatiques. Cela aura notamment des implications majeures pour les deltas urbains ainsi que pour les petites nations insulaires. Dans ce contexte, cet article examine comment l’analyse géospatiale et divers outils visuels peuvent être mobilisés pour informer de multiples audiences sur – et leur permettre de comprendre – les changements que l’élévation du niveau de la mer va produire sur les paysages côtiers. À partir d’un cas d’étude canadien (Fraser River Delta), l’article examine une série de discours visuels (cartes, modèles, diagrammes chronologiques et animations) afin d’illustrer les effets à long terme de l’élévation du niveau de la mer sur des problématiques liées, par exemple, à la croissance urbaine, à la logistique, aux habitats intertidaux et à la sécurité alimentaire. Cette contribution se termine par une discussion des succès et limites de ce travail, ainsi que de sa pertinence pour aborder les enjeux d’adaptation côtière dans les îles du Pacifique.

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Part of this work was supported by mitacs through an Accelerate Grant, #IT09740. A special thank you to all members of the research team: Lee Patola, Chris Walker, Kalli Niedoba and Candy Chen (University of British Columbia), Joe Fry and Jordan Lypkie (hapa Collaborative), Kelty McKinnon and Grant Fahlgren (pfs Studio), Derek Lee and Jenna Buchko (pwl Partnership), Jeff Cutler and Isabel Kunigk (Space2Place Landscape Architecture). The work is also partially an outcome of the participation of students in the Cyborg Coast Studio, which was taught at the University of Bristish Columbia in the Fall of 2017. I would also like to acknowledge all the students in this course: Brit Naylor, Lisa Ng, Rebbecca Anderson, Ru Jia, Alicia Kingdon, Zhou Li Chen, Niko Aliasut, Jessica Hoang, Celia Winters, Pauline Moskal, Jiauhi Huang, and Liping Dong.

1Sea level rise (slr) is one of the most existential challenges facing contemporary societies. According to the United Nations (2018), over 40% of the world’s population lives within 100 km of coastlines, and three-quarters of all major cities are located in deltas and coastal areas. Researchers have projected that increased global temperatures can result in rising sea levels anywhere from 60cm to 2m by the end of the century (Jones, 2013). The potential risks posed by slr involve inundation, coastal erosion, wetland loss, saltwater intrusion, and rising water tables. This will also have substantial socioeconomic implications for coastal populations, urban development, critical infrastructures (including transportation infrastructures, electricity networks, water supply facilities), tourism and recreational activities (Mcleod et al., 2010; Nicholls, 2011). slr will therefore significantly affect the world’s metropolitan areas located in coastal areas, including New York, Tokyo, Mumbai and Jakarta. At the same time, slr will pose serious challenges to small island nations, which have limited options and resources for adaptation or relocation of populations and critical infrastructures (ipcc, 2014). As indicated by geographer Patrick Nunn, “within the next 20-30 years, it is likely that many coastal settlements [in the Pacific Islands] will need to be relocated, partly or wholly” (Nunn, 2013: 143). It will therefore be essential to identify the communities and ecosystems most at risk, a dnd subsequently to find available land in less vulnerable locations which can be reserved for the potential future relocation of those communities and critical infrastructures. As mentioned in the introduction of this volume, discussions surrounding processes of relocation and resettlement have highlighted their intricacies. Beyond the challenge of rebuilding homes, infrastructures, and ecosystems, relocation involves rebuilding the lives of individuals, as well as social relationships, networks, and ties to the land (Oliver-Smith, 2011).

2This makes climate change adaptation a complex and multi-dimensional problem (Termeer et al., 2016). It involves many sectors and policy fields, including engineering, agriculture, infrastructure and transportation planning, industry, ecosystem management, and urban design to name just a few. Incomplete knowledge, uncertainty, and divergent interests make it hard, if not impossible, for subject-matter experts, planners, and policy makers to agree on climate adaptation strategies that work for all stakeholders. Additionally, the multi-scalar, multi-jurisdictional and long decision-making timelines associated with climate adaptation often result in oversimplification and misrepresentation of interrelated social, environmental and economic issues (Everingham et al., 2016).

3In order to bring divergent voices and disciplines together in the context of coastal adaptation, we need to develop new tools and methods that adequately portray and communicate the complex and cumulative impacts of social-ecological systems across both space and time. A common way to assess coastal vulnerability is by using geospatial information and remote sensing as a means to analyze and map low-lying areas (Cooper et al., 2013; Sahin et al., 2019). When combined with models of different slr projections, this method can be used to identify those communities, infrastructures and coastal habitats vulnerable to the effects of rising sea levels. However, while outcomes of these studies – often in the form of maps – set out to raise awareness, they do not necessarily increase the understanding of what is causing these risks, which is key in moving audiences to action (Boholm, 2009).

4According to Covi and Kain (2016: 614), “communicating climate change-related risks involves making complex information accessible, relevant, and salient to people who have been exposed to contradictory and confusing information.” As such, it is important to present the information regarding slr risks in a variety of ways, focusing on multiple issues, stakeholders, and perceptions. Increased public knowledge on issues of salinization and coastal habitat squeeze, for example, allows for communities to make more informed decisions about future food production systems and ecosystem conservation efforts. This is where spatial design disciplines, including landscape architecture, urban planning and architecture, can play an important role. Spatial designers have been trained not only to analyze, represent and communicate knowledge of existing conditions, but also to envision different futures across a range of scales. This ability to move fluently between problem-setting and problem-solving through the development of visual methods of communication provides important practical knowledge and guidance in response to the impacts of sea level rise in coastal areas. Subsequently, this knowledge can be used to engage communities and other stakeholders in the co-design of different adaptation strategies.

5In this paper, I would like to argue for the development of such integrated approaches to climate change-related risks that involve visual communication methods using spatial design. I will discuss, as an example of such an approach, the initial outcomes of an ongoing initiative entitled the Fraser River Delta Collaborative (frdc), involving a collaboration of academics and students from the University of British Columbia, alongside design professionals, local experts and decision-makers in the Fraser River Delta, Canada. These initial outcomes primarily focus on different methods of representation to communicate the social, spatial, environmental, and legal challenges related to flood risks in the Fraser River Delta.

6The first section of the paper discusses the role of mapping and visualization – as a method – to communicate the multifaceted processes that have shaped, and continue to shape, our coastal landscapes. This will be followed by a brief discussion on major flood management challenges in the Fraser River Delta. Subsequent sections examine a series of visual narratives (maps, models, timelines, and animations) carried out by the frdc to illustrate the long-term effects of sea level rise on issues such as urban growth, logistics, intertidal habitats, and food security, as well as planned future phases of work. The final section of the paper comments on the success and limitations of the work carried out by the frdc to date, as well as its relevance with respect to the challenges of coastal adaptation in the Pacific Islands Region.

Mapping and Landscape Visualization

7The visual communication of spatial information involves the inherent challenge of translating and describing three-dimensional information concerning aqueous, terrestrial, infrastructural, and temporal conditions into a two-dimensional map or diagram (Mostavavi, 2016). Additionally, visualizations often integrate a wide array of increasingly available cultural and non-spatial data. Depending on the purpose of the representation and the story it is trying to tell, there are different methods of visualization information. I will briefly discuss two of these representational methods: mapping and landscape visualization.

8Mapping is a method that uses data and statistics in combination with maps, diagrams and photographs to create overlays, or visual narratives. Rather than merely tracing or reproducing what is already known, these visualizations are a tool for uncovering relationships previously unseen. As pointed out by Corner in his essay The Agency of Mapping (1999: 214): “through rendering visible multiple and sometimes disparate field conditions, mapping allows for an understanding of terrain as only the surface expression of a complex and dynamic imbroglio of social and natural processes.” The creative process of mapping allows designers to uncover and reformulate physical and symbolic layers of the world. Through this continual process of investigation, discovery, and representation, landscapes derive meaning and new knowledge of the world is produced.

9Landscape visualization uses a variety of digital technologies, tools and approaches to illustrate how landscapes have changed over time, and may change in the future (Foo et al., 2015). The aim here is to use visualization as a means to alter the ways in which people perceive the environment (Gobster et al., 2007). As argued by Bishop (2015: 121): “changes in the environment are critical, but changes in the viewer can have a profound influence on attitudes to environmental change.” In doing so, landscape visualization can assist in the transmission of critical spatial knowledge and ideas about landscapes among interdisciplinary groups and with diverse stakeholders. This, in turn, can positively influence changes in social and cultural practices, and strengthen coastal adaptation planning and policies in a number of settings (Foo et al., 2015).

10As both a process (analyzing geospatial data, framing the problem across multiple scales, etc.) and product (creation of tangible outcomes), mapping and landscape visualization are essential starting points for knowledge creation and sharing across a range of stakeholder groups. It can also give a voice to marginalized groups and non-humans by literally drawing out their presence in the landscape. As suggested by Kwan (2015: 244):

“Critical visualization not only enables us to see how social injustices were obfuscated; it also seeks to challenge and transform the prevalent dynamics of social power with the hope of bringing forth progressive change.”

11This is all the more important as slr will disproportionally affect vulnerable populations (and ecosystems), which have less capacity to adapt to climate change (Levy and Patz, 2015). Mapping and visualization can be a relevant tool to foreground these spatial injustices, as well as to foster the development of more equitable and regenerative adaptation options.

12In all of this, it is important to underline that mapping, landscape visualization, and other visual forms of commutation are never neutral (Harley, 1989), but involve a simplification process and express particular – rather than universal – standpoints (Foo et al., 2015). Thus, being upfront about the foundations and intentions of visualization approaches, including their data sources, assumptions, and accuracy, is important when they are used to communicate about the implications of climate change and slr.

13The following section provides an overview of a number of interconnected challenges associated with sea level rise in the Fraser River Delta. This will be followed by a discussion of visual narratives that spatialize these impacts of slr in the region across different spatial and temporal scales.

The Fraser River Delta

14The Fraser River Delta, located in Southwestern Canada (figure 1), provides a useful case study area to explore how design disciplines can contribute to discussions on sea level rise vulnerability and adaptation. The region hosts critical habitats for marine life and migratory birds, an ever-growing human population of nearly 3 million, and key logistical connections to u.s. and Asian markets. As a result, the region has become a vital link in the Pacific Rim for both humans and non-humans. However, the low-lying elevation and geomorphological conditions combined with sea level rise and other consequences of climate change make the Fraser River Delta prone to flooding and liquefaction in the event of an earthquake.

15While not situated in the Pacific Islands region, the Fraser River Delta shares similarities in terms of having a high coastal population density on a relatively small spatial footprint in a geography surrounded by mountains. Other impacts of sea level rise and climate change that will affect both geographies include issues of potential population relocation, food security, ecological degradation, groundwater salinization, and vulnerabilities of critical infrastructures (Nunn, 2013). Moreover, global warming is causing rising ocean temperatures and acidification (ipcc, 2014), which will have significant impacts on marine ecosystems and fish species on which indigenous communities particularly rely for their livelihoods, such as salmon, herring and eulachon in the Fraser River Delta. Recent reports have indeed identified that, “While some fin fish and invertebrate species can move to deeper cooler water, others are bound to their coastal habitat – to specific feeding and inshore spawning grounds – and may perish if they are forced out by rising temperatures” (Shore, 2013). For Pacific Island nations, these issues are even more pressing than in the Fraser River Delta, as almost all economic activities – especially fisheries and tourism – are tied to coastal reefs and the ocean (Climate Reality Project, 2019; Warren, 2019).

16Developing potential adaptation pathways to climate change must be done in ways that acknowledge these complex interdependencies between social and ecological systems. This begins by understanding the spatial variability in projected slr and resulting shoreline change from a decade-to-century scale. In what follows I discuss five areas of concern with respect to flood adaptation in the Fraser River Delta, including: 1) outdated flood control infrastructure; 2) urban development pressures; 3) agriculture and food supply; 4) coastal habitat squeeze; and 5) legislation and decision-making.

Figure 1. – Location of the Fraser River Delta at the mouth of the Fraser River Watershed

Figure 1. – Location of the Fraser River Delta at the mouth of the Fraser River Watershed

(© Kees Lokman)

Outdated Flood Control Infrastructure

17In 2012, a report by the Province of British Columbia (b.c.)’s Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, entitled Cost of Adaptation – Sea Dikes and Alternative Strategies, made headlines in local and national media. The report estimated that it will require nearly $9.5 billion to update and reinforce the 250km of dikes in the Lower Mainland to protect the region against the impacts of climate change and sea level rise. Most of these existing dikes have been built or upgraded to meet design guidelines set in 1969, but these standards do not take into consideration the effects of climate change, subsidence, seismic activity, and sea level rise (Shore, 2018). Only 4% of all dikes along the Fraser River are high enough to withstand the “design flood levels” – which are derived from the record flood in 1894 – with at least 60cm to spare. Over 70% of dikes would be overtopped if a similar event would happen today (Natural Resources Canada, 2015). At the same time, the geology and geomorphology of the Fraser River Delta, combined with the region’s proximity to the Cascadia fault line, make it both challenging (from a technical perspective) and expensive to construct protection measures that might be relatively cost-effective in other parts of the world.

Urban Development Pressures

18People have lived in, and engaged with, the Fraser River Delta for over 10,000 years. During most of this period, hunting, harvesting, and gathering of resources had no far-reaching effects on the form and functioning of the delta. But over the past two centuries, population growth and urban developments have significantly transformed the delta, both spatially and ecologically (Groulx et al., 2004). Keeping urban developments out of the floodplain has been an ongoing concern. The Lower Mainland Official Regional Plan, which was adopted in 1966, explicitly called for “Floodplains […] to be kept free of urban uses except where committed to urban development through early settlement, in which case further development for urban uses shall be contingent upon flood proofing.” Similar language can be found in successive regional planning documents. Yet, over the past decades, developments within the floodplain have proliferated across the region. As a result, over 250,000 people in the region now live within about a meter of mean sea level (Lloyd, 2017). With the region expected to continue to grow by over 35,000 residents per year in the next 25 years (Metro Vancouver, 2011), pressure to develop in flood prone areas will continue to be a significant challenge in the future.

Agriculture and Food Supply

19The Fraser River Delta is the most intensively farmed area in Canada. It generates more than 38% of the province’s gross farm receipts on just 2.4% of its total land base (bc Agriculture & Food Climate Action Initiative, 2017). This area is home to 68% of dairy operations and 80% of poultry operations in the province. It is also known for its cranberry production, accounting for 92% of the cranberries in b.c. and 48% of all cranberries in Canada (Crawford et al., 2012). As part of the Agricultural Land Reserve, a land-protection program adopted in 1973, agricultural land is protected from encroaching urbanization and industry. However, 40% of the agricultural land in the region is located in the floodplains and vulnerable to coastal or freshet flooding (bc Agriculture & Food Climate Action Initiative, 2017). Agricultural losses resulting from a projected flood in the region are estimated in excess of $830 million, translating to a broader community impact of $1.1 billion (ibid.). Moreover, rising ground water levels, increased soil salinity, and accelerated soil erosion will affect agricultural production, potentially leaving farmers no choice but to change crops or discontinue farming altogether. This means that even with adaptation, slr combined with other climate induced impacts (e.g. flash floods, extended dry periods, etc.) will have significant consequences for regional and national food security, including the livelihoods of those depending on the agricultural sector.

Coastal Habitat Squeeze

20Coastal habitat squeeze is another major challenge. The Fraser River Delta, the largest estuary along the Pacific Coast of North America, is a critical crossroads along the Pacific Flyway where multiple paths of migratory birds converge. The Fraser River foreshore and selected provincial and federally owned lands were designated as a Hemisphere Reserve in the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network in 2004. Protected Wildlife Management Areas, including Boundary Bay, Roberts Bank and the South Arm Marshes, provide resting areas for over 5 million migratory birds each year. The complex food chains found on the foreshore extend from tiny microorganisms to large mammals. The invertebrates, plants and small fish in the estuary provide a nursery for millions of out-migrating juvenile salmon. Moreover, the salt marshes and wetlands are key habitats for sturgeon and herring.

21Unfortunately, with most of the current coastline fixed behind hard infrastructures (dikes and seawalls), these ecosystems (including salt marshes, mudflats and coastal wetlands) are not able to migrate with rising sea levels. If nothing is done, these critical habitats might disappear in certain locations along the coast by the end of the century. Coastal erosion due to a lack of sediment has further exacerbated this problem. Over the course of the twentieth century, dredging (for navigation) and the construction of a number of jetties and breakwaters have significantly altered sedimentation patterns (Armstrong et al., 1990). During the same period, upwards of 70% of the wetland areas have been replaced by agricultural, industrial, and urban development (Schaefer, 2004). This has substantially impacted connectivity and spawning grounds for salmon, sturgeon, and other fish species.

Legislation and Decision-making

22In 2003-2004, both the federal government of Canada and provincial government of b.c. made decisions to download the responsibility for flood-risk management back to municipalities (Stevens and Hanschka, 2014). This means municipalities are expected to plan and implement guidelines and mandates that are designed to promote flood-risk management. In reality, however, municipalities are often reluctant to voluntarily pursue such a role, nor do they have sufficient capacity or access to funding to finance and implement flood control measures that meet new provincial guidelines (ibid.). The discontinuation of the Burrard Inlet Environmental Action Program and the Fraser River Estuary Management Program (often referred to, together, as bieap-fremp) in 2013 has further exacerbated this trend. These intergovernmental programs coordinated environmental management review and interagency communication for projects and shoreline developments in the Burrard inlet and the Fraser River estuary. bieap-fremp streamlined environmental reviews by taking project applications (from municipalities or industries) and coordinating responses with all relevant agencies. Currently, municipalities have to navigate this complex web of permitting agencies, zoning bylaws and other legislative hurdles themselves. This is not only very time consuming; it also prevents innovation and cross-jurisdictional approaches and strategies.

Visual Narratives

23In order to visualize and communicate the cumulative and interconnected regional complexities discussed above, the Fraser River Delta Collaborative (frdc) is currently developing several lines of inquiry that aim to generate new knowledge and insights to support those areas in the region most vulnerable to (future) flooding. The first phase of the 3-year project focused on literature review, geospatial analysis and visualization. Key research questions included: Which communities and coastal landscapes in the Fraser River Delta are at risk as a result of projected sea level rise? What are the potential impacts of flooding on critical infrastructures? How can visualization help to change people’s perceptions about current risks as well as their receptiveness to potential solutions?

24The following section discusses the outcomes of this first phase of work, which was broken down into four visual narratives: 1) timeline of shoreline transformations, 2) delta lexicon, 3) metabolic flows and critical infrastructures, and 4) the regulatory landscape. Collectively, these investigations visualize the spatial implications of sea level rise and its relation to important topics in the Fraser River Delta, including urban growth, food security, ecosystem health, and spatial justice.

Timeline of Shoreline Transformations

25In order to better understand the interrelationships between key flood events, flood management measures, settlement patterns, infrastructure developments, and legislation developments, the frdc first developed a Timeline of Shoreline Transformations (figures 2 and 3), designed to be printed and exhibited at a large scale. Data and information for the timeline was garnered from hundreds of planning reports, policy documents, archival resources and municipal websites. On this timeline, the x-axis (horizontal) organizes information according to time, from precolonial to present-day, projecting into the future. The line at the bottom documents major flood events, key legislative decisions, publication of important planning studies, as well as the formation of public entities that deal specifically with the issue of flood management. The other horizontal lines map the history of flood control measures that have been implemented in the region, each line representing a different solution: 1) dredging, 2) dams, 3) dikes, 4) groins/jetties/breakwaters, 5) seawalls, as well as 6) the reuse of dredge spoils, and 7) habitat restoration/nature-based solutions. The y-axis (vertical) maps the peak discharge volumes of the Fraser River, with major flood events highlighted in magenta. The yellow line represents population growth of Metro Vancouver.

26The timeline reveals the extent to which the delta and its shorelines have been transformed and manipulated over time. It also shows that, with the exception of some dike upgrades, the majority of flood control measures in the region were completed by 1970. This not only underlines the fact that current flood protection is reaching the end of its lifespan, but also that few of these infrastructures would likely meet current design standards. Moreover, there is a strong correlation between flood events and subsequent adoption of legislation and/or the establishment of special projects. One such example is the Fraser River Model Project Office (1948-1963), which was established in direct response to the flood of 1948, and enabled the construction of a large scale hydraulic, erodible-bed, tidal river model to test and improve flood management and navigation in the Fraser River Delta.

Figure 2. – Timeline, showing interrelationships between flood events, infrastructures, shoreline transformations, and legislations

Figure 2. – Timeline, showing interrelationships between flood events, infrastructures, shoreline transformations, and legislations

(© Fraser River Delta Collaborative)

Figure 3. – Timeline detail, showing interrelationships between flood events, infrastructures, shoreline transformations, and legislations

Figure 3. – Timeline detail, showing interrelationships between flood events, infrastructures, shoreline transformations, and legislations

(© Fraser River Delta Collaborative)

Delta Lexicon

27As implied by the timeline, shoreline transformations over the past centuries have generated a whole range of complex land-water interfaces in the Fraser River Delta. The Delta Lexicon aims to document this variety of spatial conditions – prototypical or unique – in the delta. As a means to systematically explore and document water-related landscapes, the team developed a long list of terms (e.g., dike, flood box, pump station, wetland, mudflat, etc.) associated with geomorphology, flood control infrastructures, agricultural practices, and human settlement. This became the starting point for analyzing where landscapes related to these terms could be found in the region, and how they could be best visualized and communicated.

28As illustrated in photo 1, each spatial condition, whether unique or prototypical, was modelled at a specific scale (either 1:100, 1:200, 1:500, or 1:1000). By using a simple material palette (paper, newspaper, wire and chipboard in neutral tones), the models could be iterated quickly. The 70 spatial conditions documented in the models were also drawn in section and in plan to highlight the location(s) where they could be found in the delta.

Photo 1. – The Delta Lexicon is a collection of 70 models documenting a wide range of spatial conditions at the land-water interface in the Fraser River Delta (for further information:​file/​d/​1hHePCnw1IYvt5ouvg1SnGD2cc63C56dk/​view)

Photo 1. – The Delta Lexicon is a collection of 70 models documenting a wide range of spatial conditions at the land-water interface in the Fraser River Delta (for further information:​file/​d/​1hHePCnw1IYvt5ouvg1SnGD2cc63C56dk/​view)

(© Fraser River Delta Collaborative)

29The Delta Lexicon serves as an educational tool and visual vocabulary through which the diversity of coastal landscapes in the Fraser River Delta region can be easily communicated with residents, planners, decision-makers and other stakeholders. By visualizing and making tangible the incredible diversity of spatial and socio-ecological conditions, it immediately becomes clear that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to address the challenges of sea level rise. Instead, a range of strategies (incl. technical solutions, policy frameworks, funding mechanisms) will be needed to respond to site-specific challenges (social, ecological, economic, political and spatial) when it comes to flood management.

Metabolic Flows and Critical Infrastructures

30The Fraser River Delta, like any estuary, is incredibly dynamic and ever-changing. In other words, the landscapes documented in the Delta Lexicon are not static, but part of different social-ecological exchanges, including food provisioning, nutrient cycling, movement of goods, and recreation. In order to better understand the nature and spatial extents of these social-ecological exchanges, as well as the potential impacts of flooding on them, the frdc utilized the conceptual framework of urban metabolism. In essence, this framework focuses on analyzing the spatial attributes of material flows, resource flows, and services within a region as a means to strengthen planning methods, spatial design strategies, and policy-making (Kennedy et al., 2007; Rapoport, 2011). Dijst et al. (2018: 190) suggest that: “Through the notions of flow and circulation, the concept of urban metabolism links material flows with ecological and social processes, and the potential for change to sustainable patterns of consumption and production.”

31The frdc examined seven metabolic flows in the region: 1) soil and sediments, 2) people, 3) cargo, 4) food, 5) energy, 6) water, and 7) biota. Initial questions generated for each topic provided a starting point to locate, diagram and visualize the fundamental relationships between flood management and these metabolic flows (table 1). Animation was chosen as the preferred output over conventional static maps to communicate the dynamic nature of these flows, both spatially and temporally (e.g., figure 4). Moreover, animations have a major advantage over singular drawings in that information can be introduced successively, allowing for a specific narrative to be illustrated and spatialized. The flood extents shown on these maps were obtained from the Fraser Basin Council, a non-profit entity currently developing a hydraulic model for the region. The particular scenario used for the animations assumes a: 1:500-year storm, 1 meter of sea level rise, and failure or overtopping of all dikes in the region. The latter, of course, is an unlikely scenario, but it best shows the extent to which land uses might be directly impacted by future coastal flooding.

Table 1. – Initial research questions to help identifying the spatial and temporal extents of different metabolic flows in the Fraser River Delta

Table 1. – Initial research questions to help identifying the spatial and temporal extents of different metabolic flows in the Fraser River Delta

32In addition to showing which areas and flows are directly impacted by flooding, the animations focused on illustrating cascading effects: secondary effects triggered as a result of a flood event (e.g., disruption to power and water supplies). For example, the animation focusing on the “water” topic reveals how, in the event of a major flood, sewage could back up into homes, businesses or essential services outside of the area directly affected by flooding. Due to the low-lying locations of the water treatment plants, flooding can also result in the release of untreated sewage directly into rivers or the ocean.

33The animations also identified opportunities to structure new relationships between resource flows and flood management measures. For instance, the animation focusing on soil and sediments reveals how considerable amounts of clean fill excavated during building construction, as well as dredged materials, can potentially be used for salt marsh restoration or beach nourishment. In doing so, the animations provide a starting point for approaching sea level rise adaptation not just as a risk, but also as an opportunity to think of new social-ecological and spatial relationships. As argued by Sijmons (2014: 2):

“if we see the city as our natural ecology, analyze its structure and metabolism, and understand and use the process of its material flows, we can make the city more resilient and thus act to contribute to a more sustainable future world.”

34The animations are a first step in promoting new ways of seeing the Delta, not just as physical spaces, but as a dynamic system of interrelated flows of water, waste, food, energy and living entities.

Figure 4. – Stills of four of the seven animations mapping the metabolic flows in the region (animations:​open?id=1x6TQO_SVBazWxlBM0rGjg2THdV6t0pPv)

Figure 4. – Stills of four of the seven animations mapping the metabolic flows in the region (animations:​open?id=1x6TQO_SVBazWxlBM0rGjg2THdV6t0pPv)

(© Fraser River Delta Collaborative)

Regulatory Landscape

35Flooding will have a visible impact on many aspects of the urban fabric: from (temporarily) inundating parks, buildings and roads to the potential contamination of drinking water, disruption of power supplies, and backing up of sewage lines. This means coordinating flood protection generally involves a wide range of actors, including private property and asset owners, municipalities, First Nations, and provincial and federal agencies. In the case of the Fraser River Delta, as explained earlier in this paper, this is perhaps even more challenging since there is no regional authority coordinating permit applications. To illustrate this complexity, the team developed a series of animations illustrating the overlapping jurisdictions and complex permitting landscape with which local municipalities or First Nations have to engage when considering coastal adaptation approaches.

36Figure 5 illustrates a section of the shoreline as part of the Musqueam Indian Reserve (xʷməθkʷəýəm) in Vancouver. Today, much of the reserve already resides in the floodplain, but flood risks are expected to increase in the future with rising sea levels. The animation aims to show that, depending on the location and type of flood adaptation measures proposed, the Musqueam (xʷməθkʷəýəm) will have to engage various local, provincial and federal authorities to get approval. Navigating through the flood management policies, regulations, and guidelines from all these various authorities is complex and time-consuming. This particularly affects smaller municipalities and First Nations, which usually do not have a dedicated staff person and/or in-house expertise to manage these approvals. Furthermore, for so-called ‘nature-based solutions’ (adaptation options that simultaneously address issues of flood safety, human well-being, and ecosystem benefits), approvals are even more difficult to obtain as they typically involve more stakeholders, and require more land than conventional flood protection strategies, such as dikes and seawalls (Hartmann et al., 2019). This may discourage municipalities from pursuing nature-based solutions, potentially leading to the implementation of strategies that may end up being more harmful than helpful. The animation suggests that, if regional coastal resilience is to be achieved, better governance, policy and permitting mechanisms will have to be put in place by all levels of government to aid the development of effective and integrated adaptation measures (Hurlimann et al., 2014).

Figure 5. – Still from an animation illustrating the multiple, overlapping jurisdictions implied in projects involving the land-water interface (animation:​open?id=1WXiqefYMxLJYTMDl6CrpusHNwIDavcyo)

Figure 5. – Still from an animation illustrating the multiple, overlapping jurisdictions implied in projects involving the land-water interface (animation:​open?id=1WXiqefYMxLJYTMDl6CrpusHNwIDavcyo)

(© Fraser River Delta Collaborative)

Future Phases

37As part of future phases of work, the frdc is currently planning a public exhibition (Summer 2020) at the University of British Columbia to display the work discussed above. The exhibition will be supported by a number of public events, including site visits, workshops and roundtable discussions to provide a platform for knowledge sharing between researchers, professionals, residents and planners from all levels of government. In parallel, the team is actively working with researchers from the coastal engineering program at Delft University of Technology. The aim here is to develop an integrated coastal model, which includes wave action and sediment transport. Risk and vulnerability analysis derived from this model will be used as a base upon which to develop and test the effectiveness of a range of regional and site-specific adaptation strategies.

38Moreover, the team is developing connections with those municipalities and First Nations communities in the region that have limited capacity (staff, financial resources and/or expertise) to address the issues of slr. This work will involve workshops with municipal planners, engineers and other stakeholders to identify local assets, risks and vulnerabilities. Outcomes of these sessions will be foundational to the development of potential adaptation strategies and design concepts, which will be refined through further stakeholder participation. By combining scientific approaches (coastal modeling and geospatial visualization) with local knowledge and expertise, the goal is to advance spatial knowledge concerning exposures to coastal risks, while developing integrated adaptation approaches that are co-created by stakeholders and communities.

Discussion and Conclusion

39Advances in remote sensing, geospatial analysis, mapping, and visualization offer designers, planners, and engineers new possibilities to assess risks and vulnerabilities across a range of spatio-temporal scales (Kwan, 2015). The visual narratives described in this paper concern questions and methods of visualization that aim at interconnecting the worlds of research, practice and regulation around pressing challenges related to slr. The outcomes of these visual forms of communication can be deployed to serve a wide range of purposes and audiences.

40While the Fraser River Delta is comprised of a unique patchwork of landscapes (from highly urban to highly ecologically significant), many of the regional challenges related to sea level rise are applicable to other coastal areas around the world, including in the Pacific Islands Region. As such, the visual communication methods described in this paper can be of value to address key priorities for Pacific Island nations, including: 1) building critical awareness among community members and other stakeholders, 2) ensuring that decision-makers and the general public have the knowledge and tools to make informed decisions about culturally appropriate adaptation options, and 3) developing adaptive planning methods that span the decade-to-century scale (Solomon and Forbes, 1999; Nunn, 2009; Donner and Webber, 2014).

41Relevant research in this area is, for example, a recent study by Leon et al. (2015), which examines how scientific methods of mapping can be coupled with local and traditional knowledge to build capacity for adaptation in a small village in the Solomon Islands. In this study, risk analysis based on geospatial information, digital terrain models, and slr simulations were complemented with hands-on activities that engaged members of the local community in building a physical terrain model. Both the making of the model and the model itself provided a forum for participants to share traditional ecological knowledge about important land uses, practices, and events. Where the simulations allowed for visualizing a fine-grain understanding of potential future implications of slr, the relief-model enabled the local community to see, comprehend and connect to the landscape. According to Leon et al. (2015: 435): “the model became more than just a map. It became a repository of spatial knowledge of the community, and a source of discussion and interpretation around key issues.”

42This study by Leon et al. demonstrates how scientific methods can support local communities to take ownership over questions related to coastal adaptation by facilitating both knowledge mobilization and the co-creation of knowledge, which in turn can help generate a “shared, usually visual, language that enables direct communication and mutual learning between different people” (Zamenopoulos and Alexiou, 2018: 19). This aspect of critical stakeholder engagement in the co-development of knowledge, for instance through the co-creation of maps and visualizations, is currently underdeveloped in the work discussed in this paper. An important next step for the frdc will therefore be to connect the broader impacts of slr, as illustrated in the maps and visualizations presented here, to how people and local communities' knowledge and views of how these impacts will affect (or not) their everyday lives and livelihoods. Not only is this step necessary to foster pathways for social action on the ground, it can also facilitate discussions around issues of spatial justice and the trade-offs inherent to coastal adaptation. This step could be articulated around the key questions Chambers (2006) urges us to consider, including: Who is participating in these community engagement processes? Whose knowledge, perceptions and perspectives are expressed? Which groups and non-humans are empowered or disempowered? Who will be using (and benefiting from) the visualizations, and for what purpose?

43Furthermore, there is an inherent tension between the adoption of maps (and other western methods of documenting space) and indigenous ways of understanding space (Akerman, 2017). It is therefore important to consider and integrate other, more culturally appropriate ways of understanding space and communicating spatial knowledge, which we have not been able to do so far as part of the frdc. Moreover, while maps have power (Wood and Fels, 1992), they can only play a small part in much larger efforts needed to address social inequalities and spatial justice challenges. The same observations could made about the other non-participatory forms of visual narratives the frdc has developed.

44These concerns, however, should not diminish the potential benefits maps and visualizations can provide in developing pathways for coastal adaptation. As argued by Smith et al. (2017: 58): “New geospatial tools and mapping innovations continue to open up possibilities for moving beyond simply mapping indigenous territory and land use to the more complex tasks of monitoring, analyzing, and responding to social and environmental change.” This paper has offered some examples of how these methods can be used to inform communities, decision-makers and the general public about the complexity and multifaceted challenges of slr. It has also discussed some of the shortcomings that have limited the effectiveness and impact of the work to date. Consequently, future phases of the work carried out by the frdc will aim to shift from focusing on the visualizations themselves to assisting communities in the Fraser River Delta build resilience capacity through the co-creation of spatial planning and design strategies. In this sense, the visual narratives presented in this paper are not so much final products, but means to facilitate an ongoing process of supporting communities adapt to an uncertain future.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. – Location of the Fraser River Delta at the mouth of the Fraser River Watershed
Crédits (© Kees Lokman)
Fichier image/jpeg, 356k
Titre Figure 2. – Timeline, showing interrelationships between flood events, infrastructures, shoreline transformations, and legislations
Crédits (© Fraser River Delta Collaborative)
Fichier image/jpeg, 92k
Titre Figure 3. – Timeline detail, showing interrelationships between flood events, infrastructures, shoreline transformations, and legislations
Crédits (© Fraser River Delta Collaborative)
Fichier image/png, 253k
Titre Photo 1. – The Delta Lexicon is a collection of 70 models documenting a wide range of spatial conditions at the land-water interface in the Fraser River Delta (for further information:​file/​d/​1hHePCnw1IYvt5ouvg1SnGD2cc63C56dk/​view)
Crédits (© Fraser River Delta Collaborative)
Fichier image/jpeg, 180k
Titre Table 1. – Initial research questions to help identifying the spatial and temporal extents of different metabolic flows in the Fraser River Delta
Fichier image/png, 239k
Titre Figure 4. – Stills of four of the seven animations mapping the metabolic flows in the region (animations:​open?id=1x6TQO_SVBazWxlBM0rGjg2THdV6t0pPv)
Crédits (© Fraser River Delta Collaborative)
Fichier image/jpeg, 228k
Titre Figure 5. – Still from an animation illustrating the multiple, overlapping jurisdictions implied in projects involving the land-water interface (animation:​open?id=1WXiqefYMxLJYTMDl6CrpusHNwIDavcyo)
Crédits (© Fraser River Delta Collaborative)
Fichier image/png, 232k
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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Kees Lokman, « Visualizing Coastal Risks in the Fraser River Delta »Journal de la Société des Océanistes, 149 | 2019, 267-280.

Référence électronique

Kees Lokman, « Visualizing Coastal Risks in the Fraser River Delta »Journal de la Société des Océanistes [En ligne], 149 | 2019, mis en ligne le 15 février 2022, consulté le 06 février 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Kees Lokman

Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada,

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Creative Commons - Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International - CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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